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


Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists

Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists
Updated 22 September 2021

Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists

Turkey’s top Islamic cleric moves center stage, irking secularists
  • Political foes says Ali Erbas’s growing profile is at odds with the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution
ISTANBUL: When President Tayyip Erdogan opened a new court complex this month, Turkey’s senior cleric sealed the ceremony with a Muslim prayer, triggering protests from critics who said his actions contravened the secular constitution.
“Make this wonderful work beneficial and blessed for our nation, my God,” Ali Erbas said in his address, adding that many judges had “worked to bring the justice which (God) ordered.”
Erbas’s appearance at the Sept. 1 ceremony in Ankara, and the wave of opposition criticism over his comments, reflect his rising profile at the head of a state-run religious organization and the growing influence it has attained under Erdogan.
The president, whose ruling AK Party is rooted in political Islam, has overturned decades-old restrictions imposed on religion by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, placing Islam center-stage in political life.
Last year Erbas delivered the first sermon in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia after the Byzantine church-turned-museum was reconverted into a mosque. He did so while clutching a sword, saying this was traditional for preachers in mosques taken by conquest. The church was captured by Ottoman forces in 1453.
His state-run Diyanet organization, or Religious Affairs Directorate, has its own television channel which is recruiting 30 new staff. Its budget, which already matches that of an average ministry, will rise by a quarter next year to 16.1 billion lira ($1.86 billion), government data shows.
Erdogan further endorsed Erbas last week by extending his term at the Diyanet. He was with Erdogan again on Monday in New York, reciting a prayer at the opening of a skyscraper that will house Turkish diplomats based there.
Erdogan’s political foes says Erbas’s growing profile is at odds with the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution, and shows the president is using religion to boost his waning ratings ahead of an election scheduled for 2023.
“It is completely unacceptable for the Religious Affairs Directorate to be used politically by the AKP,” said Bahadir Erdem, deputy chairman of the opposition Iyi Party.
“The reason for Ali Erbas repeatedly making statements that polarize the nation is very clearly the government using religious sensitivities of those whose votes it thinks it can win,” he said.
Apart from the Diyanet’s growing prominence, secularists also fret over a sharp increase in religious ‘Imam Hatip’ schools, a 10 percent rise in mosque numbers in the last decade, the lifting of a ban on Muslim headscarves in state institutions and the taming of Turkey’s powerful military, once a bastion of secularism, all during Erdogan’s rule.
Responding to the criticism over the Diyanet, the presidency shared a picture of Ataturk standing in prayer beside a Muslim cleric at a ceremony outside Turkey’s new parliament 100 years ago, suggesting that even the founder of the secular republic gave space to religion alongside politics.
The secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) accuse Erdogan of deliberately using Erbas to distract public attention from Turkey’s mounting economic woes.
“He has put the Religious Affairs Directorate chairman on the field like a pawn,” CHP spokesman Faik Oztrak said.
Turkey’s constitution says the Diyanet must act in line with the principles of secularism, without expressing political views.
Erbas, a former theology professor who took office in 2017, has not addressed the criticism directly but says his role is limited to religious guidance.
“In line with the duty set out in the constitution to ‘enlighten society regarding religion’, our directorate is working to convey to our people in the most correct way the principles of Islam,” he said in a speech last week.
That message does not reassure secularist critics.
Erbas’s frequent presence at Erdogan’s side reveals a “very significant elevation of the role of Sunni Islam in government in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, a director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The secularist firewall of the 20th century, established by Ataturk and guarded by his successors, that has separated religion and government, and religion and education, has completely collapsed,” he said.
Erbas has courted controversy in the past. Last year his suggestion that homosexuality causes illness triggered a clash between Erdogan’s AKP and Turkey’s lawyers’ associations over freedom of expression.
But he has won support from Erdogan’s nationalist ally Devlet Bahceli.
“Turkey is a Muslim country,” he said. “The allergy against the Islamic religion of those wicked people who have broken off ties with our national and spiritual values is an incurable clinical case.”

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Kuwait condemn failed coup attempt in Sudan

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Kuwait condemn failed coup attempt in Sudan
Updated 22 September 2021

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Kuwait condemn failed coup attempt in Sudan

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Kuwait condemn failed coup attempt in Sudan

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia condemned the failed coup attempt in Sudan, Al-Arabiya TV reported on Wednesday, citing the kingdom's foreign ministry.

The United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Kuwait also condemned the failed coup attempt in Sudan and renewed their support for the Sudanese people.

Egypt, in a statement issued by its foreign ministry, also affirmed support for the transitional Sudanese government and condemned any attempt to obstruct development efforts there.

Sudanese authorities reported a coup attempt on Tuesday by a group of soldiers but said the attempt failed and that the military remains in control. 

It said the plotters were loyal to ousted president Omar Al-Bashir.  


UAE government eases face mask rules in some public places

UAE government eases face mask rules in some public places
Updated 22 September 2021

UAE government eases face mask rules in some public places

UAE government eases face mask rules in some public places

DUBAI: The UAE government has removed the mandatory requirement to wear face masks in some public places, the country’s health ministry announced Wednesday. 

The decision means it is no longer obligatory to wear masks while exercising outdoors, sitting at the beach, or by the pool.

Individuals driving in a private car alone or with members of the same household will also not be required to wear them.

Masks will also not be required in indoor places such as hair salons when people are alone. 

