Middle East Weekly Roundup: December 5th – 11th, 2015

JMEPP’s new Middle East Weekly Roundup is compiled and written by JMEPP editors.

Nuclear Power as a Viable Option in the Middle East?

Several Middle Eastern nations have pursued the nuclear power option, even though many industrialized and developing nations have begun shying away from nuclear energy, and its global share of electricity has fallen 10.8% from a peak of 17.6% in 1996 . This past month saw Egypt as the latest nation in the region to approach the nuclear energy realm, signing an agreement with Russia to construct a nuclear plant in the city of Dabaa. However, this may not present a better option than fossil fuel power generation.  Security-wise, the fear of a nuclear arms race in the region has already led to high-stakes negotiations with Shia Iran, which only recently concluded. The emergence of new nuclear-energy related programs could lead to additional fears of their conversion for arms production. However, with a rise in electricity demand, along with the current climate change environment and pressure to lower carbon emissions, nuclear power makes sense in this regard, and diversification away from fossil fuels would help alleviate both pressures.

From a resource perspective, the lack of adequate water supplies in Jordan has already postponed construction of a facility there, while political instability and internal security threats have dogged Egypt in their construction of a nuclear facility. In terms of finances, some states, including Egypt, are unable to pay up-front, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are actively planning the construction of numerous reactors by as early as 2017, have not demonstrated nuclear power’s cost-effectiveness over gas-fired electricity production.  Furthermore, Iran could save more electricity than is annually produced by its lone nuclear reactor if it only fixed the deficiencies in its existing transmission lines. With an abundance of sunlight, open desert space, and a drop in photovoltaic panel prices, there exist much cheaper and plentiful sources of renewable energy for the region.  This leads to one to ask: Why nuclear?

Varied Efforts at Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

Drawing on its CVE work over the years, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies released a report on CVE, with particular emphasis on Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Nigeria. In other news, a Moroccan court sentenced 11 Moroccans to prison terms ranging from two to seven years for their involvement in “cases related to terrorism.” Tunisian police arrested two suspected jihadists after uncovering evidence the suspects were planning new attacks in the capital, Tunis. Turkey has increased its border security and has detained a large number of individuals suspected of crossing the border with Syria to join ISIL.

Cybersecurity: Regional Surveillance by Iranian-Based Hackers

Symantec has released a report detailing domestic and international surveillance by two groups operating out of Iran. In addition to individuals in Iran, the two groups have targeted airlines and telecommunications providers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The two teams of hackers have been operating for at least a year, and though their malware is not technically advanced, they have proven effective at exploiting vulnerabilities within the region. Coming on the heels of last week’s discovery of a phishing attack on U.S. State Department officials, this news suggests a rather sharp uptick in Iranian cyber espionage.

Countries in Brief

The Peninsula

Oman: A senior Omani Oil Ministry official said on Wednesday that Iran will soon sign an agreement with Oman over the export of Iranian natural gas.

Saudi Arabia: Hundreds of Saudi Shi’ites rallied in Qatif to support activists, including Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution they fear could be imminent. Saudi Arabia hosted Syrian opposition groups this week in an effort to present a unified front ahead of peace talks with representatives of the government in Damascus, which are scheduled to begin early next year.

Yemen: Saudi state television reported that Saudi-led forces fighting in Yemen cleared Jazirat al Hanish al Kabir, an island off of Yemen near the strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea. On Tuesday, airstrikes by the Saudi-led Arab coalition killed at least 35 pro-government and rebel fighters in a battle over a base in the southwestern port city, Mokha. Meanwhile, al Qaeda militants who fought their way into the southern Yemeni town of Jaar on Wednesday have withdrawn and police are back in control, although the Islamist fighters remain in the nearby town of Zinjibar.


The Levant

Iraq: Besieged ISIL militants in the Iraqi City of Ramadi destroyed a lock on the Euphrates River that served as a bridge as government forces on Thursday sought to cement their gains around the militant-held city west of Baghdad.

