Peacefulness or crisis fatigue? Slight downward trend detected in Middle East conflicts

Palestinian boys walk past the destroyed Al-Shuruq tower in Gaza City's Al-Rimal neighbourhood which was targeted by Israeli strikes. (AFP)
Palestinian boys walk past the destroyed Al-Shuruq tower in Gaza City's Al-Rimal neighbourhood which was targeted by Israeli strikes. (AFP)
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Updated 30 June 2021

Peacefulness or crisis fatigue? Slight downward trend detected in Middle East conflicts

Palestinian boys walk past the destroyed Al-Shuruq tower in Gaza City's Al-Rimal neighbourhood which was targeted by Israeli strikes. (AFP)
  • MENA region as a whole improved, but Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon and Yemen saw declines in recorded peacefulness
  • Think tank’s assessment may come as a surprise to those who view the region as a place of seemingly endless wars

DUBAI: For six consecutive years, the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) had ranked the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as the world’s least peaceful region. But over the past year, according to the think tank’s 15th Global Peace Index (GPI) report, MENA experienced the biggest improvement in peacefulness compared with other regions in the world.

Given the fighting that erupted in May in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in addition to low-intensity conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, the IEP’s assessment may come as a surprise to many who have come to view the region as a place of seemingly endless wars.

“Obviously, over the past decade, there has been a very high level of conflict in the region,” Thomas Morgan, an IEP associate director of research who contributed to the report, told Arab News. “There have been a high number of deaths from conflict, a high intensity of internal conflict and a high number of total conflicts in the region.”

However, this year’s report identified a fall in the intensity of these conflicts, a reduction in the number of resulting deaths and a decline in the total number of ongoing wars in the region. “There was an increase for much of the past decade, but we are starting to hopefully see that trend reverse and a fall in the level of conflicts in the region,” Morgan said.

Improvements were recorded in the peaceful rankings of 15 out of 20 countries, with an average overall increase in peacefulness of 0.81 percent. The primary driver of this increase was recorded in the “Ongoing Conflict” domain.

The five MENA countries that recorded a deterioration in peacefulness were Qatar, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon and Yemen, although Qatar still ranked first for peacefulness, followed by Kuwait, the UAE and Jordan.

Yemen, having recorded falls in peacefulness every year since 2008, is now the least peaceful country in the region — a position previously held by Syria since 2014.




A Palestinian man sits on the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli air strikes last month in Gaza City on June 15, 2021. (AFP)

The country recorded deteriorations in both the “Militarization” and “Safety and Security” domains, with the largest deterioration occurring in the indicators for refugees, internally displaced persons and violent crime.

Syria was found to be the second least peaceful country in the region and the third least peaceful country in the world, having experienced a very slight improvement in political stability as a result of Syrian President Bashar Assad securing his hold on power with Russian and Iranian support.

Although the intensity of the conflict in Syria has decreased in recent years, the country suffered sustained attacks by Daesh and Al-Qaeda throughout 2020, particularly in the northwest province of Idlib. However, the number of deaths from internal conflict has fallen slightly compared with the previous year.

Iran recorded an improvement in the “Safety and Security” domain, primarily the result of a reduction in incarcerations and terrorism, but it also saw a deterioration in the “Militarization” domain.

“Although military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) fell, there was a significant reduction in commitment to UN peacekeeping funding, as well as a slight increase in the armed services personnel rate,” the study said of Iran.

“Moreover, while there was no change in the country’s nuclear and heavy weapons indicator, the country started to produce enriched uranium at levels three times more than was allowed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

Iraq registered the biggest increase in peacefulness in the region and the second largest improvement overall — by 4.3 percent on the GPI. Iraq has recorded improvements in peacefulness for three of the past four years, although it remains one of the least peaceful countries in the world.

“The largest changes occurred in the ‘Militarization’ domain, with improvements in military expenditure, UN peacekeeping funding and weapons imports,” the study said. “The level of ‘Militarization’ has fallen steadily in Iraq over the past five years and is now at its lowest level since the inception of the index.”




