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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”