Iran and Africanization of the Middle East

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mohsen Shariatinia
Ph.D., Researcher at The Center for Strategic Research (CSR), Tehran


For many years, the Middle East and Africa are considered as one region in many divisions of geographical regions. However, it was difficult in the past to establish a meaningful relationship between these two regions because people in large parts of the Middle East lived in the lap of luxury while African people were plagued with endless woes. However, as time goes by similarities between the Middle East and Africa increase more and more. The following report is an effort to shed light on the expanding similarities between these two regions and their consequences for Iran.

Various dimensions of Africanization of the Middle East

The similarities that exist between the Middle East and Africa can be divided into several groups:

1. The first and most important similarity between these two regions is the existence of unbridled violence, which has swept through large parts of the Middle East. It goes without saying that extensive violence has been historically one of the main characteristics of Africa and even now in all pictures that are released by various media from this region, violence is a key part of those pictures.

In the Middle East as well, unbridled violence has spread over a vast geographical expanse of the region in recent years. Therefore, it would be no exaggeration if we considered the Middle East today as the most violent region in the world. The highest number of casualties resulting from violent conflicts take place in this region, the most heinous scenes that are posted in the cyberspace come from this region, and the densest concentration of terrorist groups can be found in this region.

2. The second similarity between these two regions can be seen in multitudes of homeless and futureless people. During recent decades, Africa has been a major place where refugees and defenseless people came from, but now the Middle East ranks first in this regard. Although refugees have had a long record in the Middle East, during recent years and as a result of a wave of new wars, a big chunk of the Middle East’s population has been driven from their homes and a great percentage of people who risk their lives and go to the Western countries hail from the Middle East.

In addition, breakout of endless wars over a vast geographical expanse in the Middle East has made definition of a clear “future” for growing portions of people in this region practically impossible. It is evident that a futureless human being does not have many options to choose from. They should either cross this wilderness of horror or join the army of extremism and radicalism. Therefore, as time goes by, the ships and boats carrying refugees to Europe become more overflowed with people as the army of terrorist groups also grows day by day. In other words, in these ships, people from the Middle East and Africa share a common narrative of life.

3. The third similarity between these two regions can be considered as the collapse and failure of the government institution. The government institution has never been an attractive phenomenon over a vast expanse of the Middle East. Now, however, in the absence of government, important parts of the region are experiencing catastrophic chaos. In Africa, this weakness of government dates back to several decades ago. Apart from such exceptional cases as the South Africa and Egypt in past decades, the government in vast parts of Africa has been always weak and engulfed by all kinds of corruption and the structural weakness of this institution has caused security, even in the Hobbesian sense of the word to be a scarcity in this region.

Now, the government institution is facing multilayered internal and external challenges in large parts of the Middle East and it is unlikely that this institution would be able to deal with these challenges. As a result, increasingly more groups challenge the government’s exclusive right to take advantage of legitimate force and, in doing so, make its domain more and more limited. The terrorist al-Shabab group, for example, has been in control of a large part of the central and southern regions of Somalia. Boko Haram terrorist group has turned into a bitter reality of life in Nigeria. In Sudan, the rebel groups continued their war until it led to the division of the country.

In a similar manner, one of the most important geopolitical features of the Middle East in recent years has been mushrooming of terrorist groups, especially those groups that unlike the past, are not targeting the West, but their main goal is to cause collapse of the government institution in the entirety of the region. These groups have worn out governments in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan so much so that the Taliban group sets condition of sitting for negotiations with the government of Afghanistan. Taliban is now pursuing its own foreign policy just as is true about al-Nusra Front and ISIS. The Iraqi army, which was once a formidable force, is now losing ground to ISIS. It is evident that as is the case with Africa, Taliban, ISIS and al-Nusra Front have turned into part of the reality in the Middle East and have stripped regional governments of their exclusive right.

To this list can be added a host of other small and big similarities to claim that the Middle East is undergoing Africanization. This means that from the viewpoint of models of engagement, multitudes of futureless people, as well as weakness, corruption and collapse of the government institution, this region is showing growing similarities to Africa. To put it in a symbolic way, the borders of Africa have expanded in recent years and have encompassed vast territories in the Middle East.