Houthi militia members in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. (AFP/File Photo)

Saudi Arabia has climbed two places in this year’s index, earning an overall score of 2.376 in peacefulness (the lower the score, the more peaceful the country). The IEP attributed the improved ranking in part to a reduction in the scale and frequency of terrorist incidents, mirroring a wider global trend in which the number of terror-related deaths has fallen year on year since 2015.

The primary reason for the shift, though, appears to be a reduction in military expenditure as a proportion of GDP. The Kingdom spent $57.5 billion on defense in 2020, according to SIPRI. By contrast, total US military expenditure stood at $778 billion in 2020, higher than the next 10 top-spending countries combined, including China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France and the UK. 

“The trend in most countries was the opposite of what we saw in Saudi Arabia,” said Morgan. “A great number of countries actually increased military expenditure as a percentage of GDP.

“Part of that is attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic because it had such a strong economic impact, so it meant that military expenditure as a percentage of GDP was just relatively higher than it had been in previous years.”

INNUMBERS

* 87 - Countries more peaceful in 2021 compared to 2020.

* 73 - Countries less peaceful in 2021 compared to 2020.

* 0.07% - Fall in global GPI average from 2020 to 2021.

According to polling data gathered for the study, Saudis were also found to feel safer compared with citizens of other countries. While a global average of 60 percent said that they worried about falling victim to violent crime, that number is considerably lower in Saudi Arabia, at just 22 percent.

Meanwhile, only 19 percent of respondents in the Kingdom said that they had experienced violence or knew someone who had experienced violence in the past two years, compared with the global average of 23 percent.

Also, while a quarter of the world’s population on average said that they felt less safe today than they did five years ago, a mere 12 percent of Saudis said they believed the world had become less safe.

“That is a data set that we will be continuing to look at over the next few years and it will be updated,” Morgan said. “It will be very interesting to see what trends there are with data collected pre and post-COVID-19 and whether that changes people’s perceptions of risk and their assessment of violence.”

For Morgan, the biggest challenge for the region is building what he calls “positive peace,” which entails attitudes, institutions and structures that help build and maintain peaceful environments.




A picture shows an Israel military drill near Kibbutz Merom Golan in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on June 9, 2021. (AFP)

These include well-functioning governments, sound business environments, low levels of corruption and other factors associated with building peaceful societies, which are particularly important in the post-conflict environments of many MENA countries.

“For the Middle East, as for the world, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the aspect of positive peace that is most crucial at the moment is economic recovery,” Morgan said.

“Because the pandemic had such a strong economic impact in so many countries, that is the most important factor at this present time, in terms of bolstering peacefulness in the next few years.”

For Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman of IEP, the pandemic has accelerated shifts in global peacefulness. “Although there was a fall in the level of conflict and terrorism in 2020, political instability and violent demonstrations have increased,” he said.

“The economic fallout from the pandemic will create further uncertainty, especially for countries that were struggling before the pandemic.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Iraqi Kurdistan conference pushes Baghdad-Israel normalization

