giStrat set out to understand the drivers of conflict in the countries located in the region of the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes referred to as MENA. We applied econometric modeling to analyze a thirty-five-year period (1980-2014) for eighteen countries in the region. We evaluated factors cited by scholars as key drivers of conflict and then forecasted and ranked relative risk for intrastate conflict for each country.
MENA is one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world, and is important globally for a number of reasons, including:
- the growth and endurance of extremist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda
- the migration catastrophe destabilizing neighbor countries and Europe
- it holds thirty percent of the world’s crude oil production and forty percent of the world’s conventional gas reserves
- the growth of hostilities between members of religions representing 3.8 billion people
This report outlines some of the key drivers of conflict and looks at the risk to specific countries.
Read the full report for more.
Countries with the following characteristics are at high risk for violent conflict:
- Political repression
- Religious fractionalization
- Transitioning governments
- Dispersed but large, growing populations
- Non-inclusive economic growth and income inequality
We start to get a more detailed picture of the conflict landscape in the Middle East and North Africa when we delve deeper into each of these factors within specific countries.
The Structures That Lead to Conflict
Many people intuitively understand that socio-economic and political grievances cause conflict—with the most extreme grievances igniting civil wars. But grievances are just one of many factors that create the conditions for violence. It is necessary to identify the structural factors of conflict and the conditions that magnify the intensity of grievances.
Political Repression and Transitioning Governments
The most significant factor contributing to the outbreak of intrastate conflict in the MENA region is the use of political repression. Politically repressive actions include detainment, torture, political killing, and forced disappearances of opponents of a regime. These are common practices by the majority of conflict–prone countries in MENA, increasing conditions for political and social grievances.
Additionally, a state with a transitioning government that is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic is significantly more likely to experience intrastate violence. These unconsolidated governments are typically comprised of divided elites and violent challengers threatening the legitimacy of the current social order. These characteristics make transitioning governments ten times more likely to experience intrastate conflict compared to democracies, and twice as likely as autocracies.
Religious Fractionalization Over Ethnic Diversity
Our findings indicate that religious fractionalization is a significant indicator for the onset of a conflict, while ethnic diversity alone is not a major factor. This suggests that the religious dimensions of conflict in the Middle East and North Africa require far more attention than do ethnic divisions. This finding is particularly critical for populations lacking a dominant religious majority such as Lebanon or Yemen.
Countries with low population density are more likely to experience conflict than states with geographically concentrated populations. A state must spend more money to provide services and security for dispersed populations. When a state is already inefficient in providing these basic requirements, its ability to manage the needs of the population is further constrained, thereby contributing to an increased likelihood of violent conflict.
Examples include the 2011 uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria initiated in the southern town of Daraa and the ongoing Houthi rebellion originating from the sparsely populated northern region of Yemen. In both cases, the uprisings began in rural areas where government presence was not as concentrated and then spread to urban areas.
Large, Growing Populations
Larger populations also require more robust state security and service mechanisms, which can further strain resources, particularly for ineffective or transitioning governments.
Non-inclusive Economic Growth and Income Inequality
Economic growth has inversely contributed to MENA conflict because growth has occurred in a non-inclusive, non-equitable manner. Greater income inequality and higher concentrations of wealth magnify the grievances of more marginalized populations and increase the conditions for conflict. For a number of years, MENA economies were growing but with little or no benefit for middle class and poorer communities. This ultimately contributed to the 2011 Arab uprisings, which remain unresolved to this day.
Countries at Risk
We created an index to predict which countries are at the greatest risk for intrastate violence. This index is composed of two main components:
- Structural risk – projections based on the factors identified above
- Event risk – 2015 conflict-related fatalities by quintile
These two rankings were combined to produce aggregate risk as shown in the table below. Factors were normalized to a 0-100 score with 100 being the highest level of risk.
Note: Bahrain is as an outlier in this instability forecast due its small population estimated at 1.3 million people.
The same risk index can also been seen in the map below:
Country Risk in Detail
By evaluating a combination of the socio-economic factors and the breadth of destabilizing activity occurring in the country, we assess that this conflict will continue for at least the next two to three years. The country has now entered its fifth year of civil war as the ruling minority Alawi family of Bashar al-Assad now struggles to control less than 80% of the country’s territory. Syria is now fragmented into numerous localized areas with dozens of armed groups competing for control of territory. Assessing Syria in terms of structural factors alone, the country ranks exceptionally high based on the Assad regime’s repressive actions, religious fractionalization, and highly dispersed populations.