Iran: Recent reports have exposed Iran’s recruitment of Pakistani Shi’ites for combat in Syria. This adds yet another international dimension to Syria’s four year civil war, which has deepened sectarian divisions across the Muslim world and drawn in regional and global powers.

Syria: One of the country’s main rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham, a Saudi-backed ultraconservative faction that operates mainly in northern Syria, withdrew from the conference, which was held in Riyadh, in protest of the role given to groups it feels are too close to the government of President Bashar al-Assaad. Meanwhile, Syrian rebels have begun evacuating the last district they control in the city of Homs under a ceasefire deal reached with the government.


North Africa

Algeria: Algeria approved a new law banning violence against women this week, criminalizing abuse and assigning 3-5 year jail terms to offenders; similarly, the law also criminalizes harassment of women in the workplace and in public areas. It has been heavily criticized by Islamists who have stated their fear that the laws will “dismantle the family unit”.

Minister of Industry and Mines Abdessalam Bouchouareb took part in the Doing Business Algeria-USA conference, leading a group of investors who traveled to Detroit, Michigan for the event last week. US media reported that he announced that Algeria would be investing $260 billion in Detroit; however, Algerie Presse Service quickly issued a statement on behalf of the Ministry of Industry and Mines, flatly denying that this had been said.

It was also reported this week that Indonesia was seeking investment opportunities in the oil sector in Algeria.

Egypt: Egypt’s Minister of Housing Mustafa Madbouly announced that Egypt would be allocating $20 billion to the construction of 1 million homes for Egyptians living in poverty.

Also in the news were reports of Egyptian authorities planning to meet with a handful of Gulf states seeing more development aid and investments. This comes in light of Egypt’s foreign currency shortage which has increased speculation that the Egyptian pound (L.E.) will be devalued in the near future.

The third round of trilateral talks held between Egypt, Cyprus and Greece ended on Wednesday with agreements made between the three parties to increase joint security and energy cooperation. They simultaneously announced the creation of a “Joint Committee of Cooperation” to address issues of mutual interest between the three states.

Libya: Instead of agreeing to a UN-brokered deal regarding a power-sharing arrangement, politicians from Libya’s rival parliaments reached their own tentative deal this past weekend. They rejected the UN arrangement in order to avoid the taint of “foreign intervention” and achieve a semblance of legitimacy.

However, the deal failed to gain unanimous acceptance by either faction, with several politicians voicing their objections. The proposed deal would see two 10-member committees, consisting of equal representation from both sides. One committee would name a prime minister and two deputies who would then form a unity cabinet, while the other committee would draft a constitution and prepare for parliamentary elections within two years. As senior Libyan officials and Islamist authorities continue to dispute both the UN-backed agreement and this latest deal, Western officials warn that a further delay in forming a government could cede ground to extremist groups, including the Islamic State.  In addition, Libya’s chaos has generated a wave of migrants fleeing for Europe.

Morocco: Moroccan police issued an arrest warrant for one of the key suspects in the Paris attacks that took place in November of this year. Salah Abdelsalam, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, has been on the run since the attacks occurred with some speculation that he may have returned to Morocco since.

Security forces announced that they had “dismantled a terror cell” linked to the so-called Islamic State and planning major attacks in the country, the latest in a string of dismantled cells in Morocco.

A court in the EU has annulled a major 2012 EU-Morocco trade pact on the grounds of it not being applicable to the disputed Western Sahara territory, a swath of land that has been under Moroccan control since 1976.

Tunisia: Mohsen Marzouq, the general secretary of Tunisian political party Nidaa Tounes, announced this week that the party was “finished”, a statement made after months of speculation regarding internal disputes and divisions within the party. If the party were to leave the political spectrum, it would leave the Ennahda party with a majority in the power-sharing government system currently in place. It is unclear whether or not Nidaa Tounes will actually dissolve itself.

After nearly two weeks of being closed in response to security threats, Tunisia reopened its borders with Libya.