New beginnings, peace and a refugee crisis – Ignazio Cassis visits the Middle East

From 3 to 8 April 2021, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis will visit Iraq, Oman and Lebanon. Switzerland's strategy for the Middle East and North Africa aims to strengthen bilateral relations in the region and thus promote peace, security and prosperity. The head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs will discuss these objectives with his counterparts in Iraq and Oman. While in Lebanon, he will also be updated on Switzerland's humanitarian work there.

Picture of an illuminated mosque in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, at night.

As Ignazio Cassis visits Baghdad, the focus is on the country's path to a better future. © Keystone

Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis's itinerary in the Middle East takes in three countries that could not be more different.

For many years, Iraq was faced with the spectre of the 'Islamic State' group, whose hooded, darkly clothed members – driven by religious fanaticism – terrorised the local population. Atrocities, violence and displacement were part and parcel of everyday life. In 2018, the group was defeated by a large-scale military operation and driven underground. The 'Islamic State' group's reign of terror and the consequences of decades of violence and armed conflict shape the humanitarian, economic and social situation in Iraq. Nevertheless, following a change of government in 2020, the country is embarking upon a new path.

By contrast, Oman is a safe haven in an unstable region and has not been caught up in a war for some 50 years. The sultanate – frequently also referred to as the 'Switzerland of the Middle East' owing to its neutral foreign policy – has traditionally played a mediating role. As is the case in many Gulf states, Oman is seeking to move away from its reliance on the petroleum industry and is currently in the process of restructuring its economy. Switzerland opened an embassy in the capital Muscat in 2014 with the aim of fostering a closer partnership with a like-minded country.

War ruins in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
A destroyed building in the Iraqi city of Mosul attests to years of violence. © Keystone

Following the explosion in the port area of Beirut on 4 August 2020, the Lebanese people were once again faced with disaster. Millions of refugees – primarily from Syria – can be found in numerous camps across Lebanon, waiting for a better future. The situation in Lebanon is visibly deteriorating, as there is no end in sight to the Syrian conflict and the country itself is facing a severe economic and political crisis.

Together into a better future

Despite facing considerable issues, many Middle Eastern countries find themselves at a turning point following decades of violence and are eyeing political, economic and social reforms. With its foreign policy, Switzerland is helping these nations make this transition by working together with regional partners such as Oman in the areas of conflict prevention, humanitarian aid and development cooperation. It also sees opportunities for Swiss businesses and seeks to harness the potential of a well-trained young workforce, new technologies and digitalisation. Switzerland has built up a good reputation in the region as a neutral intermediary and valued partner.

COVID-19 in the Middle East

Back in March 2020, it was said that the heat kills coronavirus. The world now knows, however, that the virus can thrive even when it is 50 degrees in the shade. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have been devastating in the Middle East. As a result of past and ongoing conflicts, millions of people – with the exception of the Gulf states and Israel – already had to contend with a lack of medical care and shortages of food, energy and water, even before the virus spread across the region. The measures imposed to contain the virus are also having an impact on the already precarious youth unemployment levels in the MENA region, which are likely to rise even further in many countries there as a result of COVID-19. In addition to the danger posed by the virus itself, the pandemic has exacerbated the humanitarian situation – particularly in refugee camps – and has given rise to a number of new economic and social challenges. By providing emergency humanitarian aid, specifically adapting ongoing projects and programmes in line with the COVID-19 situation, and supporting international partner organisations in the region, the FDFA is helping mitigate the impact of the pandemic in the Middle East. 

Strategic instruments – a combination of old and new

Against this backdrop, Mr Cassis will embark upon his trip on 3 April 2021, where he will meet with high-ranking government officials in Iraq, Oman and Lebanon. These three visits all fall under the umbrella of the Federal Council's Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Strategy 2021–24 (see blue information box below). To achieve its goals in the MENA region, Swiss foreign policy relies on both tried-and-tested and new instruments: good offices for peace and stability, international cooperation to alleviate poverty and save lives as well as vocational education and the use of new technologies to develop sectors of the economy and promote prosperity. All of these measures create prospects for the local population and have a positive impact on reducing migration and strengthening international security. This is Mr Cassis's fourth visit to the MENA region following his trips to Iran, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory, the United Arab Emirates and Algeria in 2020 and early 2021.

For me, youth is synonymous with new beginnings and optimism.
Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis

Mr Cassis believes that the well-trained and politically aware young workforce in the MENA region have the potential to make a real difference: "For me, youth is synonymous with new beginnings and optimism." To see this for himself, the head of the FDFA will visit a number of ambitious start-ups in Iraq and talk to young entrepreneurs in Oman about their projects.

3–4 April: Iraq

A young Iraqi entrepreneur sits behind a wooden table and assembles jewellery.
Young people are playing a key role in Iraq's path to a better future. © Keystone

Ignazio Cassis will land in Baghdad on 3 April 2021, becoming the first Federal Councillor to set foot on Iraqi soil since Fritz Honegger's visit in 1979. Iraq has a turbulent past, heavily shaped by three wars taking place between 1980 and 2003, the emergence of the 'Islamic State' terrorist movement after 2013 and tensions between various ethnic groups. Since the defeat of the 'Islamic State' group in 2018, security and stability have been a priority for the country. The new government, which took office in May 2020, is making efforts to stabilise the country's economy, prevent the resurgence of extremist groups and build trust, particularly among young people. The stage is set for reconstruction, which presents Switzerland with an opportunity to strengthen its bilateral relations with Iraq. In line with the priorities of the MENA Strategy, in his talks with Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs Fuad Hussein, Mr Cassis will discuss closer cooperation in the following areas:

·         Migration and humanitarian aid

·         Peace and security

·         Economic affairs

In signing a memorandum of understanding on bilateral political consultations, both foreign ministers will signal their intention to strengthen the bond between Switzerland and Iraq.

