Explaining Middle East Insecurity

Global dimensions of neighborhood destabilization

The Middle East faces an increasingly complex and fragile security situation. The region (defined by authors Swain and Jägerskog to include all Arab countries in Asia, plus Egypt and Occupied Palestine — though I personally might also add Iran and Anatolia) suffers from strained water supplies and limited arable land, along with increasing populations, stagnant agriculture and lacking food supplies. Another issue is large-scale labor migration, along with the huge numbers of forced migrants and refugees coming from the region (not to mention millions of internally displaced persons). The book analyzes such emerging challenges comprehensively and systematically, looking at these Middle East issues from a security perspective, as well as their global context.

Security is increasingly on people’s minds after the Western reaction to the September 11 attacks on the United States exacerbated violence across many parts of West Asia and North Africa, of which the Middle East is the strategic heart. Following 9/11, the US attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, and abetted or otherwise became involved with fighting in Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The legacy of intervention was several failed wars and a lot of other meddling that inflamed an already troubled region, intensifying problems such as forced migration and food insecurity. In their wake, the uprisings of the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East  from late 2010, leading to political transformation.

All of this further eroded stability throughout the Middle East, exacerbating existing long-term security problems. In turn, as the authors note, outside forces, including globalization and climate change, are interacting with this mess, leading to even greater insecurity in a vicious circle. Subtitled ‘The Impact of Climate Change and Globalization,’ the book’s strength is in its linking of the region’s woes with wider international themes. Climate shifts and the impact of globalization are examined in some depth and with critical evaluation. An interesting example of this is the purported connection between the crisis in Syria and that country’s drought of the last decade, given that the Syrian problem now has a strong geopolitical dimension.

The book was published last year, and so it does not account for recent international policy developments on climate change and globalization, such as the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. The new American course cannot bode well for the Middle East, if only because unchecked climate insecurity combined with war may lead to more famine in broken states (as is already the case of Yemen today), with mass migration from and through warzones exacerbating global tensions. The post-9/11 wars led by America took scant account of local interests, with few serious plans for what to do once the fighting ended — ultimately letting chaos reign. In a curious parallel, the new US climate policy also seems to invite chaotic events, which could be problematic for the region.

Globalization has also had a major impact in the Middle East. Global forces have unsettled established politics, altered labor markets, and created more international economic connectedness, shifting the costs and benefits of established socio-economic policy. These problems, some of which are considered by the authors, cannot be solved by any one country alone, but need collective and collaborative action — something that the countries of the neighborhood need to work on if these issues are to be addressed.

The West’s global dominance has been halted with the failure of American economic and security policy over the last two decades or so. The trend regionally, as elsewhere, is toward multipolarity, with the West no longer ascendant. Meanwhile, the integration of refugees and asylum seekers on both sides of the Mediterranean, and the specific barriers such people face, represent a growing challenge. I for one look forward to seeing more on such topics from Swain and Jägerskog.

Riad Al-Khouri is Middle East director of GeoEconomica GmbH