By Luigi Narbone

A common assumption among policy-makers and pundits is that stabilisation and reconstruction will come after conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa region have been settled.


The People Factor: Return and Reconstruction

MENA civil wars have resulted in a huge number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. How return and reintegration are handled will be a key determinant of the direction that the stabilisation and reconstruction policies might take.

Social inclusion and a fair distribution of peace dividends to include IDPs and refugees would be key to rebuilding the social fabric of war-torn areas aft er many years of divisive conflict have accentuated ethnic, tribal, sectarian or social cleavages in those societies.

The lack of fair and effective reintegration policies will have long-term social and political repercussions for post-conflict countries. But displacement also has a high socio-economic cost and an opportunity cost in the reconstruction phase.

In addition to safety and security, which are the pre-condition for return, returnees also need infrastructure and basic services, the provision of which could kick start economic growth.

In turn, they could provide the bulk of entrepreneurs, workforce and consumers that are needed for reconstruction, for sustainable job creation, which reintegrates them effectively in the economy and creates the jobs needed to demobilise fighters.

The rapid restoration and qualitative improvement of the education sector, heavily damaged by war, would be necessary to recuperate the lost school years for the younger generations, to upgrade the human capital and make it functional for reconstruction, recovery and future development.

A slow and difficult pace of return will have a negative impact on reconstruction as a result of lost opportunities and additional longterm costs.

Finally, the modalities and timing of their return could also have regional ramifications, for example Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. Reducing the socio-economic challenges associated with hosting refugees in already-struggling neighbouring countries could spark better growth prospects in the regions involved.

Consequences may also be felt in Europe, considering the role that the refugee issue plays in both the local political landscape and EU foreign policy. However, the reality on the ground is not particularly promising.

In Syria, in particular, the return of refugees and IDPs is primarily considered to be a security and political matter for the regime and its allies, with little attention paid to the economic dimension.

The return process is not expected to be massive or immediate, and will most likely be selective, by prioritising, for instance, women, children and the elderly. It will be carefully managed to ensure regime control continues on the ground.

In Iraq, the post-2014 displacement is only the most recent of a series of displacements that stretch back to 1968 and were accentuated by the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent civil war.

Problems for the return of population are likely to persist after the end of the war against IS, given the political and economic role that militias play in liberated areas and their control over resources and reconstruction projects.

In Yemen, where there the number of IDPs and refugees is estimated at three million, the economic situation is the most pressing underlying issue.

Their return – once the hostilities cease and some basic security is restored – will largely depend on the availability of economic resources to rebuild the country after three long years of devastation brought about by the Saudi-led campaign, which in turn followed many years of economic decline.

In addition to the continual engagement in predatory and rent-seeking behaviours, those elites that emerge as the ‘winners’ in reconstruction will therefore be driven by political concerns and objectives. This will prevent the full potential deriving from the return of refugees and IDPs from being achieved, while refugees will continue to represent a regional and international issue of contention, highlighting the various parties’ diverging priorities in the stabilisation process.

The EU and neighbouring countries, for instance, are likely to push for refugees’ return, while the restored regimes will try to use their return as a bargaining chip.

The External Actors

Internal and regional political and political economy factors will shape the stabilisation and reconstruction of war-torn countries in the MENA region. However, they are not the only factors to influence these processes.

The availability of resources for reconstruction and external actors’ willingness to get involved in political and diplomatic attempts to resolve the conflicts will also be important.

They will likely be driven by short-term political, tactical and commercial considerations, both at the international and regional levels.

The US administration, for instance, has openly stated that its stabilisation objectives in Syria are to ensure an enduring defeat of IS and to facilitate the conditions that would allow the safe and voluntary return of refugees.

Addressing “bad governance” as a driver of crises and conflict – which has been very high on the US foreign policy agenda for the region in previous administrations – seem to have now disappeared from the agenda and with it, the will to actively participate in reconstruction and pacification.

The European Union is facing important dilemmas. On the one hand, there is no political appetite to support reconstruction in countries like Syria, where the regime, accused of war crimes, has won militarily and will use reconstruction politically.

