Middle East & North Africa
International Relations > Regions
The Middle East is another region of major importance in today's international scene; but mostly because of its problems and its strategic significance.
First, it is a fragmented area under many aspects. In national, linguistic and cultural terms, most states are Arab; but they are nevertheless divided by a series of other religious, political and tribal factors. Besides, there are three other main components, namely the Persian (Iran), the Turkish and the Jewish one (Israel). To this, one must add many other minorities who do not have their own nation-state, the main of which are the Kurds. This triple repartition is also reflected in the power distribution in the region, which is essentially divided between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Israel; to which Egypt may be added. Moreover, the first two are engaged in a fierce competition for regional premiership. Other separating factors of political nature are the position towards Israel and the United States.
Another dividing factor is religion, which is a central element in Middle Eastern affairs: while Islam is the main religion in the area, it is split in different currents, the main ones being Sunni and Shia Islam; and again this division is reflected in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, with the former being the head of the Sunnis and the latter being the champion of Shias. However, both are in fact divided into further sub-schools, thus multiplying the religious differences. In political terms, in a context where all the polities in the region are authoritarian (with Israel being the only exception), the main divide runs across the secularist and the supporters of political Islam, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Once more, this is only a partial and simplistic repartition, since political Islam is itself split between moderate and radicals. The most extreme wing of the latter also include terrorist organizations, whose theological foundations and agendas are again very variable: they include local groups like Hezbollah or Hamas as well as international networks such as Al-Qaeda or the more recent and self-declared Islamic State.
Such divides intersect one with the other, and are the key to understanding the region's politics, international relations and security dynamics. As a matter of fact, these multy-layered divides are at the base of the conflicts permanently affecting the region; and grasping them is essential for properly dealing with them.
One of the major issue in the Middle East is the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Jewish state is the only democracy in the whole area (even though one may also count Turkey, whose democratic status has however sensibly worsened in recent years), it has a thriving economy and a powerful military (as well as being the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons), and is a close ally of the United States; however, it is affected by a precarious security situation, as it lives under the constant threat of terrorist attacks. Moreover, most of the international community condemns its policies in the occupied territories and supports the creation of a Palestinian state as a solution to the conflict.
Another problem is the role of Iran, and its military nuclear program. As a proud and ancient culture, a populous country, the main Shia power and an opponent of the US and its allies (especially Saudi Arabia), Iran is one of the main actors in the area. Still, its actions meet a strong opposition, and the country has to face domestic challenges and to maintain the stability of its regime. And while in July 2015 a deal was reached to solve the nuclear issue, it remains to be seen what its effects will be and if it will actually be respected.
Its major rival is Saudi Arabia, the guide of the Sunnis and ally of the US. While being extremely rich thanks to its immense oil reserves, the Kingdom has started a transition phase to become less dependent on oil export revenues, and it also has to face its own internal stability challenges. Moreover, it is criticized for its violations of human rights and for being a sponsor of jihadi terrorism.
Turkey is another important actor, due to its geopolitical position of bridge between Europe, the Middle East and Russia. It is also a NATO member and therefore an important US ally. Being the connection uniting the West and the East, Turkey is indispensable to both and tries to take benefit from its position; but this is a difficult endeavor. Moreover, Turkey is experiencing political tensions between the supporters of President Erdogan (who pursues an Islamist and authoritarian agenda) and its opponents. Finally, Turkey hosts a consistent Kurdish minority, but is committed to avoid the emergence of a Kurdish nation-state. This is problematic, given the Kurds' quest for self-determination and their efforts against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
But apart from its regional dynamics, the Middle East is also object of foreign interest due to its strategic importance. As a matter of fact, the region is located at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe; and is extremely rich in hydrocarbons. The US have a primary role in this regard, as they have major allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) as well as rivals (Iran) in the region, where it also maintains a presence to fight terrorism. Indeed, the current situation is largely the consequence of America's invasion of Iraq in 2003, and since then the country has been unstable. Similarly, Syria and Yemen have been devastated by years of civil war that mix domestic divides with foreign meddling.
North Africa shares many similarities with the Middle East, in the form of hosting Arab-Muslim countries generally dependent on hydrocarbons and with an authoritarian polity (except for Tunisia). However, it is not affected by the same degree of inter-state rivalry, cultural divides, instability and foreign interferences. Still, terrorist and separatist movements are present as well; as well as important illicit traffics in the Sahara-Sahel area, including human beings, weapons, drugs, tobacco and others. A major issue is the civil war in Libya, which has a deep effect on the area and on Europe.
As all those who have studied international relations, I have examined the MENA region and its problems; but most of my knowledge comes from personal readings or works outside the university context (such as activities I participated in as a Wikistrat memeber). Here are my reports on the area.
The Role of Oil in The Libyan Conflict
This paper examines the importance of oil (and in general of hydrocarbons) on the outcome of Lybia's civil war. I wrote it during the first half of 2016 in the context of a seminar titled "Current issues of international security" that I attended during the first year of my Master's program at Université Catholique de Louvain, which focused on the Sahara-Sahel region. As such, it has an academic style, but it still focuses on practical issues that actually had an impact on the conflict and it provides very useful insights that allow to better understand the situation in Libya. And while it is not up-to-date (as it analyzes the situation as it was by December 2015) its conclusions are still largely valid.
The report illustrates the geography of Libya's energy industry and then describes how oil production affected the collapse of Gaddafi's regime and the civil war that followed. Later it examines the legal dispute around the country's oil-producing and financial institutions, showing once more how this affected the situation on the ground. Finally, the report explains how this combination of geographic, political, legal and economic factors threatened to result into a financial and material collapse of Libya as a state, with significant security implications. As a matter of fact, the inability of a single authority to control the whole of Libya's oil industry was one of the main reasons why the war persisted. The disruption of its oil production deprived the state of its main source of revenue and consequently weakened it and made it unable to control its territory. As a consequence, many of the security concerns that continue affecting the country can be linked to the "oil problem": the still unsolved conflict, the presence of ISIS and other terrorist groups, as well as the fact that the country has become an hub for human traffic with a deep impact on the ongoing immigration crisis that Europe is facing.
Click here to read the report.
Photo credit: Oil&GasPeople.com