A Region of Conflict and Crisis in Europe’s Neighbourhood. The Middle East

If the trends of the last ten years continue, then the political elites in the Middle East will barely have succeeded in constructively working on, let alone overcoming, the major challenges facing the countries and the state system by 2030. Three main issues lie at the heart of this: the development of new social contracts for the post-oil era, a sustainable stabilisation of post-civil-war countries, and the agreement on regional codes of conduct that facilitate the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the future.

Germany is particularly affected by developments in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. However, up until now, it has been showing a significant lack of ambition to shape developments, primarily relying on short-term emergency response and defensive mea­sures, such as.

According to the projections by the United Nations, the population in the Middle East will have grown by around a quarter to approximately five hundred million people by 2030. Initially, the share of the young population will increase; however, by 2030, the share of over-sixty-year-olds will also have significantly risen as a result of higher life expectancy. In 2030, the share of those under twenty-five years of age will on average be around forty-five per cent, with that of over-sixty-five-year-olds at eight per cent. In individual Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria), the share of under-twenty-fives will have reached almost fifty per cent; in the Palestinian Territories, this figure will be even higher (fifty-five per cent).

The countries in the region are therefore primarily confronted with the enormous challenge of providing the upcoming generations with access to school and professional education that will prepare them for the twenty-first century world of work. They also need to create a sufficient number of jobs for the millions of young people that enter the labour market every year, as well as integrate women into the labour market. Even though women have significantly caught up in terms of education and training, they are only integrated into working life to a minor extent: their share of the labour force lies at a regional average of around twenty per cent, and in individual countries such as Yemen, even below ten per cent.

Challenge One: New Social Contracts

For decades already, the international financial institutions have been calling for governments in the Middle East to implement liberalisation measures and urging a downsizing of bureaucracy and enhancement of efficiency, as well as improvements in terms of transparency, rule of law, and governance, in order to reduce government expenditure, make investments attractive, and facilitate free enterprise. Until now, economic reforms in almost all countries within the region have, however, only led to a partial and imbalanced liberalisation. A lack of educational opportunities, precarious employment, and a high unemployment rate among youth and adolescents harbour a high risk of political destabilisation. Generally, the political elites surrounding the ruling families have profited from privatisation. Far-reaching reforms, on the other hand, have hardly been put into effect – not least because authoritarian rulers do not wish to endanger their patronage networks. As a result, many countries in the region are lagging far behind in terms of international competitiveness. Inflated public sectors, corruption, and nepotism still remain the norm. Austerity measures are also running into resistance from the population, above all because there is a lack of targeted social programmes that would soften the effects on the poor segments of the population.

Only if these challenges are overcome can the demographic shift be transformed into a demographic bonus, economic growth and increased tax revenue. This would also allow the establishment of appropriate social security systems, not least for old-age provision. A lack of educational opportunities, precarious employment, and a high unemployment rate among youth and adolescents, on the other hand, harbour a high risk of political destabilisation. Indeed, the protests and uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring, which, with few exceptions, covered all Arab countries in the region in 2010/2011, were not only caused by political grievances, but primarily by poor ­socioeconomic perspectives for the young population.

The starting conditions under which the national economies in the Middle East have to cope with these challenges are everything but favourable. Countries such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq have been thrown back in their development by decades because of civil and proxy wars.Not only can oil and gas-producing countries not rely permanently on the external rent incomes from the exploitation of resources, they themselves also consume an increasingly greater proportion of the energy produced as a result of population and economic growth. The resource-rich states of the region (primarily the Arab Gulf states as well as Libya and Algeria) are therefore under pressure to diversify their energy sources, national economies, and state revenue. In fact, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have presented approaches to diversification and modernisation with their visions for 2030. Yet, a large share of expenses continues to flow into the military sector rather than into preparing the countries for future challenges.

Most states in the region do not have any proactive plan in place to help design corresponding modernisation programmes or ensure that resources are used directly for diversification. Besides, it would be difficult for resource-poor states – who have so far profited from resource wealth indirectly through political rents (for example, Jordan and Egypt), leveraging their geostrategic location and political positioning – to pursue any such agenda. They lack appropriate reserve funds, or are in part already burdened by high national debt. The development of countries such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq has been thrown back decades because of civil and proxy wars; proactive planning and future-oriented economic policy are currently all but impossible.

