Why They Flee: Our Shared Destiny With The Middle East

The war in Syria is triggering the escape of many, but the true cause can be found much deeper. Arab societies need such vast reforms that Europe must stand as a model, rather than play realpolitik.

Immigrants who crossed over from Turkey arrive in Greece
Immigrants who crossed over from Turkey arrive in Greece
Necla Kelek

BERLIN â€" Hundreds of people lined up in front of the French embassy in Tunis, hoping for a visa for France. In Casablanca, young women who'd married Turkish men living in Germany attended language classes at the Goethe Institute, desperate to learn the minimum 300 German words needed to enter the country. In the Turkish region of Anatolia, thousands of girls married cousins in Germany. The question â€" from Morocco to Turkey â€" was always the same: "How do I get to Europe?"

And that was in 2012, when the Arab Spring still held the promise for some of better times ahead at home, when young people still had a reason to stay in their own countries. Since then, the wars in Syria and Iraq have put even more pressure on people to leave. But war is not the sole driving force behind emigration from the Middle East. Often it's just the final trigger for people who already had a long list of reasons to pack their bags, and who see the open borders in Europe as a "window of opportunity."

The dictatorial Islamic states of the Middle East, fighting among themselves and against the world, have failed to match the West's modern spirit. Their social structures, headed by authoritarian religious leadership, are obsolete. Only countries like Saudi Arabia, which buys everything and everyone with petrodollars, can be considered as a stable Sharia dictatorship â€" and only because they manage to feed their population and let foreigners and slaves do the dirty work for them.

If the borders with Turkey were opened today, or if Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans and Egyptians were allowed to enter Europe, the young people of those countries would leave en masse and not go back. Economic opportunities are part of the reason. But an even bigger lure is the individual freedom people are afforded in the West. Young people turn away from their societies because they are being disregarded as citizens and are offered so little, not only in terms of jobs, but also education, art and culture.

Islamic states are young societies, demographically speaking, but they are intellectually outdated because for generations, they have been living according to the principles of Taqlid â€" imitation and repetition â€" rejecting innovation and excluding doubt. Young people are expected to obey. There's no way for them to break out of the established patterns.

Praying in Damascus' Umayyad Mosque in 2009 â€" Photo: Arian Zwegers

The economies in those countries rarely produce or develop anything new of their own. They are made up of merchants and landlords, without a vibrant and autonomous corporate culture. The number of property owners is growing, but only numerically, so the only options left are repression, suppression and, for those willing or able to risk it, escape.

Eternal nepotism

A couple of years ago, thousands of graduates protested daily in front of the department of education of Rabat, Morocco's capital, because, as inconceivable as it sounds for a country with such a high illiteracy rate, teachers had no job opportunities. A Moroccan once told me: "The King loves his country, but not its people."

Sadly, the situation is pretty much the same in most of the region's countries â€" leaders don’t care about the well-being of their people. They seek power, benefice and nepotism. Islam and its traditions form the moral structure of their worldview, characterized by inner and outer obedience.

The societies, as a result, are incredibly restrictive: people are watched from the outside by the state, secret services, clans and families; and controlled on the inside by a code of conduct, of honor and dishonor, that hinders any personal development. Even Turkey is now in danger as Islam threatens to become a state religion, suffocating people's hope for freedom and change.

The ultimate reason for destabilization in the region is not, as often claimed, colonialism or exploitation of natural resources, even though the West continues to repeat its same mistakes.

A better explanation is the Islamic Ummah and its idea of man and the state, based on the Koran. Muslims rely on their closed community before God â€" called Ummah. Within Islamic states, it’s not much different, and as such, there is no such thing as solidarity among Islamic countries, with factionalism playing out in geopolitics that are often hard to decipher.

Betting on strongmen

Petrodollars are being invested on the world’s financial markets, but not used for the region's development. The wealthy may distribute Zakat (handouts) and thus create a certain dependency, but they don't contribute to the sustainable development of impoverished communities.

Koranic schools were forced on Palestinians by pious Saudi Arabians. Syrian refugees aren’t welcome in Riyadh. Saudi and Qatar foundations finance mosques worldwide, in Germany too, but don’t let refugees enter the high-tech pilgrimage states of Mecca, don’t build any schools in Gaza, don’t integrate people through education and fail to build any lasting infrastructure.

The former scraggy desert territory of Israel, on the other hand, proves that there’s another way by becoming, in the span of just a few decades, a successful exporter of both citrus fruit and high-tech innovation. Israel has been restrictive in its own ways, most notably by banishing the Palestinians. But it’s also true that it has absorbed 800,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab countries.

With its bombing campaigns, Europe will probably obtain silence, but not peace in Syria. Nor will it solve the problem of the region's obsolete Islamic model of society. And it’s this broken down system in the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Morocco, that compells people to leave.

In Morocco â€" Photo: 16:9Clue

Today it seems as if Europe might return to a preference for dictatorships, like the one in Egypt, because only those kinds of regimes can stop the refugees at the borders. But just like in the classic tragedy, the eventual failure of this policy is inevitable.

We must assume that the millions of refugees won’t want to go home, and that even more will follow. And that’s why integration must start where the strengths of our society can be found. Personal development, communication of freedom, responsibility and tolerance. Our greatest strength lies in personal and social freedom in the strictly secular state.

This may sound hackneyed, when facing more practical problems such as providing shelter and food, but it's at the heart of the problem. Yes, we must accept our share of newcomers. But only by defending the cornerstones of our culture â€" including rule of law, free market economy, accessible education and the constant reviewing of norms, traditions and creativity â€" can Europe help fix a foreign problem that has become an urgent problem at home too.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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