The EU has repeatedly stated that support for reconstruction in Syria and the end of sanctions will depend on a credible political process that leads to a real political transition.

On the other hand, the EU political priorities are to contain the jihadist threat and to end the refugee crisis. At some point, these might induce compromises to accommodate confl icting foreign policy needs.

In addition, different member states’ offensive and defensive economic interests tend to push policies in diverging directions, as the case in Libya has shown.

Reconstruction fatigue is widespread among international donors who are facing multiple peace-building exercises in an environment of prolonged fiscal restraint.

Having to respond to parallel crises and conflicts, the international community appears less and less capable of mobilising adequate financial resources.

On a more systemic level, the Trump administration’s transactional approach poses challenges to the peace-building model which has characterised the international community’s action in the post-Cold-War era.

The full consequences of the rise of populism, sovereigntism and inward-looking approaches in the EU are not yet apparent, but they are also likely to feed a lack of willingness to get involved in long-term peace-building and reconstruction.

Some isolated voices continue to call for a new Marshall plan for the MENA region, but the political and economic realities in the West make it highly unlikely to happen.

The private sector is often perceived as a promising substitute for the dwindling public funding and limited political interest in complicated post-conflict reconstruction.

Hope is now placed on private investments and lending, as well as public private partnerships. Local and foreign investors and/or financial markets have been called on to take up the difficult job.

For instance, once the donor community realised that there was little hope in mobilising large amounts of public funding in last year’s Iraq Reconstruction Conference in Kuwait, it was quickly renamed the Iraq Investment Conference, in the hope that the private sector could play a major role.

However, this may be wishful thinking. Private investors are driven by profit opportunities and cost-benefit analysis, which take into account the potential risks of operating in certain markets, including reputational and regulatory risks.

Post-confl ict countries present numerous problems in terms of poor business environment, political risk, lack of legal guarantees and corruption – to mention but a few – which greatly reduce their attractiveness.

They also have no bankable projects to attract international lending, no clear reconstruction planning and long-term economic vision for the future to provide a stable trajectory for their post-conflict development.

As a result, international investors – with some limited exceptions in the oil and gas sector – tend to shy away. Regional powers see reconstruction as a source of economic profit and an arena for the continuation of their rivalry for influence and hegemony.

The regional security situation remains fluid and tensions around Iran are building up, aft er the US re-imposed sanctions. There is no sign of de-escalation in the Gulf nor any serious attempt to promote a new regional security order or to look at, for instance, the economic and political potentials of new models of regional integration, at least not in the short term.

Regional powers continue to use conflicts, often through proxies, to promote geo-political and geo-economic interests. Because of the regional dynamics at play, they are unlikely to change this modus operandi any time soon.

Nor can it be expected that major reconstruction funding projects from oil rich Gulf countries take place in this context.

Finally, Russia and China, the new players in the post-conflict arena, are pursuing new realist and interest-based approaches. They have already been awarded important contracts in reconstruction and are positioning themselves to take advantage of upcoming opportunities.

In their public discourse, stability is preferable to chaos and regime change, even if it comes at the price of restoring authoritarian regimes and a corrupt political economy.

Stabilisation is promoted as the first step that in time will create the conditions for in-depth change in the region. Power projection, geo-political and geo-economic interests often lie behind these statements.

The conflicts in the MENA region have been the first in the post-Cold War era where these new international actors have played an important role.

Inevitably, the post-conflict reality in the region will be influenced by their actions and policies.


Experience shows that if stabilisation and reconstruction fail, a relapse of violence is more likely. Some fifty percent of conflicts after WW2 have re-ignited because reconstruction efforts have been mishandled.

It is vital that post-conflict countries get this process right and the international community should help in this direction. While unintended negative consequences of external assistance are well known for the MENA region – in terms, for instance, of aid dependency or induced distortions – inaction is not an option, particularly for the EU, which is likely to pay a high price if instability continues across its southern border.

