Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA

Foreign policy priorities for the Middle East and North Africa region

The Federal Council defined the objectives of Switzerland's foreign policy back in February. In the MENA strategy it has now set out how it intends to implement these objectives in the important region spanning from Morocco to Iran. Switzerland's focus in the region over the next few years will be supporting sustainable economic development, better job prospects for young people, and peace and human rights.

A graphic shows a section of a world map. The 18 countries of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region are highlighted in colour.

The MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) extends from Morocco to Egypt and from Yemen via the Arabian Peninsula to Iran. © FDFA

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region comprises 18 countries. It extends south of the Mediterranean Sea from Morocco to Egypt, and east from Yemen through the countries of the Arabian Peninsula to Iran. It borders Europe and is therefore an important region for Switzerland's foreign policy. Many countries in the MENA region have significant potential in terms of economic development and innovation.

At the same time, the region is affected by long-standing conflicts that are aggravated by (geo) political, religious and ethnic factors. In many countries, hopes of democratisation and the rule of law have been dashed by wars, poor governance, corruption and human rights abuses.

Switzerland's thematic priorities in the MENA region

Switzerland has a direct interest in stability across the MENA region and in economic growth in the individual countries as both are conducive to Switzerland's security and prosperity. On 14 October, the Federal Council therefore formulated strategic foreign policy objectives for the period 2021–24. Switzerland will implement the five thematic priorities from the MENA strategy throughout the region.

To accommodate the specific conditions in the individual countries, the strategy splits the MENA region into three sub-regions: North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia); the Near East (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, occupied Palestinian territory, Syria); and the Arabian Peninsula and Iran (Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen). The priorities are also adapted to the situation in each individual country.

Peace, security and human rights

The MENA region is not homogeneous and is characterised by numerous fault lines. Political, religious and ethnic differences impede regional cooperation and increase the risk of conflicts. Switzerland relies on its peace policy instruments to defuse tensions and promote peace and stability. These include good offices, such as mediation between parties to a conflict, and protecting power mandates. 

A blind girl in Gaza City reads a book in Braille.
The right to education is a central human right. Education not only helps individuals to progress, but brings stability and prosperity to the whole region. © Keystone

Active use is already made of Switzerland's good offices. For example, Switzerland performs protecting power mandates for the US in Iran, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and for Iran in Canada. Such activities build trust in the same way as measures to strengthen human rights and the rule of law. 

Owing to its previous activities, Switzerland enjoys a good reputation in the MENA region as an honest broker, and is a recognised peacebuilding actor. To promote stability in the region, it will also work to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and to protect against violent extremism. 

Migration and protection of people in need

There are some 17 million displaced persons in the MENA region – one quarter of the 70 million displaced persons worldwide. Many countries in the region are countries of origin, transit or destination for refugees and migrants. 

A Syrian refugee boy stands outside his family's tent after heavy rain.
Refugees are among the most vulnerable victims, particularly in conflict situations or in the event of natural disasters, and accordingly need special protection. © Keystone

Switzerland is pursuing two goals in this priority area:

  • On the one hand, it provides protection and shelter for displaced persons. This is why it is providing humanitarian aid on migration routes and on the ground. 
  • On the other, it is working on prevention to reduce irregular migratory pressure. Its root causes include political instability, armed conflicts, human rights abuses, economic crises, poor governance and unemployment. In order to combat irregular migration effectively, efficient migration management is needed. Switzerland therefore seeks to formalise cooperation through migration agreements with host states.

Sustainable development

Sustainability as an objective in the MENA region affects different areas. All the countries in the region are already feeling the impact of climate change with rising temperatures, an increase in extreme weather events and water scarcity. This in turn also increases the risk of conflicts in the MENA region. Switzerland therefore advocates sustainable solutions to benefit the environment, society and the economy.

A female worker stands in an Israeli greenhouse that produces peppers for export.
The countries of the MENA region are strongly affected by climate change. Sustainable development in agriculture is therefore also a contribution to conflict prevention. © Keystone

For example, as a member of IRENA – the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi – it already supports the sustainable use of renewable energies. Other activities involve water diplomacy and climate protection which Switzerland also implements as part of its international cooperation in the MENA region.

Economic affairs, finance, science

The countries of the MENA region have great economic potential, thanks in part to their abundant natural resources, young populations and good level of education. Besides oil and gas, a number of MENA countries also have sufficient wind and solar resources, which could be utilised to help ensure a sustainable energy supply, including for Switzerland. Furthermore, the Gulf states, which are already key trading partners for Switzerland, have evolved to become an important hub in the areas of finance, renewable energies and artificial intelligence. 

