Security Challenges in the Sahel and the Threat Covid-19 Poses to the Middle East and North Africa discussed in NATO Parliamentary Assembly Meeting

08 July 2020

Video of the meeting can be found at the bottom of the page

In a first for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group (GSM), members gathered online to consider the initial version of its two reports for 2020. Unable to hold a normal interparliamentary meeting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group met via an online platform. The meeting, held on 8 July 2020, was presided over by Philippe Folliot (France), the GSM’s Chair. Members considered two draft reports: a paper by the Group’s Rapporteur, Ahmet Berat Conkar (Turkey), on Development and Security Challenges in the Sahel and a Special Report by Philippe Folliot on The COVID-19 Pandemic and the MENA Region. Parliamentarians from both NATO member and partner countries participated in the discussions.  

Earlier in the afternoon, Assembly members held a special meeting chaired by NATO PA President Attila Mesterhazy (HU) to examine the ongoing Libyan crisis and help bridge the differences between NATO members which were brought to light in recent weeks. 

Mr Conkar began his remarks by noting that the Sahel region of Africa is vast and home to 150 million people. But insecurity is spreading across porous borders with dramatic repercussions not only for the region’s inhabitants but also for its neighbours. The rapporteur said that armed movements linked to Al Qaeda or Daesh are now operating throughout the Central Sahel, and there are signs that the region’s states have begun to lose control of the security situation in some areas. 

He suggested that a deep crisis of confidence has emerged between vulnerable populations and their governments, creating a fertile environment for extremist propaganda and terrorist recruitment.  

Political instability and economic failure are central factors in mass migration. But those making these journeys risk falling victim to criminal groups, Mr Conkar noted. He pointed out that that drugs and arms dealers often follow the same smuggling routes while terrorists have forged important links to criminal organisations operating in the region. This has only raised the level of violence while poisoning intercommunity relations and undermining respect for traditional authority and state institutions.  

Precarious living conditions and widespread social marginalisation mean that young unemployed men are effectively prevented from marrying and acquiring a modicum of social status. This is fundamentally destabilising, Mr Conkar suggested, and it is occurring just when corruption has fuelled a crisis in public trust in state institutions. 

The rapporteur also noted that purely military responses to the growing security crisis could plunge the region into a vicious cycle in which military operations inflict heavy costs on local populations and drive more residents into the hands of violent extremist groups. He suggested that the appeal of the so-called global jihad carries much less weight than the unlawful detention of loved ones, the struggle for access to grazing areas or the quest for recognition within the village.  

The rapporteur suggested that a more coherent framework for coordination among the various international actors operating in the region is needed to stabilise the region and to address more enduring political, social, economic, and security challenges. Simple solutions will not work, and military initiatives alone certainly will not address the underlying problems, he said.  

The disproportionate allocation of funds and resources to border management and the lack of economic alternatives for vulnerable communities suggest that this problem will continue and could well worsen over the coming years. Military and humanitarian responses, even when well-coordinated, he concluded, cannot substitute for genuinely political solutions. A new social contract is ultimately needed between the Sahel states and their people.  

The second half of the meeting was dedicated to Mr Folliot’s draft report on The COVID-19 Pandemic and the MENA Region.  

Mr Folliot said that he had produced a special report The COVID-19 Pandemic and the MENA Region because the disease and the shutdowns needed to contain it posed a compelling public health, security, and economic threat to the region. This is of direct interest to Allied countries, he added. While the first COVID-19 case in the MENA Region was registered in January 2020, the greater problem in much of the region so far has been the secondary effects arising out of disease-driven shutdowns, the fall of trade, the collapse of energy prices, and the evisceration of the travel and tourism industries.  

Mr Folliot told the parliamentarians that the spread of the disease and lockdowns have exacted a particularly high toll on vulnerable groups like refugees, women, children, and informal workers throughout the region.  

There are mounting concerns about the capacity of the region’s huge refugee and IDP communities to cope with the disease, particularly as many are living in highly precarious and densely crowded circumstances and because health care infrastructure is very poor in many countries in the region.  

The regional economic outlook is particularly worrying, Mr Folliot argued. Domestic demand has fallen, trade and foreign investment have collapsed, while the global demand for energy, a key source of wealth in the region, has plunged along with oil and gas prices. A price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia has only exacerbated the problem.  

Social and economic disparities could mount as a result of recession. Although confinement measures have slowed social and political protests in parts of the region, “the situation will not remain frozen for long”, Mr Folliot warned. He added that “instability and frustration could also benefit terrorist groups operating in the region”. Yet there are also new opportunities for dialogue arising out of the pandemic such as the very limited but potentially important discussions among Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas on matters pertaining to containing the pandemic. 

Mr Folliot concluded by suggesting that the international community must remain vigilant. Aid budgets are now at risk, and there is a compelling need for a coordinated international response. NATO governments will need to work more closely with the governments of the region and international organisations to foster conditions for building a durable peace. This is particularly important at a moment when COVID-19 is exposing serious tensions and exacerbating conflict in the region.  

The two draft reports the GSM considered at the meeting will be revised over the summer for their second and final reading at the annual GSM seminar, which is expected to be held in Italy this autumn.