What’s Best For Revolutionary Countries in MENA?

In the past meeting of class we discussed the general lack of success many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa have experienced when it has come to democratic revolutions. The only somewhat clear success story is Tunisia and this is a country that still faces a steep uphill battle albeit not quite as steep as others such as Syria or even Egypt.

As previously mentioned in this blog there are a variety of reasons why monarchs are able to maintain power in this region. They play factions off one another, they divide dissent, they crack down mercilessly or they pay off their citizens in just a few examples. With all of these tools so readily available to monarchs and authoritarian regimes in the region does this mean that authoritarianism is there to stay? Is there any room for democracy?

First, it is important to understand why Tunisia has been so comparatively successful in their transition from rule under Ben Ali to democracy. First, Tunisia is not a country that is heavily divided by ethnic groups or religion. This poses a second question…is it religion or ethnic groups which inhibit the development of democracy?

Further, the government in Tunisia does not have strong ties to the military and lacks the overall military industrial complex that is dominant in countries such as Egypt. This was evident during protests early in the revolution when the military stepped in only to put down violence on both the regime and the protesters side without regard to who won.

Finally, many of the institutions currently in place in Tunisia were established well before the revolution, under Ben Ali. These institutions have been reformed and given new leadership but the revolution was not a total dismantling of government.

From the example of Tunisia we can gather a few important keys to facilitating democratic transition and understanding why revolution has not been quite as successful in other countries in the region. First, countries such as Egypt have very close ties between the government and the military. This almost ensures that the military will try to maintain power despite regime change. This can lead to a military dictatorship and ultimately does not facilitate the transition to democracy.

Another key issue found in other nations is the total dismantling of government institutions. This is most evident in Iraq where the entire government was dismantled after Saddam was deposed and executed. The result is a democracy however it is incredibly unstable.

As previously stated Tunisia is relatively unified in both ethnic group and religion. This is not true in many countries throughout the region who have multiple religious and ethnic groups located in one boarder. This most often, is the result of colonialism and a failure to understand ethnic divisions in the region by european powers. The classic example here is the creation of Iraq’s boarders.

An important side note here which was brought up in class is that religious conflict historically, has not been an ongoing issue instead it comes and goes and is often used as a tool for alternative motives. Given this knowledge it would appear that simply because a country has varying ethnic and religious groups does not mean they cannot have successful regime change, instead the issue becomes apparent when the ruler plays these groups off of each other to maintain power.

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The Battle Against ISIS and the Struggle for Clean Water

Recently reports on ISIS have been focused on the countless beheadings the acts of terror they commit throughout the region. Any focus on resources in regard to ISIS has mainly been in regard to the oil they have been selling on the black market to sustain their terrorist organization. However, water is a much more important resource in both understanding and dealing with the ISIS threat.

First, water is a very scarce and crucial resource in the Middle East especially in Iraq and Syria. Due to the limited sources of water in the region it is not unlikely that group could feasibly control this resource thus causing extreme difficulty for enemies. Water scarcity has long been an issue in the region and the impacts of the past decade such as cheap food imports and drought have only made matters worse.

The growing issue has been the threat of if ISIS control over the water source. If this occurs there will be thousands without clean water.  Michael Stephan an expert in the region stated, “Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside.”

                                                                             (image source)

This issue is made very clear by the map above. The region is almost entirely provided water by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and ISIS controls much of the territory upriver. This coupled with the fact that they control various major dams in the region poses a very serious threat especially as both Syria and Iraq face very extreme issues outside of dealing with the threat of ISIS.

Water, a topic we have covered in depth previously in the course can have a very important impact on this region regarding the outcome of the Syrian Civil War as well as the general instability of the ongoing Iraqi democratic movement following U.S intervention in 2003.

Essentially what this means is that both countries will be greatly impacted by who controls the water, however, regardless of who controls this valuable resource, the common Iraqi or Syrian are the ones truly losing.

A Response to Akbar Ahmed’s Clark Forum

On April 15th Akbar Ahmed a professor of Islamic Studies at American University came and presented a lecture to the Clark Forum. This lecture, titled, “Islam & the West: A Clash of Civilizations?” is a part of the overall lecture series for this semester following the themes of “War at Home,” and “Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty.”

This lecture series is especially relevant to recent course work done in our International Relations of The Middle East and North Africa course. The Clash of Civilizations theory came about in the mid 1990’s in a series of articles and later a book published by Samuel P. Huntington. This argument put forth the theory that the post Cold War world is divided into 9 different major civilizations. He argues that certain civilizations are predisposed to conflict with others due to differences in cultures.

source: wikipedia

This theory as Ahmed pointed out in his lecture found noticeable popularity following the al-Qaeda attacks on 9/11. This is due to the contention that the Islamic civilization is fundamentally at conflict with the Western civilization. One important correction to the popular conception of this theory that Ahmed added was that these two civilizations will be at conflict if avenues of communication are not pursued.