Iraqi Kurdistan conference pushes Baghdad-Israel normalization
Updated 6 sec ago

Iraqi Kurdistan conference pushes Baghdad-Israel normalization

Iraqi Kurdistan conference pushes Baghdad-Israel normalization

IRBIL: More than 300 Iraqis, including tribal leaders, attended a conference in autonomous Kurdistan organized by a US think-tank demanding a normalization of relations between Baghdad and Israel, organizers said Saturday.
The first initiative of its kind in Iraq, where Israel’s sworn enemy Iran has a very strong influence, the conference took place on Friday and was organized by the New York-based Center for Peace Communications (CPC).
The CPC advocates for normalizing relations between Israel and Arab countries, alongside working to establish ties between civil society organizations.
Iraqi Kurdistan maintains cordial contacts with Israel, but the federal government in Baghdad does not have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
Four Arab nations — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — last year agreed to normalize ties with Israel in a US-sponsored process dubbed the Abraham Accords.
“We demand our integration into the Abraham Accords,” said Sahar Al-Tai, one of the attendees, reading a closing statement in a conference room at a hotel in the Kurdish regional capital Irbil.
“Just as these agreements provide for diplomatic relations between the signatories and Israel, we also want normal relations with Israel,” she said.
“No force, local or foreign, has the right to prevent this call,” added Tai, head of research at the Iraqi federal government’s culture ministry.
The 300 participants at the conference came from across Iraq, according to CPC founder Joseph Braude, a US citizen of Iraqi Jewish origin.
They included Sunni and Shiite representatives from “six governorates: Baghdad, Mosul, Salaheddin, Al-Anbar, Diyala and Babylon,” extending to tribal chiefs and “intellectuals and writers,” he told AFP by phone.
Other speakers at the conference included Chemi Peres, the head of an Israeli foundation established by his father, the late president Shimon Peres.
“Normalization with Israel is now a necessity,” said Sheikh Rissan Al-Halboussi, an attendee from Anbar province, citing the examples of Morocco and the UAE.
Kurdish Iraqi leaders have repeatedly visited Israel over the decades and local politicians have openly demanded Iraq normalize ties with the Jewish state, which itself backed a 2017 independence referendum in the autonomous region.


Morocco gets 1st batch of Turkish armed drones: report

Morocco gets 1st batch of Turkish armed drones: report
Updated 18 min 44 sec ago

Morocco gets 1st batch of Turkish armed drones: report

Morocco gets 1st batch of Turkish armed drones: report
  • Morocco already uses drones for intelligence and surveillance operations along its borders

RABAT: Morocco took delivery earlier this month of Turkish combat drones, the Far-Maroc unofficial website dedicated to military news reported.
The report, also carried by several local media outlets, comes as tensions have spiked between Morocco and neighboring Algeria in recent weeks.
The two countries are mainly at odds over the disputed Western Sahara territory, and Algeria severed ties with Morocco in August claiming “provocations and hostile” action by its neighbor.
Relations took another blow this week when Algeria on Wednesday said it has closed off its airspace to all Moroccan civilian and military traffic.
According to Far-Maroc, the North African kingdom ordered 13 Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey in April and a first batch of the unmanned aircraft arrived this month.
Rabat, said the report, seeks to “modernize the arsenal of the Moroccan Armed Forces (FAR) in order to prepare for any danger and recent hostilities,” but did not elaborate on these topics.
It did however add that Moroccan military personnel have trained in Turkey in recent weeks to work with the drones.
Media reports said Morocco signed a $70 million contract with the private Turkish company Baykar.
The firm is run by one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-laws and has been exporting its Bayraktar TB2 model to Ukraine, Qatar and Azerbaijan for some years.
According to the company’s website, the Bayraktar TB2 is a “medium altitude long endurance tactical unmanned aerial vehicle capable of conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and armed attack missions” with a range of up to 27 hours.
Morocco already uses drones for intelligence and surveillance operations along its borders, according to military experts.
The Western Sahara dispute pits Morocco against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front which fought a war of independence with Rabat from 1975 to 1991.
Morocco laid claim to the former Spanish colony with rich phosphate resources and offshore fisheries after Spain withdrew in 1975, and controls around 80 percent of it.
Rabat has offered autonomy there and maintains the territory is a sovereign part of the kingdom but the Polisario is demanding a referendum on self-determination, in line with the terms of a 1991 UN-backed cease-fire deal.
Tensions rose sharply in November when Morocco sent troops into a buffer zone to reopen the only road linking Morocco to Mauritania and the rest of West Africa. The road had been blocked by the separatists.