An olive seller stands in a small shop in front of a large display of olives of all kinds.
Job opportunities are central if young people are to be given an economic perspective in their home countries and thus regional prosperity. © Keystone

Switzerland aims to intensify relations with the countries in the MENA region in the 2021–24 period. This includes external economic promotion, which will contribute to sustained economic growth in the individual countries, and which is also conducive to Switzerland's prosperity. These efforts aim to promote non-discriminatory conditions, legal certainty and a favourable climate for investment through agreements on free trade, investment protection and double taxation, which are also designed to benefit Swiss firms. In particular, trading partnerships and financial market relations with the Gulf states and Israel are to be developed.

Another priority is cooperation in the field of education, research and innovation. One element of this is science diplomacy, which aims to build trust between individual countries through cooperation in research. Another is higher education, with Switzerland supporting young scientists from the region in collaboration with the Swiss research community, and promoting partnerships with Swiss higher education institutions.

Digitalisation and new technologies

New technologies are spreading rapidly in the MENA region. Various countries have also defined digitalisation as a key driver of growth and prosperity. Social media, digital companies and start-ups are already boosting the economy and offering new opportunities to young people in particular. The Gulf states are also focusing strongly on digitalisation in the service sector, setting up government departments and research centres on artificial intelligence, and are interested in exchanges with Switzerland in the field of data security. 

Two men stand on a stone building and wash solar panels. Next to the house are two other men.
New technologies offer great opportunities for the local population, both in humanitarian aid and in sustainable poverty reduction. © Keystone

For its part, Switzerland seeks to utilise the economic potential of the digital transformation in the MENA region and facilitate access to this new market for Swiss firms. It also has an interest in entering new partnerships. It is therefore expanding its Tech4Good activities as part of international cooperation in the MENA region.

In its partnerships in the MENA region, Switzerland's goal is to ensure an open and stable digital space, and to help make new technologies accessible to as many people as possible for peaceful use. The city of Geneva, but also universities such as the Swiss federal institutes of technology (ETH Zurich and EPFL) play an important role as hubs for digitalisation and new technologies. 

Geographical sub-regions

To accommodate the specific conditions in the individual countries, the strategy splits the MENA region into three sub-regions: North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia); the Near East (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, occupied Palestinian territory, Syria); and the Arabian Peninsula and Iran (Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen).

A graphic shows the three sub-regions: North Africa, Near East and the Arabian Peninsula and Iran
The countries and sub-regions of the MENA region broken down into North Africa (orange), Near East (brown) and Arabian Peninsula/Iran (turquoise). © FDFA

The focus is on specific priorities in each of the sub-regions. 

North Africa

Priorities

  1. Peace, security and human rights
  2. Sustainable development
  3. Migration and protection of people in need

Through projects and action in the countries of North Africa, Switzerland supports migrants in the countries of first refuge and along the migration routes, and supports their integration at the local level. It is also involved in partnerships in the area of law enforcement and combating crime, and in protecting people in need in Libya. Together with the private sector, it seeks greater sectoral cooperation with the North African countries in areas such as transport, renewable energy and agriculture. It also plays an active role in efforts to reform the security sector and in training for workers in arms control.

Near East

Priorities

  1. Peace, security and human rights
  2. Migration and protection of people in need
  3. Sustainable development

In addition to these three priority areas, Switzerland is cooperating with Israel in economic affairs and finance. It is also pursuing regional initiatives focusing on science diplomacy with Jordan, Israel and other countries in the MENA region.

Arabian Peninsula and Iran

Priorities

  1. Peace, security and human rights
  2. Economic affairs, finance, science
  3. Sustainable development

Besides these three priority areas, Switzerland is also active in the areas of migration, protection of people in need and digitalisation.

Coordination of strategies ensures coherent foreign policy

In late January 2020, after analysing the current state of the world and evaluating the trends that could shape the future, the Federal Council published its Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23, setting out its overarching objectives.

The next step involves adapting these objectives to the situation in various regions of the world. Although the objectives are the same, they cannot be implemented the same way everywhere, from Eastern Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, and from the Americas and the Asia/Pacific region to the MENA region. They have to be adapted to the situations in the respective regions. 

Coordination of the strategies is important to ensure that Switzerland can implement its foreign policy in a cohesive and coherent manner in all parts of the world. The overarching objectives of the foreign policy strategy set out the general direction, while the geographical strategies (such as the MENA strategy, and others to follow) elaborate Swiss foreign policy for specific regions.

On top of this, there are thematic strategies, such as the International Cooperation Strategy 2021–24. The objectives of this strategy are creating decent jobs locally, addressing climate change and its effects, reducing the causes of forced displacement and irregular migration, and promoting the rule of law. All these objectives are also incorporated in the MENA strategy.

More on Switzerland's foreign policy cascading strategy

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