Silvia Fuselli serves as the Secretary for Rotaract DC
“Never Let a Good Crisis Go To Waste” - Winston S. Churchill
The Middle East is consumed by chaos and violence more today than in its modern history. However, time when the dust of war settles will come to be, and the need for economic, social and human reconstruction will dazzle the eyes of anyone seeking high-yield investment opportunities. Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey should not miss the boat. As the largest commercial partners of Syria, home to its displaced human capital, as well as the most impacted by war and its repercussions, they could stand as the prime beneficiaries from the regional rebuilding by converting in opportunity what the crisis has made a necessity.
As the Syrian war enters its fifth year, the country teeters on the verge of collapse. Its economic foundations are virtually annihilated and its population has plummeted by 15%, as of the end of 2014. 10 million Syrians have plunged into poverty, while 3.5 million are malnourished. Furthermore, the country’s education sector has been decimated, with 3 million children forced out from school. From a 95% pre-war enrollment rate, now Syria displays the lowest in the world.
The shock of war has redrawn the socio-economic profile of the Levant countries by disrupting the main trade routes as well as abruptly halting the intra-regional integration process. Between the early and late 2000s, indeed, the intra-Levant trade had experienced a seven-fold growth, touching an annual average of $29.7 billion between 2008 and 2010. Additionally, local governments’ diversion of national resources from productive investment to humanitarian assistance and defense spending has resulted in higher indebtedness and weaker economic growth expectations. Worse yet, the weaponization in the region is floating the spectrum of a trade war, as international players other than the U.S. and Russia are on the lookout for new markets to export military technology. China, notably, is spearheading the expedition
The monumental human displacement has remolded the demographics of the region. Those who have been fortunate enough to escape from atrocities in Syria have flocked to the adjoining countries, which were already striving to fulfill their development needs. In Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, nearly 4 million registered refugees are now putting tremendous pressure on economies, government budgets, public services, and infrastructures. Consequently, while poverty and vulnerability are tangibly growing among refugees, hosting communities are facing increasing hardship in accessing services and employment opportunities. Social unrest churns within a mounting humanitarian fatigue.
Refugees will not return to Syria anytime soon. They represent the most outrageous of all economic and social costs of a conflict that, along with the rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Daesh, have caused a reversal from years of relative economic growth, foregone trade opportunities, disruption of domestic economic structures, loss of productive and skilled labor, redistribution of wealth and resources, semi-collapse of public services, social tensions, endemic uncertainty and, not least, appalling deterioration of the security environment. The overarching question, then, becomes how proactively dealing with opportunities instead of actively addressing the crisis, how making the refugees an asset for hosting countries and helping unlock the region’s dormant potential.
In this regard, the private sector retains strategic value. Vibrant and dynamic, with a knack for innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and appetite for business opportunities, the private sector can help reverse existing downward trends, such as youth unemployment, whose regional rate is the highest in the world. Businesses, however, cannot operate in an institutional and human vacuum. In fact, their scope and reach are often impaired by weak institutional frameworks, which fail to create investment-friendly environments, reduce uncertainty, and stir up investors’ confidence. Besides, private sector competitiveness is hindered by skill mismatches in the job market, with local employers struggling to find workforce with required qualifications, while the supply of low-skill labor has exponentially grown in the wake of the refugee influx.
Admittedly, job creation alone is not sufficient to turn the tide in the region. Increase in quality, alongside with quantity of jobs, is critical for economic modernization and expansion to take off. The implementation of sustainable and organic projects geared towards recovery and growth will require a more effective relationship between business world and education system. Structural imbalances between labor markets and workforce are by and large determined by poor education standards and low-quality school environments, which fail to provide young people with adequate skill-sets and training. The creation of professional development curricula and career-oriented schools, designed to fostering pockets of talented youth and helping them unleash their creative potential while developing in-demand skills, might envisage a greater involvement of the private sector in the education field, at least at the high school and college level.
On the other side, the relaunch of the region calls for a credible commitment to a strong partnership between local governments and the international community. The region is tormented by an acute need of funding and multi- and bilateral support. Jordan and Lebanon, in particular, are the worst positioned in terms of access to multilateral aid: their status as “middle income countries” prevents them from qualifying for grants and funding opportunities earmarked by multilateral organizations and agencies. Albeit necessary, though, sheer injection of funding alone is not sufficient. Rather, alternatives to political turmoil and socio-economic disintegration can be engineered through deeper regional cooperation. For instance, greater intra-regional trade was already generating sizable gains to Levant countries prior to the crisis. Beside trade, infrastructure development figures as a strategic sector that the reconstruction effort should prioritize. Creating economies of scale, building joint-ventures, deepening interdependencies, and linking up core industries may prove a pivotal component of a comprehensive security strategy designed not only to triggering economic expansion in Syria and impacted countries, but also to countering violent extremism.
This is a unique time in history where the Middle East can plot a new geopolitical trajectory and break the chain of the festering illnesses that have turned it into a hive of conflicts and incubator of homegrown threats with global reach. Capitalizing on the existing crisis to rehabilitate the region is the only way for Middle Eastern countries to prove to new generations, who have known nothing but war for the past 15 years, that it is realistic to place their hopes in a world after this one.