One consequence is that the current social contracts in most countries within the region are increasingly being called into question. Neither modernisation dictatorships nor resource-rich welfare states can deliver their part of the bargain in the long term. While individual countries, as already mentioned, have presented visions for economic diversification and social modernisation, there is a lack of new approaches that would meet demands for political participation or improvements in the situation of currently discriminated groups. Such challenges will grow further once the rentier states are no longer able to provide welfare services, but rather have to tax citizens in order to guarantee basic state functions. This is when the notorious demand of the Boston Tea Party comes into play: “No taxation without representation.”

This also means that economic policy measures alone are not sufficient. It will instead come down to negotiating new social contracts in which, on the one hand, citizens are no longer seen as politically unenlightened recipients of welfare services, but rather made responsible for the common good. On the other hand, they would have to be granted more rights to have their say. So far, there has been no indication that the authoritarian regimes in the region are ready to engage in these negotiation processes. They are relying on an adaptation instead, which mostly results in more repression instead of political opening (so-called authoritarian upgrading).

Challenge Two: Stabilisation of Post-civil-war Countries

The protests in the Arab world at the turn of the year 2010/2011 led to civil and proxy wars in three countries – Libya, Syria, and Yemen –, which had a destabilising effect that radiated throughout the entire region. The US-led intervention in Iraq in 2003, which brought about the fall of the long-standing dictator Saddam Hussein and a far-reaching dismantlement of state structures, had already earlier sparked a civil war and shifted the regional power balance in favour of Iran. Today, the relationship between the country’s ethnic and sectarian groups has still not been consensually regulated, as clearly demonstrated by the Kurdish independence referendum in autumn 2017 and the violent reactions it triggered. By 2030, we can assume that there will have been no success in thoroughly pacifiying the four countries and stabilising them sustainably.

Until today, all efforts by the UN to end the militant confrontations in Yemen, Syria, and Libya through power-­sharing have failed. In Yemen and Libya, power-­sharing agreements did not prevent the continuation or renewed outbreak of conflicts. In Syria, the UN has not even succeeded in effecting direct negotiations over power-sharing between the civil war parties. This is first and foremost due to the difficult conditions under which the UN is trying to negotiate conflict resolution in the three states. Many of the local conflict parties are not seriously interested in negotiations, due to changing power relationships and alliances, as well as the support that they receive from regional and major powers. All three conflicts extend beyond mere power struggles between local powers; they also offer rivalling external powers an arena. In addition, the UN mediators are constrained in their ability to act by a Security Council which is either in disagreement (as in the case of Syria) about the right path towards conflict resolution, or (as in the case of Yemen) is associated with one conflict party, which makes the UN biased. And finally, securing the implementation of a possible agreement through the deployment of Blue Helmets is not a realistic option in any of the three countries – not only because the five permanent members of the Security Council would not offer unanimous support, but also because a majority of the local conflict parties would reject the presence of international peace keepers. It therefore cannot be expected that armed confrontations will come to an end through negotiations between local parties, but rather through the military victory of one party, as well as through agreements between regional and major powers that safeguard their main self interests.

The Geostrategic Significance of Syria

Currently, the focus is on the conflict in Syria due to the country’s geostrategic importance, the multitude of involved players, and the radiating effects on the entire region. Here, direct military interventions by Russia in September 2015 turned the page of the civil war in favour of the regime. With the support of Moscow and Tehran as well as Iran-controlled militias, Damascus gradually managed to recapture territory that had previously been controlled by the opposition or by the Islamic State. With the support of Moscow and Tehran as well as Iran-controlled militias, Damascus gradually managed to recapture territory. Russia emerged as a regulatory power and attempted to convert the military successes in the stabilisation of its allies into progress in conflict pacification and political regulation from 2017 onwards. To do so, it established a new negotiation format in Kazakhstan’s Astana with Iran and Turkey. Together, the three guarantors introduced four so-called de-escalation zones, which were to remain under rebel control temporarily and would be subject to a ceasefire. Humanitarian access was also to be improved. In actual fact, the approach led to a considerable reduction in violence; however, by the middle of 2018, two de-escalation zones (in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and north of Homs) had already been recaptured by the regime, while a military offensive had been launched to recapture the zone in the southwest border region with Jordan and Israel. Negotiations on a political settlement yielded no results, even under Russian mediation.