Consequences of Africanization of the Middle East

1. The first consequence of Africanization of the Middle East is reduction of this region’s strategic value. It is clear that at present, the Middle East does not have the same strategic value that it had during the 1970s and 1980s, or even during the first two decades following the Cold War. For this reason, big powers, topped by the United States, are not willing like the past to get engaged in this region. In other words, big powers and especially the United States, are changing their large-scale strategy toward this region from deep engagement to minimum engagement and finally disengagement.

Increase and decrease in the strategic value of various regions, countries and even cities has been a natural course of events throughout history of mankind. Once upon a time, Baghdad was considered a glamorous megalopolis, but is now the capital of international political woes. Due to the influence of several trends, especially the aforesaid trends, but also including reduced strategic significance of crude oil, exponential increase in the intensity of problems in this region, devastating inefficiency of the policy of big powers and regional players, as well as destruction of infrastructure over vast parts of the region strategic value of the Middle East has been dwindling. Few stable countries that exist in this region with future prospect can hardly avoid being caught in the wave of Africanization of the Middle East, just in the same way that powerful African governments have been suffering the consequences of neighborhood with this region for several decades. The most difficult question facing the elites now is how the few stable countries in the region would possibly manage these maladies.

2. Turning into a power and remaining a power is too costly in the Middle East. As said before, a number of factors have caused some sort of zero-sum interaction and destruction of infrastructure to turn into lasting trends in this region. Turning into a power and remaining a power in such a region will prove to be extremely costly for any country, including Iran, due to two reasons. The first is maximum opposition by the majority of regional and transregional powers to increased influence of other countries, and the second reason is that the main cost for the reconstruction of the region would fall on the shoulders of the dominant power and Iran is right now paying a remarkably high price in this regard. Of course, paying such a cost is not special to Iran, because the United States also paid an exuberant price for domination over this region, though it finally failed to achieve this goal. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost a total of about USD 6,000 billion for the United States.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have been also moving toward gaining dominance in the region during recent years, are currently paying increasing costs. Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit for 2015 has been estimated to add up to USD 38 billion and there is no doubt that growing costs of the country’s activities in the region play a key role in this issue. According to a study by the World Bank, indirect cost of war in Syria and emergence of ISIS terrorist group for regional economy stood at USD 35 billion by the end of 2014.

The result of another study carried out by the United Nations on the costs imposed on Syria through the civil war in the country, which was published in March 2015, showed that the war in Syria has taken 80 percent of Syrian people below the poverty line, reduced life expectancy to 20 years, and inflicted more than USD 200 billion of damage to the  country’s economy. According to the same report, about three million Syrians have lost their jobs during the first four years of this war. This  means that 12 million people, who are members of these people’s families, have lost their main source of income. Therefore, unemployment rate in Syria has increased from 14.9 percent in 2011 to 57.5 percent in 2014. At present, four out of energy five Syrians live below the poverty line. On the other hand, continuation of catastrophic  clashes combined with economic collapse has caused the population in  Syria to fall from 20.87 million in 2010 to 17.65 at the end of 2014. In  other words, the country’s population has decreased by 15 percent. A similar situation can be imagined for Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and to some extent, Egypt. It is clear that dominant powers in the region  should undertake a remarkable part of the costs of the reconstruction of  these territories, of course, if suitable conditions exist for peace.

If the costs of gaining power in the Middle East were compared with the costs of gaining similar power in other regions of the world, the differences in the payment of such costs would become clear. For example, China in East Asia, Brazil in South America, Kazakhstan in Central Asia and Indonesia in Southeast Asia have turned into dominant powers of their respective regions during the past decade while paying the lowest cost. However, efforts made by countries to turn into dominant powers in the Middle East have been accompanied with whopping costs and low degree of success. Now, the question that should be addressed here is “what is the proportion between the costs of Iran gaining power in the Middle East and its achievements?” Isn’t it time to rethink the path taken to increase the country’s power and steer away from this doomed destination?

Key Words: Iran, Africanization, Middle East, Violence, Strategic Value, Power, Shariatinia

More By Mohsen Sahriatinia:

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*Iran and China Moving toward Expanded Cooperation?:

*Photo Credit: PBS,

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