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The effects of climate change, the global economic crisis, the fallout of the war in Ukraine and the US’ evolving Middle East strategy have created a perfect storm that leaves some of the world’s most vulnerable people in the MENA region even more desperate.
US President Joe Biden may claim his Middle East tour to Israel and Saudi Arabia was about regional security and building a guard against Iranian nuclear capabilities. But securing more oil production from Saudi Arabia to ease inflation was always going to be addressed as well.
The trip to Saudi Arabia in particular was a vast detour from Biden’s prior promises to make the country a pariah state. When first in office, Biden pledged to implement a human rights-focused foreign policy. But the global reliance on oil and the disruption caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to Biden’s infamous fist bump with Mohammed bin Salman (known commonly as MBS).
MBS officially holds the roles of crown prince, minister of defense, and deputy prime minister in addition to being the kingdom’s de facto ruler. MBS has been described as a “psychopath” by a former Saudi spy chief. Despite MBS’ denials that he ordered the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by a Saudi hit squad at the consulate in Istanbul, the CIA concluded otherwise.
Since coming to power, MBS has liberalized Saudi Arabia by giving women the right to drive, stripping the religious police of their power, and allowing music concerts and the opening of cinemas. But critics believe these changes are largely cosmetic. Freedom House’s 2022 report labeled Saudi Arabia as Not Free and one of the 10 least free countries on the planet. In the Middle East and North Africa, only Syria is less free.
Biden’s visit to Saudi came after a stop in Israel. Once on the ground, Biden showed his support by saying “you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist.
Biden also met the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, where he reiterated support for a two-state solution and vowed to improve the daily lives of the Palestinian people. While this is more than Palestinians could expect under the Trump administration, the disparity between the lives of Palestinians and Israelis has become so extreme that it has been described by Amnesty International as a system of apartheid.
Meanwhile, in Syria, civilians are also suffering from a myriad of crises.
“Syria is being impacted by several factors such as ongoing conflict, a worsening drought, an economic crisis, and the war in Ukraine’s impact on food and fuel prices making it nearly impossible for Syrians to meet their basic needs,” Nicole Hark, deputy country director of Mercy Corps in Syria, told Fanack via email.
The war in Ukraine has had an enormous impact on the global food supply. Of course, some of these issues, particularly those related to issues such as drought, predated the war but have now been inflamed to the point of crisis.
“Even before Ukraine, bread was already becoming increasingly unaffordable. Around 90% of wheat imported from Turkey into Northwest Syria is of Ukrainian origin and this region does not have sufficient local wheat production to cover its bread needs,” Hark said. “From 2021 to 2022, wheat production fell from 700,000 to 33,500 tons, in part because less land is able to be cultivated due to drought.”
Many Syrians are now food insecure and relying on foreign aid programs. But even those programs may soon be at risk.
Russia and China recently vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution to renew a crucial aid delivery program to Syrians in the opposition-held northwest. After negotiations, a renewal was agreed but only for six months, meaning aid delivery will need to be renegotiated in the heart of winter.
“We are deeply concerned that the resolution is only authorized for six months and will expire during the winter, when people will be in need of aid the most,” Hark said.
China and Russia argue that any aid provided to Syria should go through the government. Both countries have maintained relations with the Assad government, even when various governments globally cut official ties with Syria.
More recently however, the United Arab Emirates was host to Bashar Assad’s first trip to an Arab country since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The trip signaled the UAE’s intent to begin normalizing relations with the Syrian dictator. Both Bahrain and Jordan have also taken steps to restart relations with Syria, while Syria’s minister of tourism traveled to a conference in Saudi Arabia in 2021.
Though Saudi Arabia is still hesitant to fully readmit Syria back into the Arab League, a September summit in Algeria could further the normalization of the Assad regime. The normalization would whitewash years of human rights abuses by the Assad regime. Of course, should Syria be fully readmitted into the Arab League, Assad would be among peers as the leader of a country with no legitimate political freedom or democratic process.
The United States and Russia’s short-term politicking is directly harming the people of the Middle East. While little can be expected of the increasingly dictatorial regime of Vladimir Putin, more should be demanded from the world’s democracies – like that of the United States.
As these global superpowers prioritize short term interests of the empire over human rights in the Middle East, the people of the region – and particularly the poor, the vulnerable, refugees – will suffer the most.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our writers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.