The peace-building model adopted in many post-Cold War conflicts envisaged a protracted effort to assist post-conflict countries in exiting war economies, and to ensure the successful reconstruction and rehabilitation of infrastructure, governance institutions and the economy.

Looking particularly at a strategic approach for post-conflict MENA countries in the economic area – in addition to stabilising the macroeconomic framework – economic rehabilitation would require increasing sustainable growth, creating jobs and fi ghting inequality.

Long-term projects would also be needed, such as the diversification of the economies away from hydrocarbon dependence, and their upgrading in the global value chain. Diversification would also be essential to weaken rentier state dynamics.

In order to do this in an inclusive and participatory way, a new social contract would be needed to address some of the root causes that are at the origin of the conflict cycle.

It could replace the old social contract – which is based on participation in the sharing of rent through subsidies in exchange for limitations in political freedoms and in the accountability of regimes – with a new version built on consensus around basic economic principles and how to divide rents in a way that is beneficial for social development and individual growth.

A new vision for the state and the economy, allowing for inclusive reconstruction, the investment of oil rent in addressing people’s basic needs together with the needs of future generations, as well as the upgrading of human capital.

Reconstruction would also need to consider issues related to the relationship between the centre and the regions, to avoid that development remains focused on major cities, with entire regions and communities remaining marginalised. Issues of decentralisation and local development would need to be seriously tackled.

The response to the complex challenges probably lies in flexible and adaptable strategies. At the micro level, it will require adopting a bottom-up approach and looking for acceptable partners in the reconstruction process, such as local communities, municipalities, small businesses, civil society and youth organisations.

On a more macro level, an integrated holistic approach will need to be backed by appropriate and suffi cient political and economic leverage.

Significant economic and trade incentives together with more ambitious long-term projects for the region, which aim for instance to foster trans-Mediterranean and transregional connectivity, as well as the participation of the MENA in the EU value chain, would probably go a long way.

Even in the type of environment that is emerging in post-conflict MENA countries. As we have seen in this brief, the post-conflict political economy of MENA countries is not going to facilitate processes of inclusive reconstruction.

The absence of inclusionary political processes might intensify the struggle over resources and prolong war economy dynamics long after the end of hostilities. Because of the situation on the ground, commitments to complex political processes at the national and regional levels are unlikely, as are large-scale public funding schemes to meaningfully address reconstruction needs in the MENA region.

Ambitious initiatives to support reconciliation, state and institution building, and to guide post-confl ict countries on the path to long-term, sustainable stabilisation and reconstruction are also improbable.

The persistence of low-intensity conflicts along geographical, ethnic and sectarian lines, and a context in which a no-war, no-peace situation prevails across the region and rivalries continue is a probable scenario.

Against this backdrop, there is a need for a realistic approach on the part of the international community and particularly the EU in addressing the challenges arising from stabilisation and reconstruction in the MENA region.

Donors should actively use their political influence and diplomatic offices as well as leverage their reconstruction assistance to help pursue the strategic objectives highlighted.

The response to the complex challenges probably lies in flexible and adaptable strategies. At the micro level, it will require adopting a bottom-up approach and looking for acceptable partners in the reconstruction process, such as local communities, municipalities, small businesses, civil society and youth organisations.

On a more macro level, an integrated holistic approach will need to be backed by appropriate and sufficient political and economic leverage.

Significant economic and trade incentives together with more ambitious long-term projects for the region, which aim for instance to foster trans-Mediterranean and trans-regional connectivity, as well as the participation of the MENA in the EU value chain, would probably go a long way. Even in the type of environment that is emerging in post-conflict MENA countries.


Luigi Narbone, Director of the Middle East Directions Programme.


The MIDDLE EAST DIRECTIONS Programme, created in 2016, is part of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.It has the ambition to become an international reference point for research on the Middle East and North Africa Region,studying socio-political, economic and religious trends and transformations. The programme produces academic outputs such as working papers and e-books. It also liaises with policy makers with a wide range of policy briefs, policy report and analysis.




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