The perception that the civil war in Syria was coming to its end after the Russian intervention strengthened the resolve of the regional powers to implement their interests through proxies and direct military intervention. Turkey occupied parts of northern Syria with the help of Salafist and jihadist fighters, to prevent the dominant Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from permanently controlling an area along their border, establishing loyal local government structures there, and deporting refugees to this area from Turkey in the future. Iran used its involvement to prepare the ground for a long-term presence, build up loyal militias, and set up a corridor that would guarantee direct land access to the Mediterranean Sea. This in turn stirred up major concerns, particularly in Israel, which launched an increasingly intensifying offensive of military strikes against the presence of Iran and Iran-supported militias, in the hopes of preventing a similar situation as in Lebanon from developing in Syria. In the spring of 2018, this led to a direct exchange of blows between Israel and Iran for the first time, which harbours a high risk of military escalation, even if both sides have declared their intention to avoid this.

The country is therefore hardly likely to achieve peace as long as regional and major powers have incompatible visions for Syria’s order, and are prepared to pursue these through military measures as well. Furthermore, the violence is set to continue until the regime has regained control over its entire state territory. How long this will take does not least depend on whether or how long the US is willing to maintain their military presence east of the Euphrates, and thus prevent regime troops from reconquering this area.

Conflicts in the Middle East

Conflict intensity in the Middle East, 2016.

Yet, even if the guns finally fall silent: sustainable stabilisation seems unlikely under the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Even after reconquering all state territory, he will essentially base his control on militias that pursue economic and political self-interests. Sustainable stabilisation is unlikely under the rule of Bashar al-Assad.It can also be assumed that the regime will enact revenge campaigns similar to those seen in previously reconquered areas, and in doing so particularly try to neutralise representatives of civil society and oppositional self-governing structures. There is already sufficient evidence that the regime has little interest in welcoming internally displaced persons and refugees with open arms. Instead, the ground is being prepared to cement the demographic changes sparked by the war through its approach to reconstruction. As a result, many refugees will not return. What is more, a readiness to engage in profound reforms that would address the structural problems of Syria’s order that triggered the uprising in the first place is not discernable. Instead, representatives of the regime have made it clear that they are not ready to accept conditional support for reconstruction. As a result, militias will continue to rule the land, the war economy, nepotism and corruption will continue through peacetimes; moreover, the discrimination of population groups as well as a political system that excludes a wide range of the population from effective political participation will prevail. Liability for serious war crimes and infringements of human rights is unlikely to be ­established; measures of transitional justice will fail to materialise.

State Control in Yemen and Libya Is Unlikely to Be Re-established

As in Syria, there is also little hope in Yemen and Libya of finding a new basis that would allow coexistence in multi-ethnic and multi-confessional societies, against the background of massive war crimes and an ethno-­sectarian charge of confrontations. Even if the international community does not permit border changes and secessions: in cases such as Yemen and Libya, there are slim chances of (re-)establishing state control in the entire territory. National states will then merely continue to exist as shells.

This also harbours the danger that jihadist groupings could take hold. The loss of state control that went hand in hand with the civil wars had already paved the way for the rapid spreading of jihadist groups such as the so-called Islamic State. In 2014, this group conquered large parts of Syria and Iraq, set up a caliphate there with a global pretence, and also established offshoots in other countries of the region, for example in Egypt’s Sinai. While, by the end of 2017, efforts to dismantle the Islamic State and rob it of its territorial base in Syria and Iraq were successful, the surviving fighters will continue to present a risk for the stability in the region and beyond. After all, not only will a part of them form the core of a new insurgency on the ground, the foreign fighters will also return, for the most part, to their home countries – including Europe. Some may hardly attempt to integrate into civil life, but rather spread their ideology further and organise attacks.

Challenge Three: Regional Security Architecture

The states of the Middle East will likely fall way short of developing a functional regional security architecture in 2030. If the current trends continue, it is even doubtful that at least an agreement on a code of conduct can be reached on a regional level that would enable the preservation of good-neighbourly relations, the peaceful resolution and management of conflicts, and the prevention of future hostile confrontations. The Middle East is increasingly developing into a system of conflicts landscape where the competition for regional dominance, protracted conflicts, and domestic power struggles combine and reinforce each other. This further complicates achieving conflict solution. What is more, if the nuclear agreement with Iran fails, the risk of a nuclear weapons race within the region arises.

The lack of a regional security architecture is first and foremost attributable to domestic policy: the predominantly authoritarian states of the region are characterised by a high degree of centralisation as well as a fixation on regime security and national sovereignty. As a result, “anti-cooperation security cultures” continue to dominate. The political elites have a low inclination towards and capacity for multilateral action. Regional integration in accordance with a functionalist logic, such as within the setting of the EU, barely catches on; the predominant mode of thinking revolves around ‘friend-or-foe’ dynamics and zero-sum calculations. The Middle East is increasingly developing into a conflict system where the competition for regional dominance, protracted conflicts, and domestic power struggles combine. Economic, political, and military cooperation thus remains marginal, offering slim perspectives of trust building, containing the danger of military escalations, as well as conflict regulations – which would benefit all those involved.