Similar to Syria, the structural indicators and the breadth of violence currently plaguing the country indicate that conflict will persist for many years to come. The country has experienced over thirty years of ongoing conflict and possesses almost all of the significant socio-economic factors associated with a destabilized state. Iraq has a high degree of ethnic and religious fractionalization, consisting of of Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the west, and Shia in the south, all of whom are at odds with each other and are acting as de-facto independent territories. The Shia government in Baghdad continues to repress Sunni populations, a major factor that led to the rise of ISIS in western Iraq. Meanwhile, ISIS continues to target the Shia in Baghdad and also represses its own Sunni populations through coercion, murder, and torture. It is unlikely that a long-term campaign to eradicate ISIS will alleviate the fundamental grievances that led to the group’s establishment unless the underlying structural determinants are addressed. This includes reducing politically repressive tactics deployed by the government in Baghdad, changing discriminatory laws that target religious and ethnic rivals, and providing services and security for minority populations dispersed across the country.
Based on our forecast, we predict that conflict in Egypt will worsen in the next one to two years, mainly due to two ongoing insurgencies: one led by pro-Muslim Brotherhood groups across the country and another led by ISIS-inspired Islamists in the Sinai. Following the deposition of President Hosni Mubarak and the later coup overthrowing Muslim Brotherhood-supported President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt transitioned in 2014 to a quasi-military-run government with the popular election of President Abdel Sisi. Egypt’s position on this risk index is explained in part by the country’s large, diverse population, coupled with repressive authoritarian rule.
With a vacuum of power left in the wake of dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, and popular rejection of the provisional General National Congress in early 2014, Libya has descended into civil war. Competing armed factions from Misrata, Benghazi, and Tripoli have failed to reach a compromise for establishing a unity government. In the wake of this dysfunction, ISIS has seized territory in the Mediterranean city of Sirte. Although U.S. airstrikes have limited the ability to expand beyond Sirte, ISIS-affiliated armed groups will continue to take advantage of the political disorder during this transition. Libya’s high level of instability and conflict risk is attributable to the country’s inability to form a central consolidated government and tribal fractionalization among competing Sunni factions.
Tied with Libya, Yemen also ranks fourth in overall conflict risk but is ranked first in structural risk in MENA. The country’s dispersed rural population, religiously fractionalized demographics, and unconsolidated but repressive government contribute to an extremely volatile mix of conditions that fuel violent conflict. Yemen is currently in a state of a civil war as the Shia-offshoot Houthi population continues to ally itself with former President Abdullah Saleh in opposing a Saudi-backed post-Arab Spring regime loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. In addition to this civil war, Yemen’s failed government served as an ideal sanctuary for Al Qaeda and is now home to a rising ISIS presence.
Since the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011, Tunisia has proven a relatively rare success story in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and North Africa. However, given prevailing underlying structural risks that include a dispersed population and robust GDP per capita growth coupled with high unemployment, our analysis shows that Tunisia is at high risk for instability and conflict.
Our findings demonstrate clearly that among other factors, intrastate conflict is intrinsically linked to democratic development, demography, and religious fractionalization, validating some previous studies and raising additional questions with respect to their regional implications for MENA.
We see that while structural factors of conflict vary by country, population growth, political repression, and religious fractionalization lead the region. Combined with event risk our analysis shows Syria, Iraq, and Egypt to be the countries most at risk.
giStrat’s risk indexing model contextualizes the drivers of conflict at the regional level. Empirical observations refine our understanding of intrastate conflict and political instability across the Middle East and North Africa. Further study will help provide policymakers and peace-builders with an adaptive lens to anticipate violent conflict, develop strategies, and prioritize resources for conflict and crisis mitigation in the region.
Supported by a body of theory-driven empirical studies, giStrat’s indices rigorously assess the likelihood of destabilizing political violence and forecast the potential outbreak of intrastate conflict.
To understand the factors driving conflict and instability, giStrat applied econometric modeling to analyze data across a thirty-five-year period (1980-2014) for eighteen countries in MENA. We evaluated several economic, social, political, and demographic factors cited by scholars as key drivers of conflict. We then forecasted and ranked relative risk for intrastate conflict, country by country.
Risk was evaluated in the index by weighing the structural risk score against event-based risk. We calculated event-based risk using 2015 annual conflict-related fatalities data normalized by quartile. For each of the specific structural risk factors, analysts rank-ordered the eighteen countries and separated them into quantiles.
Amir Bagherpour, PhD, Chief Political Scientist
Shaun Donaldson, Senior Analyst
Matthew Scharpnick, Creative Partner
Alaina Johnson, Visual Designer
Benjamin Marcus, Copy Editor