It was this point that Ahmed chose to capitalize on and took this as an opportunity for building understanding of the region. To do this he specifically looked at the emergence of the Terrorist groups across the region. Comparing the similarities of Boka Haram, al-Shahaab, al-Qaeda, ISIL, and the Taliban, Ahmed determined that understanding these organizations is fundamental to building peace within the region. Asking questions such as why ISIL is executing fellow muslims, and why al-Qaeda is attacking school children. Ahmed pointed out that these terrorist groups are comprised of tribes or ethnic groups which have typically been marginalized in some way. Further, they have very distinct honor codes which include a revenge component. Finally, they are committing acts of terror in order to gain recognition. They are capable of these actions through their ability to utilize social media to target the marginalized Muslims in European society as well as their uncanny fundraising capabilities.

One key point that Ahmed continually reiterated was that in his experience and in the experience of the hundreds of people he has talked to across the country was that the United States is the best place to be a Muslim. This would conceivably disprove the clash of civilizations theory that Huntington had proposed. Instead Ahmed argued it is a lack of understanding of Middle Eastern culture and Islamic culture, specifically with regard to the tribal divisions so prominent throughout the region, that has lead to conflict.

Overall this was a very informative talk however, I felt as if Ahmed was missing a key component in the reason for conflict between the Western civilizations and Islamic civilizations. This is the history of colonialism. Using this as the basis for the later issues gives a much firmer foundation to the lack of understanding of the region. This is evident in nearly every state in the region, perhaps most notably Iraq. This is a country in which multiple conflicting tribes and ethnic groups were combined under a unified boarder. Inevitably this will lead to conflict. I would also like to note that the conflict as a whole is not a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, instead it is an internal clash between Middle Easterners.

source: politicsforum.org

Understanding the tribal division is the key to successful foreign policy in the region. The Middle East and North Africa will undoubted continue to see a large amount of international involvement, specifically from the West. The key to limiting conflict and building relations is to realize both the tribal divisions and how they interact with one another. This is a very complex problem, yet it is the key to peace especially in the age of global terrorism.

Is it good to be king in MENA?

The answer to this question, “is it good to be king,” depends on where you’re king…

The Arab Spring upraising of 2011 lead to the toppling of authoritarian regimes throughout the region. Simply looking at the aftermath of these revolutions would indicate that it is not good to be king in the Middle East and North Africa. However, this is a surface level analysis of the issue.

Looking at countries with monarchies who have withstood the recent turmoil in the region there is an air of commonality between them. First, many are extremely wealthy states. This is almost entirely due to oil and other hydrocarbons. (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates). Others rely on international support and the view of the monarchy as being a stabilizing factor. (Morocco, Jordan)

The benefit these monarchs have over other regime types is the ability to pay off citizens who are unhappy. Regimes are much more capable of dealing with issues when they have money that can solve the problems. The best example of this would be the demand for jobs in the Middle East. Regimes with large amounts of disposable income have the ability to create more public sector jobs, thus satisfying the demand. People are much less likely to rebel against a government that benefits them than one that cannot.

Playing factions off of one another has also been widely used and very successful in Saudi Arabia. The country is defined by a group of tribes and the royal family uses this to balance the power and ensure there are no threats to the throne.The case of Morocco is interesting because there were widespread uprisings during the 2011 Arab Spring movement, yet there was no regime change. The monarchy in this case was viewed as a stabilizing factor in promoting change however the monarch took each individual uprising, usually isolated to a city and dealt with them on an individual basis. This ensured that there was no unified goal between the groups and therefore he could concede small issues while maintaining power and avoiding major issues and most importantly, avoid major loss of power. 

Similarly,  King Abdullah of Jordan is able to maintain power despite public dissent due to being not only a relatively stable and somewhat liberal regime but also for its regional importance in international politics. This allows the monarchy to stay in power and allows it to persist despite protests.

Further examples of countries where it is good to be king include Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. All of these countries have the distinct benefit of having relatively small native populations and massive resource wealth. This allows them the ability to literally pay off the citizens. Another benefit the monarchs of these countries have is the support of GCC states who benefit from the stability provided by a monarchy. This was demonstrated when Saudi Arabia lent its military to put down the revolution in Bahrain.

It may be good to be king in a select few countries within the Middle East and North Africa, however, it is a very arduous task that requires a huge amount power balancing and comes with the price tag of constant threat.

Iran Nuclear Deal

(image source- http://s3.amazonaws.com/oratv-admin-wysiwyg/2015/04/03/8055498.jpg )

The buzz this week in foreign policy news has been the recent nuclear deal with Iran. This deal deal comes just after Tom Cotton’s letter to Iran. Undoubtedly, there will be backlash to the deal especially coming from the Republican Party, however, it is a step forward in potentially stopping nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. 

While it is very important to understand the contents of this deal, such as where the heavy water and low enriched uranium will go and in what quantity, how many centrifuges Iranian researchers will be allowed to continue using and how frequently nuclear development sites will be inspected, it is also important to understand the regional implications.

This deal comes as a huge success to the Obama administration and will likely be capitalized on to boost public opinion polls but perhaps more importantly this deal comes as a success to Russia. A major part of this deal is the easing of global economic sanctions on Iran. This benefits Russia by allowing them to sell weapons to Iran that they otherwise could not have or would have faced strong backlash.

