Dr. Youssef Chahed served as Prime Minister of Tunisia from August 2016 to February 2020. He is both the youngest head of government in Tunisia’s history and the longest-serving since the country’s democratic transition in 2011. During his tenure, Dr. Chahed made significant advancements in the fight against terrorism, launched an anti-corruption campaign, and navigated severe economic challenges. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Dr. Chahed served as Secretary of State for Fisheries and Minister of Local Affairs.
Currently, Dr. Chahed is a Senior Fellow with the Middle East Initiative (MEI) at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He was in residence at the Kennedy School for the 2022-2023 academic year. During his fellowship, Chahed has focused on economic, security, and other policy challenges facing the Middle East and North, particularly with respect to shifting global alliances. Dr. Chahed holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon and taught agricultural economics at the Higher Institute of Agriculture in France.
The European Union
Since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it seems we are constantly hearing about shifting priorities and alliances within the EU, particularly with respect to states of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Food, oil, and security guarantees come first to mind. In your view, has the MENA’s strategic significance grown greatly since the start of the Ukraine war? What effects has the conflict had on the region? Does this herald a new era in relations between the EU and the MENA?
Without a doubt, after February 24th, 2022, the MENA region has been under much more attention. We must keep in mind that, before the conflict in Ukraine, Western powers had placed China and Russia higher on their agenda than the MENA as part of a new global strategy. But the conflict in Ukraine has once again put the MENA area in the spotlight on a global scale. The war in Ukraine gave a more strategic role to oil and gas exporting MENA countries such as KSA, Algeria, and the UAE.
However, for others, it created food insecurity and greater internal instability, given the impact of the war on food commodities like wheat, and oil prices. Many countries in the region—Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Sudan, and Lebanon—are particularly exposed in this way. For these nations, the social and economic difficulties that COVID-19 had already aggravated were made worse by supply chain disruptions, shortages of basic commodities, and the rising inflation that followed the war in Ukraine. The cost of budgetary subsidies in these countries increased significantly as a result of the increase in food and oil prices, widening their deficits and making them more vulnerable to debt distress. This partly explains why it has been difficult for several nations, including Tunisia, Lebanon, and Egypt, to reach financial agreements with the IMF. The EU notably tried to step in to help various MENA countries by offering loans and specialized programs to secure wheat in order to prevent instability.
For MENA oil and gas producers, the conflict in Ukraine also creates strain. These countries had diverse responses to the West’s demand to enhance oil and gas production. While some nations resisted the pressure, others signed new agreements to help mainly EU member states in diversifying their energy sources. The EU’s rising interest in the Gulf region, for the sake of replacing Russian oil and gas, provided an opportunity for Gulf countries to better balance their relationships with the West and the US.
Finally, the conflict in Ukraine confirmed that the region remains strategically important and that it cannot fall to the wayside on the global agenda. It demonstrated once more that we cannot think of the MENA as a single region because effects of a global conflict vary depending on the characteristics of each nation. Having said that, I do not believe that this marks the start of a new era of cooperation between the EU and MENA countries. Rather, I believe that it marks a shift in focus for the upcoming time, with less focus being placed on political and development issues, and more on the diversification of the energy supply and regional stability in order to prevent insecurity and waves of mass immigration.
Over the past decade, China has become a major player in the MENA region at a time when longstanding US dominance over the region appeared to be gradually diminishing. What is the future of China in the Middle East? How does this relate to the standing of the United States? Where does this desire for new alliances come from?
Alliances between the MENA and the West have historically been used to provide the region with diplomatic or military support against external threats as well as, very frequently, a response to internal threats. Over time, there has been a progressive erosion of confidence and a sense that these alliances are no longer serving their intended purpose. With growing security problems in the area and the US’s relative withdrawal as the region’s most significant military power, several states in the MENA region have naturally become more concerned about security and stability. For example, the numerous attacks by the Houthis and others on Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the early months of 2019 marked, in my opinion, a turning point in how the Gulf views its historical alliances. We saw this realignment play out in Xi’s Riyadh summit this winter.