This is joined by the destabilisation of the entire region, which was initiated by the US-led war in Iraq in 2003 and drastically intensified by the so-called Arab Spring. In the three civil war countries of Yemen, Libya, and Syria, regional and major powers support a variety of different domestic and foreign fighters and increasingly intervene, even with direct military action, in order to enforce their incompatible interests. This quickly turned these conflicts into proxy wars, in which the competition for regional dominance (especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as Israel and Iran) is fought out by military means. At the same time, through the spill-over of war, refugee movements, the involvement of violent actors in several conflicts, and the increase of ethnic and sectarian interpretative patterns, the wars are radiating destabilising and polarising effects throughout the entire region. Military escalation – primarily between Israel and Iran as well as between Saudi Arabia and Iran – cannot be ruled out.

The Palestine Conflict as a Regional Trouble Spot

Regional security cooperation is also hindered by protracted territorial and security related conflicts in the region; the Palestinian conflict is just one issue of many. Even though it already no longer be considered the ‘core Middle Eastern conflict’ for quite some time, it remains a trouble spot in the region and prevents an open cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States, despite recent rapprochement.

In fact, peacefully settling the Palestinian issue with a two-state solution is growing increasingly impossible. Even if the Trump administration is to present the ‘deal of the century’, as previously announced: it cannot be expected to succeed in setting negotiations in motion that lead to an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, an end to the occupation, and Palestinian independence in a viable and democratic state. This is above all attributable to the following three factors:

First, great mistrust from both populations against the desire for peace of the respective other; the relations are shaped by demonisation. Even if at least relative majorities on both sides continue to advocate a two-state solution, under such conditions no pressure will be exerted on their governments to show a willingness for cooperation and openness to compromise. On the contrary, they will merely be emboldened to pursue a hard-line stance.

Second, the Palestinian Territories have been politically divided ever since the violent takeover by Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2007; all efforts for reconciliation and political power-sharing have failed so far. Consequently, the Palestinian President cannot speak for all Palestinians; he he would also be able to merely partially implement a possible agreement. Additionally, due to continued cooperation with the occupying power but simultaneous lack of success in establishing Palestinian independence, he has become increasingly unpopular. This too restricts the scope of his actions.

Third, the right-wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu does not show any interest in negotiated conflict settlement and ending the occupation. Instead, in recent years, it has smoothed the way for annexing parts of the West Bank. It sees itself reinforced in its stance by a US government that makes no secret of its preference for Israeli over Palestinian interests, nor shrinks away from throwing the international consensus on conflict regulation (such as the status of Jerusalem) overboard.

In fact, peacefully settling the Palestinian issue with a two-state solution is growing increasingly impossible.

The endurance of the conflict comes with side effects. For example, Palestinians are denied elementary rights. In particular, the civil population in the Gaza Strip that suffers under a strict blockade, is refused normal development. They are instead demoted to aid recipients; now, even international support is ever more put in question. In addition, serious environmental problems cannot be handled effectively, quickly turning the Gaza Strip uninhabitable. It is therefore highly probable that the conflict will violently escalate again and again. This also provides radical forces in the region, who champion the liberation of Jerusalem, with continual inflow. Not least, a continuation of the conflict in both societies goes hand in hand with a further restriction of the space for civil society actors – in the Palestinian territories, democratic institutions and procedures have been largely suspended since 2007 anyway. In addition, the internationally increasingly accepted Israeli occupation and annexation policy is contributing to the erosion of international law and international humanitarian law.

Sub-regional progress was being recorded on closer political, security, and economic cooperation in the 2000s, especially within the Gulf Cooperation Council and the African Union. However, in the Gulf this progress fell victim to the competition for regional dominance and disputes surrounding the orientation of regional policy against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the consequences of which was the extensive isolation of Qatar.