This would make Iran another winner in this deal. Now with eased sanctions they can upgrade weapons systems and purchase new ones. This arguably has the potential to cause more harm in destabilizing the region than a nuclear weapon would. Iran’s military prior to this deal was filled with outdated planes and weapons, many of which were barely functioning.

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s primary enemy in the region has the most to lose given the regional tensions between the two nations. A stronger Iran not only means tensions between the two countries but also the increased possibility of regional destabilization through proxy wars which may be the case in Yemen.

Iran’s rising power does not stop with these rolled off sanctions. If anything this is just the beginning. With Iran back in the global markets, their tattered economy will undoubtedly rebound and begin making very large amounts of money. This money will come from the huge deposits of hydrocarbons. Iran has the second largest reserves of natural gas and the fourth largest reserves of oil in the world. This given the rising global demand of hydrocarbons, especially natural gas means only one thing, an increasingly powerful Iran.

While this deal marks a huge diplomatic success, there are many challenges that lie ahead and many unforeseen consequences.

Nuclear Proliferation in MENA

The topic of Weapons of Mass Destruction has long been issue of debate and concern in the Middle East and North Africa. To begin Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s) can be defined as any biological, radiological, chemical or nuclear weapon. While the definition of WMD’s is somewhat broad, the majority of concern is placed in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons, while categorized as WMD’s have a few very specific characteristics which leads to so much focus. The main fear when concerning nuclear weapons is the threat of proliferation. Nuclear weapons have the benefit of providing security unlike any other form of weapon.

Mutually assured destruction (MAD) was essentially the basis of the Cold War between Russia and the United States. It dictated that in the event of a nuclear attack by one country, the other would reciprocate and both countries would be destroyed. This leads to a protective shield provided to countries who have nuclear weapons in that they will not be used but the simple threat off use prevents attack.

Having one country with a nuclear weapon prevents all others who do not have nuclear weapons from attacking at all. This is because they do not have the benefits of MAD and therefore cannot retaliate. This creates an imbalance and allows one country considerably more power. This is the basis for some theorists arguing that proliferation can be beneficial in that it reduces threat of nuclear attack by evening the playing field.

Looking to the example of the Middle East it makes sense from a defensive standpoint that Iran would want nuclear weapons. With the overwhelming regional hostilities between GCC states and Iran as well as the massive military spending exhibited by rival Saudi Arabia, Iran would gain a considerable amount of regional security through the development of a nuclear weapon.

Currently there is a deal in order between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that states, in the event of Iran developing a fully functioning warhead, Saudi Arabia will purchase a nuclear warhead from Pakistan. This is where the issue of proliferation comes into play.

The threat of the Iranian nuclear program is not that one country, Iran, will gain a warhead, but that the entire region will develop nuclear warheads. This is especially troubling due to the large numbers of terrorist groups as well as the instability of regimes.

The threat of a terror organization stealing or obtaining a nuclear weapon and using it for “nuclear terrorism” is very troubling. By their very nature terrorist groups do not have a “state” which can be retaliated against, therefore the chances of a terror group using a nuclear weapon is much greater than a traditional state using a nuclear weapon.

As previously stated the region, in recent years has been plagued by unstable regimes and a high prevalence of terror groups who have taken matters outside of the region and have been targeting a great deal of attacks on the West.

Water Diary

After imputing my water usage habits on waterfooprint.org I found that I use 2,063 cubic meters of water per year or 5.65 cubic meters per day. While this was more than I expected I would be using due to being a college student who doesn’t have to worry about things such as gardening and washing a car and don’t have amenities such as a dishwasher, my daily water usage is still well below the national average. Being an American who isn’t from southern California, I am fortunate to have water readily accessible and aside from the relatively rare occasion that a drought occurs I don’t really have to worry about water.

This is compared to the global average which is just 4 cubic meters per day or about 1,460 cubic meters per year. Looking to the Middle East and North Africa one would expect this region to be well below the global average due to the low average rainfall as well as desertification and a lack of rivers in the region. However, this is not entirely the case. The majority of the nations in this region with the exception being Yemen, can be found above the global average in water use per year.

While this is surprising, it is understandable. The average developed nation or those often defined as “western” find the vast majority of their water supply domestically. The Middle East and North Africa on the other hand import up to 75% of their water supply. This is once again due to the lack of a sustainable water source in the region. The way that this is made possible is the result of the relative small populations compared to nations such as the United States and China, as well as their relatively large incomes due to hydrocarbon sales. This is most evident in nations such as the United Arab Emirates and other extremely wealthy nations with very small populations.

Looking into my personal water usage trends compared to those of the world and specifically the Middle Eat and North Africa has been an eye opening research opportunity. I didn’t realize how much water I used through sources such as food and other materials. There are always ways in which I could limit my water consumption and this is often taken for granted given the abundance of water here in America. I also had never before considered the amount of water the Middle East imported from outside sources. Due to such high levels of import of this resource it makes sense that regional relations with nations who do have this resource is of huge importance. The use of water in the region is yet another small element of the international relations and one more step in understanding the Middle East and North Africa.