The decision came after the number of daily Covid-19 cases decreased by 60 per cent in August this year as compared to the same period last year.


Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge

Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge
Updated 22 September 2021

Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge

Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib struggles with coronavirus surge
  • The total number of cases seen in Idlib province has more than doubled since the beginning of August
  • Extreme poverty and the ravages of Syria’s civil war have made the situation in Idlib uniquely terrible

BEIRUT: Coronavirus cases are surging to the worst levels of the pandemic in a rebel stronghold in Syria — a particularly devastating development in a region where scores of hospitals have been bombed and that doctors and nurses have fled in droves during a decade of war.
The total number of cases seen in Idlib province — an overcrowded enclave with a population of 4 million, many of them internally displaced — has more than doubled since the beginning of August to more than 61,000. In recent weeks, daily new infections have repeatedly shot past 1,500, and authorities reported 34 deaths on Sunday alone — figures that are still believed to be undercounts because many infected people don’t report to authorities.
The situation has become so dire in the northwestern province that rescue workers known as the White Helmets who became famous for digging through the rubble of bombings to find victims now mostly ferry coronavirus patients to the hospital or the dead to burials.
“What is happening is a medical catastrophe,” the Idlib Doctors Syndicate said this week as it issued a plea for support from international aid groups.
Idlib faces all the challenges that places the world over have during the pandemic: Its intensive care units are largely full, there are severe shortages of oxygen and tests, and the vaccination rollout has been slow.
But extreme poverty and the ravages of Syria’s civil war have made the situation in Idlib uniquely terrible. Half of its hospitals and health centers have been damaged by bombing, and the health system was close to collapse even before the pandemic. A large number of medical personnel have fled the country seeking safety and opportunities abroad. Tens of thousands of its residents live in crowded tent settlements, where social distancing and even regular hand-washing are all but impossible. And increasing violence in the region is now threatening to make matters worse.
Large parts of Idlib and neighboring Aleppo province remain in the hands of Syria’s armed opposition, dominated by radical groups including Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants who have struggled to respond to the outbreak, which intensified in August, apparently driven by the more contagious delta variant and gatherings for the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha.
Cases and deaths have also been increasing in recent weeks in government-held areas and those under the control of US-backed Kurdish-led fighters in the east, but the situation appears to be worse in Idlib, though it’s hard to measure the true toll anywhere.
In response, the political arm of the insurgent group that runs Idlib has closed some markets, forced restaurants to serve outdoor meals only, and delayed the opening of schools by a week.
But most residents are daily laborers who could not survive if they stopped working, making full lockdowns impossible.
“If they don’t work, they cannot eat,” said Idlib resident Ahmad Said, who added that most people cannot even afford to buy masks.
What’s more, a population that has suffered through so much already is often too weary to follow restrictions that have tested people even in easier circumstances.
“It is as if people have gotten used to death,” said Salwa Abdul-Rahman, an opposition activist who reports on events in Idlib. “Those who were not killed by regime and Russian airstrikes are being killed now by coronavirus.”
The vaccination campaign meanwhile, has been slow, though the arrival of some 350,000 doses of a Chinese vaccine earlier this month could help. According to the World Health Organization, only about 2.5 percent of Idlib’s population has received at least one shot.
The new virus outbreak also comes amid the most serious increase in violence in Idlib, 18 months after a truce reached between Turkey and Russia who support rival sides in Syria’s conflict brought relative calm. In recent weeks, airstrikes and artillery shelling by government forces have left scores of people dead or wounded.
At Al-Ziraa hospital, Dr. Muhammad Abdullah says there is no sign that the outbreak has reached its peak yet.
But for some Idlib residents, getting infected is the least of their worries.
“We have gone through more difficult situations than coronavirus,” said resident Ali Dalati, walking through a market without wearing a mask. “We are not afraid of coronavirus.”


Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy

Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy
Updated 22 September 2021

Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy

Houthis not willing to make peace, Yemen’s parliament leader tells US envoy

DUBAI: The Iran-backed Houthi militia are unwilling to make peace in Yemen and are actually undermining efforts for hostilities to cease in the conflict-ridden country, a senior Yemeni politician said.

“We’re ready to achieve peace, but the Houthi militia has not yet agreed to do so, it has continued to deliberately undermine peace efforts and proposals, going on fighting. These indicators show they have never been willing to make peace,” Parliament speaker, Sultan Al-Barakani said as he met US envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking to discuss peace initiatives for Yemen.

The Houthis are to blame for blocking peace efforts and initiative and escalating military actions targeting civilians and facilities including Mocha port, state news agency SABA quoted the parliament leader as saying.

Al-Barakani pointed to the recent public execution of nine people, who were accused of being involved in the killing of Houthi leader Saleh Al-Samad in 2018, as an example of the militia’s crimes against the Yemeni people.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni Network for Rights and Freedoms claimed it had documented 6,476  violations committed by the Houthis against women in more than five years, involving mostly deaths and injuries caused be artillery shelling, as well as mines and other explosive devices detonating.

The rights group also said there had been 770 cases of arrests and kidnapping, 195 cases of enforced disappearance and 70 cases of torture of women in Yemen during the period from Jan. 1, 2015 to June 1, 2021.

It also confirmed cases of torture and degrading treatment against 70 women who were detained in secret and public prisons of the Houthi militia.

This amounted to false charges against their honor, as well as trafficking in their honor – according to what was reported – in the testimonies of some of the released women, the group said, leading to some of them to commit suicide.