What does the future hold for the Middle East and North Africa? The second Rome MED Regional Meeting held last week provided an opportunity for experts to analyse and comment on the trends and challenges facing the region. The discussion was framed around MED’s 4 core pillars: Security, Prosperity, Migration, and Culture & Civil Society. Today’s MED This Week newsletter sheds light on some of the key issues brought forth by the event’s kick-off speakers: from the reawakening of the Islamic State, to the drivers of change and the importance of taking a bottom-up approach to migration and civil society in the region.
Even in the MENA region, 2020 can be deemed as having been the year of chaos. Will 2021 be the year of clarity? Or does turmoil still lay ahead? And if so, can we peep into the future to see what we may change today? These and many other points of reflection for the region’s future were explored during the Rome MED Regional Meeting “The road ahead: what is in store for the MENA region in 2021 and beyond?”, held on March 31st. Through an extensive foresight exercise, involving 25 experts of both the North and South shore of the broader Mediterranean region, from 19 different Think Tanks, the possible future pathways with regards to security, prosperity, migration, and civil society were investigated. Participants explored the impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the possible effects of the looming climate crisis, the consequences of growing socioeconomic inequalities and everchanging security threats, and the influence of new and re-emerging actors in the region. A heterogeneous and ever-changing region like the MENA might seem unsuitable to an exercise of foresight, and pressing short-term issues trump the need to envision solutions in the long-term. However, it is precisely because of the region’s dynamic nature and fluctuating policy landscapes that foresight is crucial.
Keeping an eye out for the Islamic State
“The trend since last year has been very clear, and while we are not back to 2014, we do see a remarkable uptick in attacks from ISIS. There is also a development, for which we are not prepared, and that is that the recruitment target is moving further towards younger people, even under the age of 15, to perpetrate attacks. Young people have suffered the most from the pandemic when it comes to mental health, and I think it's always brushed off, but it is especially into this sense of despair that the Islamic State is tapping into”.
Florence Gaub, Deputy Director, European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS)
Reactions to a shared perception of American withdrawal
“The factor that is affecting the largest number of actions and decisions across the entirety of the region is the widespread perception of American withdrawal. And that perception is driving decisions by friends and adversaries alike, as they anticipate the vacuum that it will create. The reality is that the United States has not withdrawn by any actual concrete measure, whether it is the number of US forces in the regions, or its economic engagement and trade. So, the question is, how will Joe Biden and his administration act to either reinforce or change these perceptions in 2021?”
William F. Wechsler, Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Middle East Programs, Atlantic Council, USA
The importance of non-traditional security threats
“I would like to provide foresight into the unfolding of 2021 by focusing on the non-traditional kind of security threats and challenges we tend to underestimate: the issues of public health security, climate change and its impact especially in the region, and socio-economic inequalities. In Jordan, for example, there has been a 30% increase in poverty since last year, given the pandemic and its consequences. The official unemployment rate in Jordan has also grown because of the pandemic. These factors, combined with the perception of the region’s stability, especially with regards to the American foreign policy agenda, will lead to a rewriting of the rules of the game.”
Zaid Eyadat, Director, Center for Strategic Studies (CSS), Jordan
Build back better and focus on the drivers of change
“Regarding 2021, two aspects are very important: first, we need to focus on building forward better, as countries in the region cannot go back to old ways of implementing economic and structural reforms; they must be stronger and more resilient to be able to face any new crises. Second, we need to focus on what we call the drivers of change. Some of the most important ones include institutional and structural reforms, social justice, inclusion, the role of women and external debt relief. At the regional level, the drivers of change are much bigger intraregional trade in commodity and services, cooperation in building digital infrastructure and in setting common intellectual property rights rules.”
Abla Abdel Latif, Executive Director and Director of Research, ECES, Egypt
Macroeconomic policies: the crucial issue
“Governments are struggling on one side with the short-term macroeconomic management of the Covid impact and its consequences on short-term poverty, and on the other side, with facing the challenges of deeper structural transformations that are affecting our societies. Macroeconomic policies must have our attention: financial risks have accumulated in the banking sector (shadow banks and other financial institutions), public debt has increased significantly, and monetary policies have exhausted their margin of manoeuvre in many countries.”
Karim El Aynaoui, President, Policy Center for the New South, Morocco
Cities and local decision-makers could play a pivotal role in the future of migration policies
“When it comes to migration, we always consider nation-states as the key actors in charge of managing migration and setting migration policies. There is more, and I am referring particularly to the role of local decision-makers and policymakers. By working closely with mayors and city leaders in Africa and Europe, I honestly believe that they will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of mobility in the regions. Most migrants move to cities and between cities. When we consider who we should be looking to make a difference in this aspect, I believe that paying some attention to cities and their mayors as political figures in the upcoming years could be an important shift to better manage the reality of migration on both sides of the Mediterranean as well as focusing on sectors of the green economy and the pandemic.”
Marta Foresti, Director, ODI Europe
The brain-drain will be one of the most pressing challenges for Arab countries in the years ahead
“There is one crucial and relevant phenomenon for the region's future: the departure of skilled workers and highly educated youth. It is worth recalling that these are not pressed to take the illegal routes, as they're actively recruited by countries that need skilled workers. Nevertheless, I think this is going to be a crucial problem for the region and that, in the long run, it will pose an unprecedented development challenge to the Arab countries. At the same time, this should be the source for finding alternative ways for a different type of cooperation with the EU.”
Canan Atilgan, Head, Department Middle East and North Africa, KAS, Germany
Culture & Civil Society
A bottom-up approach for political change
“There are very interesting experiments happening in the space of Lebanese civil society, and in other countries as well, with small groups that are beginning to form and that have already established themselves as political entities. These groups and associations are learning how to form a political party, how to create and implement an agenda, how to do grassroots build up and gain support from the community. With time they are now transforming themselves into an actual political platform that is a useful tool for political change, highlighting the relevance and impact of a bottom-up approach”.
Maha Yahya, Director, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center
In anticipation of the Regional Meeting, ISPI conducted an expert survey that served as a prompt for the foresight exercise that followed during the event. The survey questions were framed around the development of predictions for the MENA region in the realm of security, prosperity, migration, and civil society. These are the results of that survey.