For much of the past 3,000 years, the Mediterranean Sea was one of the most important bodies of water in the world, with great powers such as the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs and others battling for control of this vital body of water. However, as global power has moved away from the states bordering the Mediterranean, the sea has become something of a backwater, no longer viewed as such an important body of water as in the past. However, a number of developments in recent years are once again focusing the world’s attention on the Mediterranean, a body of water that is once again connecting Asia, Europe and Africa. On one hand, conflicts are raging around many areas of the Mediterranean, conflicts that are destabilizing the entire Mediterranean region. These conflicts, coupled with economic and demographic trends to the south and east of the sea, have led to a mass of humanity seeking to cross the sea and reach the wealthier and more secure countries of Europe in recent years. Now, a number of countries are vying for a leading position in the Mediterranean, making it one of the world’s riskiest flashpoints.
Throughout its history, the Mediterranean region has been beset by conflict, with only the Roman era marking a period in which a single power controlled the entire coastline of this body water. While conflict is the norm in this region, there is no question that the level of violence and unrest in many areas of the Mediterranean region have soared in recent years. The most notable conflict is in Syria, where a six-year civil war has destabilized much of the eastern end of this region. In the south, Libya’s series of civil wars have destabilized a long stretch of the southern Mediterranean coast, resulting in lawlessness taking hold along much of the Libyan coast. Elsewhere, eastern areas of the Mediterranean such as Lebanon, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula are also experiencing higher levels of unrest. Even more stable areas such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are facing the threat of heightened unrest, something that could destabilize not only these countries, but the European countries across the sea.
These conflicts have been a major contributor to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean region that has become a major threat to the region’s stability and security. Despite Europe’s own economic struggles, that region remains the nearest magnet for migrants from poorer and less stable countries to its south and east.
On one hand, economic migrants fleeing poverty and joblessness in Africa make up a large share of the millions of migrants that have crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe in recent years. With job creation levels in Africa forecast to remain low, and with resources such as water and arable land becoming scarcer in that region, such economic migration is likely to rise in the years ahead. On the other hand, there are large number of other types of migrants that have crossed the sea to reach Europe, most of whom have been fleeing the conflicts underway in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen. As there is no end in sight for any of these conflicts, the potential for more surges of migrants fleeing conflicts such as the surge in 2015 will remain high.
While the risks posed by conflict and migration in the Mediterranean region are continuing to rise, another threat is emerging that threatens to further destabilize this region. This threat is the growing struggle for power and influence in the region by not only the powers of the Mediterranean region itself, but also among outside powers such as the United States and Russia. Within the Mediterranean region, there is no single power that is strong enough to dominate the entire region as Rome or the Ottomans once did. Both France and Italy have ambitions to be the leading power in the Mediterranean region, but neither has the power to play such a leading role in the region without the support of more powerful allies. In the east, Turkey seeks to play the leading role in that part of the region, but it is beset by internal divisions as well as conflicts around most of its borders.
Among outside powers, the United States is the leading player in the Mediterranean region, thanks largely to its ability to bring overwhelming naval and air power to the region. Russia is another outside power with major ambitions in the region, and having largely abandoned the Mediterranean for a couple of decades, has re-emerged as a major player through its role in the civil wars in Syria and now Libya. As such, it is clear that, while the center of world power has moved far away from the Mediterranean, it still remains a crucial body of water, as well as a flashpoint bringing together a number of the world’s leading powers.
Michael Weidokal is the Executive Director of ISA (International Strategic Analysis), one of the world’s leading providers of economic forecasting, country intelligence and political risk analysis. ISA’s clients include many of the world’s largest businesses, government bodies and research institutions.