More generally, I believe that the gap between the West and the MENA has grown since the Arab Spring, due to the instability that period created. Further, the COVID problem highlighted unequal access to vaccinations between poor and wealthy nations, and the way the economic crisis was handled all contributed to a decline of trust in the Western system. Thus, it may be said that the desire to think or develop new alliances is a direct consequence or a reaction to a perception of less efficient traditional alliances in the Middle East. The relative reduction of US presence in the region that began in the middle of the previous decade then made space for other nations—particularly China—and the potential for numerous new alliances. Countries can now maintain multiple alliances in the East and the West depending on their mutual interests, which was previously impossible.
The relative erosion of Western influence in the MENA region and China’s growing role, in my opinion, will not, however, result in the formal establishment of a new order. Even while we might anticipate greater Chinese economic influence, MENA relations and interests with the West continue to be strong after so many years, despite many disappointments. The US continues to play a big role in the MENA region and has significant investments there. Particularly relevant to this is its heavy military presence. No new security alliance, in my opinion, could take the place of existing ones, and I find it hard to believe that anyone in the area would be interested in doing so, especially in light of the rising risks in the neighborhood.
Is Russia’s influence in this region, in your opinion, temporary, or do you think it will remain? What contribution could Russia make to the trends we’ve already covered? What potential effects could the war in Ukraine have on Russia’s power and ability to intervene in the MENA region?
Although it played a role in Syria and in Libya, I don’t think Russia will displace or replace the US and the West as key actors in the MENA area. Once more, the relative waning of Western dominance and influence over the past ten years has paved the path for an increase in relationships, alliances, and regional powers—including with Russia. Russia’s involvement in Libya is the best illustration. Between 2016 and 2020, the international reaction to the Libyan crisis was poorly planned and coordinated. American and European positions were inconsistent, and UN delegates offered inadequate assistance. Even if there is less Russian interest and influence in Libya following the war in Ukraine, this allowed for more Russian presence in the region and the deployment of the Wagner militias in Libya and in several African countries.
Regarding the future, I believe that alliances in the MENA region will continue to shift and adjust to various parameters (depending also on where we are in the region), but the main driver will continue to be security and stability. Also, food security will be an incentive for alliances and a crucial parameter for many MENA countries. So once more, these nations will continue to be interested in alliances that offer a strong, long-term, and clear security commitment for the area with a better impact on internal and external security, as well as support in economic success. Because no alternative could “give” the region that, despite the new circumstances, I do not anticipate a significant change in economic and security ties in the area. This does not suggest that the existing relationships with the West can stay as they are, but it does underline the need for improvements, new ideas, and a better mutual understanding when shaping these partnerships.
The theme of our issue for JMEPP this year is identity in the Middle East. Clearly, Russian and Chinese influence is expanding in MENA. How do you think those identities are being received by people in the region? Do you see a crisis of identity between democratic and authoritarian types in the Arab World?
China is seen by many people in the MENA countries as a friendly nation–neutral and apolitical. It has no colonial history and has succeeded in developing a strong economy thanks to what is perceived as good governance. Chinese diplomacy is deftly exploiting this through robust and extensive financial support to MENA and African countries. For Russia, there is also certainly a sympathy in the Arab street, but I believe that is more a way of challenging the western paradigm than a true adherence.
Considering a potential identity crisis between democratic and authoritarian political ideologies in the Arab World, we must acknowledge that many people in the Arab world now hold the opinion that democracy is not the ideal form of government and can’t solve the region’s problems. Many think that their nation simply needs a strong leader who can fix the economy, and this belief is probably not unique to the Arab world. They are more concerned with an efficient government than they are with its particular structure.
This is a consequence of the deterioration of the social and economic situation in many MENA countries after COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, but also to the democratization process initiated by the Arab Spring. This process has created more instability and more social division among countries that were historically at the center of the Arab world (Egypt and Syria for example) and did not provide economic prosperity and better social justice. Also, in the region, we have countries that have promoted models of good governance that deliver prosperity and welfare, and can be attractive for other countries. Nonetheless, even if certain people are skeptical of the merits of the democratic system, this does not imply that they prefer authoritarian governments; rather, it emphasizes the need to build a democracy that delivers first security, economic prosperity, and general welfare.