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Drought threatens Arab economies

Finance ministers discuss impact of uprisings, natural disasters on the region

Image Credit: EPA
Arab League Secretary-General Nabeel Al Arabi (third from left) and Libyan Minister of Economy Ahmad Al Kushali (second from right) before themeeting of Arab economy, finance and trade ministers as part of the Arab League Summit in Baghdad on Tuesday.
Gulf News

Baghdad: Drought and uprisings are threatening to undermine the Middle East's economy, Arab officials said yesterday as they discussed plans to boost the region's stability at the start of a key summit in Baghdad.

For the first time in a generation, leaders from 21 states gathered in Iraq for the Arab League's annual summit. Iraq is hoping the summit will better integrate its Shiite-led government into the Sunni-dominated Arab world, and has deployed thousands of soldiers and police forces across Baghdad to prevent insurgent threats from upending it.

Economic ministers tentatively agreed to cooperate on proposals for tourism and to deal with water shortages and natural disasters. The proposals, put forward at the summit's opening meeting, still need to be approved by the rulers and heads of government on the final day of the gathering tomorrow.

"We are suffering mainly from the lack of finance and some technical problems," Arab League Secretary General Nabeel Al Arabi said at the economic ministers' meeting.

Depleting resources

As in Iraq, where the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers are drying up, water resources also are strapped elsewhere across the Middle East. The UAE and Jordan say their ground water is rapidly depleting, and the Dead Sea is drying up. Much of the problem is due to the failure of governments in the region to manage growth and use of the major rivers.

In Libya, the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime last year halted construction on a $25 billion (Dh91.83 billion) project to pump water to the country's north, economic delegation official Giuma Rahuma said.

"Many farmers are in the north," Rahuma said. "The [Libyan] revolution stopped the project. Maybe it will start again next year, or in two years."

Kuwaiti Finance Minister Mustafa Al Shamali said his country draws water from the Arabian Gulf but "it is very expensive" to treat drinking water. He said water was one of the economic ministers' top concerns for the region.

A State Department report released last week in Washington found a small risk of water issues leading to war within the next 10 years. But it concluded that water shortages certainly will create tensions within and between states, and threaten to disrupt national and global food markets.

Beyond 2022, the report concluded, the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism will become more likely, particularly in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

The report was based on classified US intelligence that said floods, scarce and poor quality water, combined with poverty, social tension, poor leadership and weak governments will contribute to instability that could lead the failure of numerous states. Iraq is spending at least $500 million to host the summit, and officials believe it's an investment for the country's future. Iraqi Finance Minister Rafia Al Issawi said he is calling on Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya and Egypt to write off billions of dollars in debts incurred during former dictator Saddam Hussain's regime.

Iraq's government has spared no expense in securing the capital for its visitors. Troops, Swat teams and undercover police lined streets to protect dignitaries and journalists attending the meeting.

Suicide bomb attack

Al Qaida has threatened to launch attacks during the summit to prove how weak Iraq's security remains, and officials said a suicide bomber killed one policeman and wounded four others at a checkpoint yesterday afternoon. The attack happened in Baghdad's western Ghazaliya neighbourhood, across the Tigris River from the economic ministers' meeting.

Police and health officials confirmed the casualties. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release the information.

The summit has received a cool welcome from many Iraqis who say they expect to gain little from it. About 150 demonstrators rallied in the Sunni-dominated city of Fallujah, located 65 kilometres west of Baghdad, calling on the League to stop the bloodshed in neighbouring Syria.

Syria is expected to top the agenda of a meeting today among the League's foreign ministers. The economic ministers did not discuss it yesterday.

The demonstrators also demanded the Arab leaders pressure Iraq's government to give more jobs to Sunnis.