The Failure of Sub-regional Cooperation

No effective system of collective security, inclusive dialogue forums, or at least functional crisis mechanisms have yet been established in any of the sub-regions. At the regional level, there has been no progress in incorporating all relevant parties. Regional organisations (African Union, Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council) don’t include important non-Arab parties – Israel, Iran, and Turkey –, who are therefore not involved in comprehensive and institutionalised dialogue structures. What’s more: the developments of the last few years have further eroded regional order. As such, massive war crimes and crimes against humanity (including through the use of chemical warfare) have been committed in the wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The failure of the international community to implement norms that serve the protection of civilians becomes apparent here. To the contrary: in Syria, Russia itself was responsible for war crimes through the bombardment of civilian targets. As a result of the one-sided revocation of the Nuclear Agreement with Iran by the US, the general value of international negotiations and treaties has been called into question. Additionally, there exists acute danger that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will fail and that Iran will resume its military nuclear programme – and with it, trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.

Europe and the Conflict System of the Middle East

Most countries in the Middle East are lacking key conditions for peaceful development by 2030. They are not characterised by forward-planning governments and international competitiveness, but rather by poor governance, an inflated public sector, corruption, and repression. Education and training are not appropriately preparing the younger generation for the challenges of the twenty-first century world of work. There is a lack of innovative private entrepreneurship, and women are marginalised in working life. Many societies are characterised by the exclusion of population groups and social inequality instead of social cohesion. The growth in the share of youth and adolescents usually far exceeds the increase in workplaces. This harbours political explosive force, especially in combination with increasing challenges to the current social contracts.

In each of the three sub-regions, a civil war is raging in which regional and international players are directly involved with military action. In conjunction with the increasingly violent confrontations on regional dominance and protracted conflicts, these fuel the ethnic and sectarian tensions throughout the region. And they lead to the constant emergence – even if the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is largely contained – of new militias, vagrant mercenaries, and insurgencies. The different crises and conflicts increasingly combine, re-inforce each other mutually, which makes it virtually impossible to solve them.

Germany and Europe are especially affected by developments in their immediate neighbourhood – only a few kilometres of sea border separate the European continent from North Africa and the Middle East. Continued instability in the region not only brings the risk of spill-over of conflict – for example in the form of terrorist attacks – migration pressures attributable to the gap in income and welfare between Europe and the less-­developed states in the region can also be expected to continue, as well as displacement movements triggered by wars and political persecution.

Germany should, together with its European partners, work against the anticipated continuation of instability and development deficits in the Middle East, instead of primarily implementing its own short-term interests (foreign trade promotion, emergency response, migration containment). There is a lack of innovative private entrepreneurship, and women are marginalised in working life.To do so, it not only needs the will to more forcefully shape developments in the region, but also European partners that put their joint economic, political, and security-political weight in the balance, and who are ready to revive the appeal of the European model – as a stronghold of liberal democracy, supranational cooperation, and a values- and rules-based foreign policy. Even if this represents a formidable challenge in view of the strengthening of right-wing populist movements: with regard to the erosion of the liberal world order, increasingly erratic US policy, and the growing influence of authoritarian states such as Russia and China in the region, this will become all the more important.

The Middle East

How We Must Act

Three approaches should lie at the heart of our ­Middle East policy:

Priority should be placed on supporting reforms that target social inclusion, the strengthening of state institutions, as well as economic and political liberalisation and the establishment of social security systems. As experience shows: the opportunities to bring about profound change from the outside are limited. It would therefore be more sensible to:

  • Generously support reforms where they are initiated and driven forward by the local elites.
  • Invest primarily in education and training as well as increased dialogue and exchange elsewhere.
  • Ensure that German and European measures are not contrary to long-term reform plans and state stabilisation (for example through the cooperation with ­militias to prevent migration).
  • Clearly identify and name infringements of human rights and relapses away from liberalisation.

Against the background of ageing and shrinking ­societies in Germany and Europe, it is worth:

  • Clearly opposing the rampant right-wing populist “Fortress Europe” discourse.
  • Creating legal opportunities for migration from the region.
  • Intensifying efforts to give migrants a new home in Germany.

Especially in the Middle East, where there is a lack of ­regional security architecture, Berlin should actively and consistently:

  • Stand up for negotiated conflict regulations, the ­establishment of crisis mechanisms, and securing of peace agreements through peace keepers.
  • Support measures for transitional justice.
  • Advocate for a strengthening of international law and international humanitarian law.

Dr. Muriel Asseburg (50) is a Senior Fellow in the Middle East and Africa Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. Her current research focuses on conflict dynamics and peace efforts in the Middle East, on German, European, and American Middle East policy, as well as on issues of state building, political reforms, and security in the Eastern Mediterranean region. She studied Political Science, International Law, and Economics at the LMU in Munich, where she earned her doctorate in 2000.