The wages of war
The costs of continuing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are steep, socially corrosive and capable of crushing the hopes and aspirations of generations to come.
Home to just 5% of the world’s population, the region was bloodied by 17.6% of all global conflicts between 1948 and 2014. As of 2014, it accounted for 45% of all terrorist attacks, 57.5% of all refugees, 47% of the internally displaced and 68.5% of battle-related deaths.
These statistics, put out by the United Nations in its sixth Arab Human Development Report, are the latest freeze-frame snapshot in the slow-motion disaster movie that continues to unfold in the MENA region.
In the past decade or so, things have become worse. Just after the turn of the millennium, when the United Nations’ first Arab Human Development Report was published, five of 22 Arab countries were afflicted by conflict. Today, that number stands at 11.
How long will this period of multiple conflicts last? How long can it last? The report does not say, only offering the dispiriting prediction that, by 2020, nearly three out of four Arabs could be “living in countries vulnerable to conflict”. This means that the factors that fuel the region’s conflicts are likely to endure if not worsen.
First, there is the sense of historical injustice, which is particularly manifest in the daily outrages suffered by the Palestinians. The problem, which has festered for decades, continues to feed into the narrative of extremists of all stripes. A fair and lasting solution would go a long way towards easing tensions.
Add to that the sectarian divides stoked by regional powers, especially Iran, and the brew becomes ever more incendiary. This is especially so when religion is being used and abused to advance dangerously destructive arguments by extremist actors who claim to possess the absolute and non-negotiable truth.
Whatever the remedy, it is emphatically not Western military interventions, which have all too often made conflicts bloodier and more protracted.
Countries of the region must take ownership of their own problems. While much of the planet considers innovative ways to move forward, far too many MENA countries seem unable to shake off the inherited habits of old colonial administrations and the hyper-centralised mores of the post-independence states. The UN report highlights the need to take into consideration the root causes of domestic turmoil that has shaken many parts of the region since 2011.
One of the unavoidable fallouts of the rise of conflict in the region is increased military spending. Since 2009, such spending has risen about 21%. This has meant reduced investment in education, health care, infrastructure and the productive sectors. Conflicts and constrained development create a self-perpetuating spiral.
Where do we go from here? Beyond the tragic and mounting tolls in the region’s hottest of hot wars, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, there is a sense of a region on the brink. Pulling back must be a concerted and deliberate effort.