On 4 April 2021, Mr Cassis will then meet a number of ambitious start-ups as part of his visit. The focus of discussions will be on innovation and prospects for young people in the still fragile country. The young entrepreneurs behind the Iraqi start-up scene offer everyday online services such as food deliveries, medication courier services or arranging childcare. Most have a background in technology and are helping to diversify the economy by opening up new sectors other than oil production that are of interest to investors.

5–6 April: Oman

View of the picturesque Omani capital, Muscat.
Oman – a safe haven in an unstable region. © Keystone

The head of the FDFA will spend 5 and 6 April 2021 in Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. Politically speaking, the country is seen as an anchor of stability in the Middle East. Oman is not involved in any of the numerous conflicts in the region, but tries to play an active role in mediating between the parties to these conflicts. Switzerland and Oman share common ground insomuch as both countries have a long tradition of neutral foreign policy. This forms a solid foundation for productive cooperation with the aim of promoting dialogue and peace in the MENA region. Oman is also actively restructuring its economy in order to attract foreign companies and investment and is committed to training young people to prepare them for employment in the new sectors of the economy. This opens up trade and investment opportunities for Swiss companies. Oman is also a popular destination for Swiss visitors.

Mr Cassis will meet the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Oman, Sayyid Badr Al Busaidi, on 6 April. Their discussion will focus on developments in the Middle East and initiatives aimed at promoting dialogue and trust between parties to conflicts in the region.

Oman's vision is to diversify its economy and boost its private sector, in particular by improving training for the younger generation and harnessing their potential. As part of its MENA Strategy, Switzerland is also committed to the younger generation and aims to improve its access to the job market. As such, Switzerland welcomes Oman's commitment to diversifying its economy and attracting new investment. During his visit, Mr Cassis will meet with representatives of the Switzerland-Oman Friendship Association and Swiss companies to discuss the opportunities presented by the ongoing diversification of the Omani economy, particularly in the areas of infrastructure, logistics and tourism.

7–8 April: Lebanon

View of destroyed buildings following the devastating explosion in Beirut in August 2020.
The explosion in the port area of Beirut on 4 August 2020 further exacerbated the situation in Lebanon, a country already facing a major economic and refugee crisis. © Keystone

Mr Cassis will arrive in the Lebanese capital Beirut on 7 April 2021, where he will be updated on the reconstruction work taking place following the violent explosion on 4 August 2020, as well as on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Large areas of the Lebanese capital are still in ruins following the explosion, which claimed at least 160 lives and injured thousands. The Swiss embassy was also affected by the blast. Ambassador Monika Schmutz Kirgöz remembers the scene immediately after the blast as she was walking to a nearby hospital to receive treatment for a minor injury: "The whole street was covered in blood and debris." The situation demanded international solidarity in August 2020, with Switzerland quick to provide emergency humanitarian aid. Experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) inspected the stability of over 80 damaged buildings, supported maternal and child healthcare in two hospitals and helped to repair 19 schools.

During his visit to Lebanon, the head of the FDFA will open a hospital which was damaged by the explosion and reconstructed with Swiss support. Humanitarian work is a key element of bilateral relations between Switzerland and Lebanon. One reason for this is the Syrian conflict, which has been raging for 10 years. Lebanon is home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees. To alleviate the consequences of the Syrian crisis in Lebanon, the FDFA provides access to water, sanitation and education for people in need. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), for example, worked together with local authorities in northern Lebanon between 2015 and 2020 to restore water and sanitation systems in 25 schools. This will enable basic hygiene in the schools to withstand an increase in refugee children from Syria. Before returning to Switzerland, Mr Cassis will visit a refugee camp and see first-hand Switzerland's humanitarian work. 

A strategic compass for the Middle East and North Africa

Young people, peace and prosperity are at the heart of Mr Cassis's trip to Iraq, Oman and Lebanon; this is very much in line with Switzerland's foreign policy objectives and its MENA Strategy.

At the end of 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 (FPS) 2020–23, setting out its overarching objectives.

Based on the FPS, the MENA Strategy builds on Switzerland's long-standing commitment in the region to conflict prevention, humanitarian aid and development cooperation. It also identifies opportunities for Swiss businesses, seeks to harness the potential of a well-trained young workforce and promotes digitalisation and new technologies. With this new strategy for all of the Middle East and North Africa, Switzerland is increasing the impact and efficiency of its activities in the region.

The geographical strategies, such as the MENA Strategy, complement the thematic strategies, for example Switzerland's International Cooperation Strategy, in which the Middle East and North Africa is defined as a priority region. They are aligned with one another, which ensures that Switzerland's foreign policy activities are more effective, avoids any overlaps and harnesses synergies between the various federal offices involved and external partners.

This interaction between strategies is important to ensure Switzerland implements its foreign policy in a coordinated way in all regions of the world and presents a coherent and unified image.

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