In an era when freedom, democracy, free trade and globalization are the mantras of the day, there’s a good deal of construction going on that runs counter to these overly bandied about terms — Walls. Or fences, or ‘separation barriers’, ‘peace walls’ or ‘apartheid walls,’ depending on your political perspective, as well as how rigidly you hold to the proper definitional terminology of structure. But we can all agree such structures are meant to keep people out. That’s been the purpose of walls ever since stones or logs were piled together to ward off the neighboring tribe.
Walls have left us with some great historical monuments, but since the Berlin Wall came down to much fanfare in 1989, walls were supposed to be confined to history. Instead more are going up, though none with the aesthetic grandeur of the Great Wall of China. Concrete, sandbags, pipes, barb wire and metal fences, along with the added extras of no-man’s lands, landmines and electronic surveillance, are the materials of the times.
But just as I asked myself while perched on the edge of a vertical drop when camped out on the Great Wall “Why on earth did they build this when there is the natural deterrent of mountainous terrain?” Questions in the same vein can be asked about the Middle East’s barriers.
Unlike the rationale of the Chin and Ming dynasties to build a wall that was practical but also signified dynastic might, the Middle East’s barriers are solely to keep out terrorists, migrants and other undesirables.
There is the 2,410 kilometer long sand and stone barrier built in the 1980s by the Moroccans to keep Polisario guerrillas out of the Western Sahara that Rabat claims as its own. Fences divide Kuwait and Iraq, the UAE have erected a fence with Oman, ostensibly to thwart immigration, and most famously, the “security fence,” as the Israelis call it, cuts like a scar through the West Bank. There are also the blast walls of Baghdad, and the occupation forces’ construction of a five-kilometer long wall to divide the Sunnis and Shias in the capital’s Adhamiya district.
Then there are other more specific walls, such as the one around the tourist and diplomatic hobnobbing hot spot of Sharm el-Sheikh, and the Egypt-Gaza fence that Hamas enjoys breaking through every now and again.
“Good walls make good neighbors” is the oft used mantra to justify such barriers, but the problem is that what are originally intended as temporary measures often end up being more long term. Such was the case in Berlin, lasting 28 years, and in Belfast, where more “peace walls” have gone up since the Good Friday agreement that ended ‘the troubles’.
Walls can keep people out, but as the defenders of a castle under siege know very well (and as the French discovered in World War II after spending 3 billion francs on the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line), all it takes is for someone to use the back entrance and the barbarians can swarm in.
Such barriers not only divide people and stifle attempts to nurture mutual co-operation, but are also an environmental nightmare for wildlife and limit the movement of nomadic tribes, particularly in the case of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.
Indeed, walls are more like taking medicine to tackle the symptoms of a virus rather than seeking out the root cause of the illness, which in the case of barriers are invariably due to economic disparity and/or occupation.
The Gulf’s fences are not so easy to pigeonhole, especially as the Gulf Common Market (GCM) that went into effect at the start of the year, and which is based on the European Union model, is supposed to allow the free movement of people within the GCC. Saudi Arabia’s recently announced plan to “improve security” along its 6,500 kilometers of borders include two GCM members as well as two aspirants, Yemen and Iraq.
As Ahmad Hammauda, manager of a Kuwaiti logistics firm told me, “all this putting up of walls is not good for removing borders.”
But it is clearly good money, at least for defense contractors, who’ve been having a field day since “the global war on terror” was announced. Saudi Arabia is to spend a whopping $10-15 billion on its border security over the next decade, while the Israeli “security fence” costs $2 million per kilometer, with the total cost slated at $2.1 billion. That’s a boatload of money that could be sunk into alleviating the fundamental causes behind the supposed need for such barriers. But maybe that’s just overly utopian thinking, although if you’d said to a French engineer working on the Maginot Line over 70 years ago that decades later there would not even be a visible border between France and Germany, he would probably have thought you were a sandwich short of a picnic. Or a few bricks short of a wall.
PAUL COCHRANE is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.