UAE daily COVID-19 numbers continue to decline as country readies for Expo 2020 kickoff

UAE daily COVID-19 numbers continue to decline as country readies for Expo 2020 kickoff
Updated 30 min 17 sec ago

UAE daily COVID-19 numbers continue to decline as country readies for Expo 2020 kickoff

UAE daily COVID-19 numbers continue to decline as country readies for Expo 2020 kickoff
  • The country’s COVID-19 total number of cases recorded since the start of the pandemic now stands at 734,275

DUBAI: The UAE’s daily coronavirus cases continue to decline, with health officials on Friday confirming 303 new infections and three virus-related deaths.

The country’s COVID-19 total number of cases recorded since the start of the pandemic now stands at 734,275 with 2,086 fatalities related to the disease. 

The government’s inoculation program, coupled with an active testing policy for the early detection and intervention for coronavirus cases, has provided at least a dose of COVID-19 vaccines to 90.8 percent of the UAE population.

The recent decline in daily infections comes just days before the opening of the Expo 2020 Dubai, which the emirate hopes will draw millions from around the globe.


’Soon’ in Iranian parlance differs from West’s in nuclear talks, Iran’s top diplomat says

’Soon’ in Iranian parlance differs from West’s in nuclear talks, Iran’s top diplomat says
Updated 42 min 30 sec ago

’Soon’ in Iranian parlance differs from West’s in nuclear talks, Iran’s top diplomat says

’Soon’ in Iranian parlance differs from West’s in nuclear talks, Iran’s top diplomat says
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on Saturday that when his government says it will return soon to talks on resuming compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, it means when Tehran has completed its review of the nuclear file.
On Friday, Amirabdollahian told reporters in New York that Iran would return to talks “very soon,” but gave no specific date.
In remarks broadcast on state TV channel IRINN on Saturday, Amirabdollahian said, “People keep asking how soon is soon. Does it mean days, weeks or months?”
“The difference between Iranian and Western ‘soon’ is a lot. To us,‘soon’ means really in the first opportune time — when our reviews (of the nuclear file) have been completed. What is important is our determination to return to the talks, but those that are serious and guarantee the Iranian nation’s rights and interests,” Amirabdollahian said.
He was speaking to IRINN in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
On the other hand, he said: “I remind you of the West’s promises, such as repeatedly promising they would ‘soon’, ‘in a few months,’ implement the Instex” — a trade mechanism set up to barter humanitarian goods and food after the US withdrawal from the deal.
Iran has said the channel with Europe has been ineffective.
Under the 2015 deal that Iran signed with world powers, it agreed to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions. Washington abandoned that deal in 2018 and unilaterally reimposed financial sanctions.
Talks that began in April between Iran and the five other nations — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — to revive the deal have been stalled since hard-line cleric Ebrahimi Raisi was elected president in June.
European diplomats have served as chief intermediaries between Washington and Tehran, which has refused to negotiate directly with US officials.

Israel says US booster plan supports its own aggressive push

Israel says US booster plan supports its own aggressive push
Updated 25 September 2021

Israel says US booster plan supports its own aggressive push

Israel says US booster plan supports its own aggressive push
  • Israel raced out of the gate early this year to vaccinate most of its adult population

