FAO Representative: Middle East Crises Led to Radical Change in Food Security

Parts of a bulldozer are seen at a farm in the town of Basheeqa, Iraq, February 8, 2017. (Reuters)
Parts of a bulldozer are seen at a farm in the town of Basheeqa, Iraq, February 8, 2017. (Reuters)

FAO Representative: Middle East Crises Led to Radical Change in Food Security

Parts of a bulldozer are seen at a farm in the town of Basheeqa, Iraq, February 8, 2017. (Reuters)
Parts of a bulldozer are seen at a farm in the town of Basheeqa, Iraq, February 8, 2017. (Reuters)

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations warned that the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East will exacerbate rates of hunger in the region, saying that more than 40 million people are suffering.

It therefore called for more efforts to eliminate hunger and end conflicts in order to achieve development.

On the margins of the FAO’s release of a report on the “regional general view of food safety and nutrition in the Near East and North Africa for 2017”, Asharq Al-Awsat sat with Assistant Director General and Regional Representative for Near East and North Africa, Abdessalam Ould Ahmed to discuss the current situation in the region and its prospects for the future.

He stressed that conflicts in the region are the primary reason for the deterioration of food safety standards, noting that hunger rates in war-torn countries have reached 27.2 percent.

There is a pressing need to provide humanitarian aid to people in areas of conflict, he stressed. For the FAO, this means supporting farmers to withstand the negative repercussions of crises, wars and violence. This also demands that countries be assisted in preparing for the post-war period, including reconstruction.

In addressing countries facing crises, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, even Palestine, the FAO first seeks to provide support to small farmers by supplying them with seeds and fertilizers, Ould Ahmed said.

It also focuses on backing them through projects, such as providing financial aid in exchange for work or providing financial assistance to maintain their equipment. The organization also helps farmers with infrastructure needs, such as irrigation networks and protecting cattle.

FAO also plays a role in tackling reconstruction efforts in collaboration and setting the bases for sustainable development through policies and plans that are discussed with various countries, he explained.

Moreover, he highlighted the need to restrict wasted food, which is very high in Arab countries.

“This is unacceptable,” he declared, stressing the need for governments and societies to exert efforts to improve this situation.

“My main message is that conflicts are the main reason behind the deterioration of food security. Three-fourths of people suffering from hunger live in conflict zones,” Ould Ahmed stated.

The repercussions of the conflicts are not limited to food security, but they have led to migration and displacement problems, which are issues that need a long time to be resolved, he warned.

The crises have also forced regional countries to spend huge amounts of money on countering terrorism and waging battles. These funds should be dedicated to development and preparing for the future, he stressed.

All attention is now focused on war, violence and conflicts, while vital issues, such as water security, climate change, youth unemployment and levels of health and education, are being neglected, he lamented.

“The truth is, this is a major wasted opportunity,” he said.

“Collective efforts are a necessity because no country in the region can single-handedly end its own crisis,” Ould Ahmed added.

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.