Achieving security in the region

Eman Ragab
Tuesday 9 Jul 2024

Dealing with the immediate causes and impacts of conflicts is not enough to bring genuine security and stability to the region, writes Eman Ragab


Although the interest of the international community in resolving the conflicts in the Middle East is a sign of its eagerness to help achieve security and stability in this part of the world, its interest is almost entirely trained on matters immediately related to these conflicts.

It focuses on current developments, the balance of military power, offensive or defencive tactics, the magnitude of death and destruction, and the interactions of the different belligerents with negotiations and peace initiatives.  

This approach has been evident in the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza since 7 October 2023, the Sudanese conflict since April 2023, and the intractable conflicts in Libya, Yemen, and Syria that began in 2011.

Undeniably important as these things are, other crucial dimensions of security and stability in the region are not being given sufficient attention or are being overlooked entirely, not just by the international community, but also by the countries of the region themselves. Yet, these forgotten dimensions have major bearings on security in the broadest sense.

One such dimension is the growth of illicit cross-border narcotics trafficking in the region. The German Federal Criminal Police (BKA) has found that the protracted war in Syria has helped transform the country into a factory for Captagon pills, for example, with these then being smuggled out into neighbouring countries and from there to Europe.

According to the BKA, a Captagon pill costs about $3, making it cheaper than other narcotics on the market. Because of increases in the demand for the pills, the value of Captagon trafficking rose to $57 billion in 2023.

In their efforts to curb such drug-trafficking, many countries in the region have looked for international help, and this has helped them put narcotics-detection and smuggling-prevention measures in place at land borders and air and seaports.

A second dimension is the spread of forged identification papers and other legal documents, which, like other transnational crimes, finds fertile soil in the insecurity and anarchy caused by armed conflicts. Such fake documents can be used to facilitate not only the illicit movement of peoples, but also the smuggling of money, gold, gems and other assets out of conflict zones and into more stable countries.  

According to the latest Global Organised Crime Index report issued by the Global Initiative to Combat Transnational Crime (GI-TOC), the Egyptian-Sudanese border has witnessed a surge in such illicit activities since the outbreak of the armed conflict between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in April 2023. The report also noted an increase in heroin smuggling into Sudan, whether as a final destination or as part of the transit route to West Asian countries using smuggling networks through the ports overlooking the Red Sea.  

Increased migrant flows are a third dimension. Transnational crime networks are frequently at work here through migrant-smuggling and human-trafficking rings that take advantage of people’s desperation to flee countries that have fallen into the grips of armed conflict and seek refuge in safer countries, even if that means at serious risk to their lives.

Recent reports on migrant flows in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have observed that the Israeli war on Gaza since 7 October last year has driven numerous Gazans into the arms of smuggling rings promising to take them to Europe. The transit routes pass through intermediate stops in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, from where the migrants are transported by sea to southern Europe. In addition to the risk of drowning because of the rickety condition of the boats used for smuggling, the migrants are often exposed to theft, extortion, or other forms of exploitation by the smugglers.

The actual and potential impacts of these three dimensions on the security of the region should not be underestimated. Their effects can sometimes be more profound, far-reaching, and intractable than the immediate effects of direct clashes between belligerents in a war zone. This is due to the added layers of complexity generated by cross-border spillovers into neighbouring countries and the wider region, even if those countries are not directly party to the conflict.

The countries of this region should reconsider how they manage conflicts in neighbouring countries. Above all, they should prioritise policies aimed at developing the capacities of national institutions to sound early warnings of the three types of dangers mentioned above and pre-empt or curb their detrimental impacts on their societies.

This will require serious cooperation with regional and international bodies with the appropriate expertise, such as the EU, the relevant UN bodies, and regional security and research centres.


The writer is director-general of the Regional Expertise Centre for Combating Drugs and Crime at NAUSS.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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