Instability in the Sahel and a worsening pandemic threaten stability in the MENA Region  

10 December 2020

In its second and concluding online meeting in 2020, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group (GSM), met to discuss and adopt two reports. The meeting, held on 11 December 2020, was presided over by Senator Gilbert Roger (France), the Group’s ad interim Chair. The meeting brought together 30 members of parliament from 18 NATO member states. 

At the meeting, members adopted reports on Development and Security Challenges in the Sahel, by the Group’s Rapporteur Ahmet Berat Conkar (Turkey), and on The COVID-19 Pandemic and the MENA Region, authored by Senator Roger. In addition, Giovanni Romani, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Section at NATO’s Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, discussed NATO’s role in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  

Mr Conkar began his remarks by cataloguing the serious problems the Sahel region confronts. These include economic instability, extreme poverty, climate change, rapid population growth, youth unemployment, political and social fragility, corruption, terrorism, and a global pandemic.  

The Rapporteur suggested that terrorism and irregular migration from the Sahel are critical concerns. But conflating these two distinct phenomena is problematic as the sources of each are highly complex. Security challenges in the Sahel and irregular migration, he said, have had serious political, social, and economic consequences both for North African and European countries. The problem, he said, has also become a burden sharing issue in Europe itself.  

The rapporteur noted that the French-led Operation Serval had prevented terrorist groups from seizing the city of Bamako. Operation Barkhane, also led by France, has worked to secure a territory the size of Europe.  

Mr Conkar suggested that restoring stability in Libya would help counter terrorism, foster reginal economic development, and address irregular migration in the broader Sahel. Supporting an inclusive political and reconciliation process in Libya, he added, should remain a goal for NATO. 

In presenting his draft report on The COVID-19 Pandemic and the MENA Region, Senator Roger noted that the epidemiological situation has worsened significantly in recent months, but that it is difficult to generalise. Indeed, the MENA region is heterogenous, and levels of development vary considerably. The Gulf countries, for example, enjoy strong public health care systems and have a capacity to respond to the epidemic in ways that war-torn countries like Yemen, Libya, and Syria do not.  

The Rapporteur also noted that the region has been struck by a global recession linked to the pandemic. Lockdowns, breaks in supply chains, falling demand, rising unemployment, and the flight of investment capital have upended the international economic system. Meanwhile, the global demand for oil and gas, a key source of wealth in the region, has fallen substantially, and this has had a series of knock-on effects throughout the region.  

Sadly, Senator Roger said, disease and recession have taken an outsized toll on vulnerable groups like informal workers, refugees, women, and children throughout the region. This is not simply a humanitarian challenge; it poses a genuine risk to social and political stability. Several governments in the region, however, have fortunately managed to tailor policies to assist these vulnerable groups.  

Roger suggested that NATO itself must remain engaged with this region and work to deepen its vital partnerships. Its security dialogue with partner countries in North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf has cultivated a deeper awareness of a shared stake in regional stability. NATO is in a position to contribute to regional peace and stability which is an essential precondition to beginning the long road to recovery from this terrible pandemic. 

These themes were taken up by Mr Romani. He addressed the members of the GSM on NATO’s current approach to and principles of working with partners in the MENA region and the Sahel. He also talked about some potential future directions for the Alliance. This includes increasing NATO’s situational awareness, enhancing dialogue with existing partners, and exploring new partnership opportunities to address common security challenges. He stressed that engagement and exchanges with members of parliament in the region were very important. He was looking forward to further strengthen ties on such efforts with the NATO PA and the GSM in particular. 

At the conclusion of the meeting members of the Special Group elected Sonia Krimi (France) as GSM Chairperson and Luca Frusone (Italy) as Vice Chairperson.