The Middle East From Here
Recent analyses of the Middle East situation have tended to concentrate on the mistakes that were made in getting involved in the region. Past is prologue, as Shakespeare said, but it is fruitless to discuss sins of omission and commission in this instance. What we have now in the region is a number of still functioning and semi-functioning states, and some lawless regions. The lawless regions are the area occupied by Islamic State and Libya, soon to be joined by Yemen.
What is happening in Yemen is symptomatic of the whole Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. The population was semi-starved until oil production began in the 1980s, when oil production began and wheat imports rose to feed a population doubling every 25 years. The situation now is that oil exports will cease in the next couple of years, the capital is being besieged by rebel groups and Islamists of various types, and groundwater is close to complete depletion because of kat production.
Saudi Arabia has been ponying up to keep the Yemeni population fed. But a day will arrive when the Saudis will be sick of that, or there will simply be no administration on the Yemeni side to handle the aid. The Saudis are still building a 1,100-mile-long fence to keep the Yemenis out. Completion of the border fence will give the Saudis more options on when to stop feeding the Yemenis. The fate of Yemen is to break up into its constituent tribes and for perhaps 90% of the population to starve. That is more than 20 million people and it is likely to happen in the next few years.
Similarly, there are reports that ISIS fighters have resorted to eating cats and dogs because there is not enough food to go around. Before the recent troubles began with the Arab Spring, both Syria and Iraq imported two thirds of the grain they consumed. What grain ISIS gets in is from trading with Turkey, the Kurds, and Iraq. If and when that trade stops, they too will starve, along with the populations of cities like Mosul. The U.S. went to some trouble recently to bomb ISIS oil production facilities in order to reduce their cash flow. With a little bit more resolve, the grain flow into the ISIS entity could be stopped. It is hard to be afraid of someone who is living literally hand to mouth.
That may be why the Iraqi government is treating the loss of the western half of their country so casually. The Australian government was one of the parties that answered the call for assistance in handling the ISIS onslaught. Two hundred Australian special forces were sent and got as far as the United Arab Emirates, 1,100 miles from Iraq. It seems that the Iraqi government would rather not let them into the country. The threat from ISIS can’t be all that dire, then. The Iraqis would rather continue skimming off corruption payments than perhaps set out to liberate Mosul from ISIS.
The border fence between Saudi Arabia and Yemen is the new architectural style of the Middle East. It will be border fences, moats, mine fields, guard towers. Egypt is building one of the more formidable ones to separate it from the troubles of Gaza with a moat filled with seawater.
The fate of Yemen – civil breakdown and starvation, then a breakup into remnant tribes – is the fate of every Islamic country from Morocco to Afghanistan. The oil-rich countries will of course last longest, but in the meantime their populations are still doubling every 25 years – bringing forward the starvation event. China is the main beneficiary of stable Middle Eastern oil production and they are preparing their own mischief against us.
What to do about the Middle East? Take a lesson from the natives. Build the border fences, moats, and mine fields to keep them out. They can’t stand each other, for good reason. We shouldn’t have anything to do with them, either.
David Archibald, a visiting fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance (Regnery, 2014).