JERUSALEM: Israel is pressing ahead with its aggressive campaign of offering coronavirus boosters to almost anyone over 12 and says its approach was further vindicated by a US decision to give the shots to older patients or those at higher risk.
Israeli officials credit the booster shot, which has already been delivered to about a third of the population, with helping suppress the country’s latest wave of COVID-19 infections. They say the differing approaches are based on the same realization that the booster is the right way to go, and expect the US and other countries to expand their campaigns in the coming months.
“The decision reinforced our results that the third dose is safe,” said Dr. Nadav Davidovitch, head of the school of public health at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University and chairman of the country’s association of public health physicians. “The main question now is of prioritization.”
The World Health Organization has called for a moratorium on boosters until at least the end of the year so that more people in poor countries can get their first two doses, but Israeli officials say the booster shot is just as important in preventing infections.
“We know for sure that the current system of vaccine nationalism is hurting all of us, and it’s creating variants,” said Davidovitch, who is also a member of an Israeli government panel of experts. But he added that the problem is “much broader than Israel.”
Israel raced out of the gate early this year to vaccinate most of its adult population after striking a deal with Pfizer to trade medical data in exchange for a steady supply of doses. It has also purchased large quantities of the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines.
Most adults had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine by March, causing infection levels to plummet and allowing the government to lift nearly all coronavirus restrictions.
But in June, the highly infectious delta variant began to spread. After studying the matter, experts concluded that the vaccine remained effective against the virus, but that its efficacy waned roughly five months after the second shot.
In late July, Israel began distributing booster shoots to at-risk citizens, including those over 60. Within weeks, it expanded the campaign to the general population.
More than 3 million of Israel’s 9 million citizens have gotten a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine, according to the Health Ministry.
In a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, Israeli experts said that in people who had been vaccinated five months earlier, the booster increased vaccine efficacy tenfold compared with vaccinated patients who didn’t receive it.
That study tracked about 1 million people 60 and older and found that the booster was “very effective at reducing the rate of both confirmed infection and severe illness,” the Health Ministry said.
A senior Israeli health official, Dr. Sharon Alroy Preiss, was among the experts testifying before the US Food and Drug Administration panel last week in favor of the booster shot. But the regulator decided against boosters for the general population, opting only to authorize it for people aged 65 or older and those in high-risk groups.
Experts cited a lack of safety data on extra doses and also raised doubts about the value of mass boosters, rather than ones targeted to specific groups. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a similar endorsement Thursday.
The Israeli Health Ministry said the FDA decision “gave validity to the third vaccine operation” underway in Israel, which “decided to act responsibly and quickly in order to treat growing infections.” It said statistics show the booster dose has “restored protection.”
Recent weeks have seen “a declining rate of new infections among the elderly,” the vast majority of whom have received booster shots, and “a continuous increase in the proportion of unvaccinated individuals within the new severe cases,” Dr. Ran Balicer, head of the government’s expert advisory panel on COVID-19, told The Associated Press.
In recent weeks, as the booster campaign has been rolled out, the percentage of unvaccinated among serious COVID-19 cases has climbed, and the overall new cases among people with at least two shots has dropped.
As of Friday, around 70 percent of Israel’s 703 serious cases of COVID-19 were among the unvaccinated, and about 20 percent had not received a booster. A month earlier, after Israel vaccinated 1.5 million people with a third dose, those two groups were equally represented among the serious cases.
Over 60 percent of Israelis — the overwhelming majority of the adult population — have received at least two doses of the coronavirus vaccine.
Some experts noted that the US and Europe were several months behind Israel’s vaccination campaign and predicted those countries would follow suit in the months ahead.
“We are experiencing first a phenomenon that will become apparent likely in many other countries in the coming months and create a similar challenge there,” Balicer said. “Few, if any at all, other countries are walking in our shoes right now.”
The UK already is rolling out a booster campaign, with third doses to be offered to anyone over 50 and other vulnerable groups.
The WHO has called on rich countries to refrain from exhausting vaccine stockpiles on boosters while much of the world has yet to receive any. A third shot may be necessary for people with certain health conditions, but “boosters for the general public are not appropriate at this stage of the pandemic,” it said.
“The longer vaccine inequity persists, the more the virus will circulate and change, the longer social and economic disruptions will continue, and the higher the chances that more variants will emerge that render vaccines less effective,” it said in a statement Friday.
Balicer said that Israel, as a small country, has little effect on global supplies and that its role as the world’s laboratory provides “a very important source of knowledge” for other countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has exhorted the public to get vaccine boosters as part of his aggressive public relations campaign since taking office in June.
“Israel is the only country in the world that is giving its citizens this gift of the possibility — both legally and in terms of supply — of a booster,” he said last week.
Balicer said other states should ready national plans for the rollout of booster shots.
“Countries that vaccinated more recently should be prepared for the impact of waning vaccine immunity manifesting in midwinter, further intensifying the challenge,” he said.