The Middle East

THE impact of near-disaster in Iraq has had a most sobering effect in Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut. The spectacle of Iraqi Army generals as political captives of Communists, guided from outside the country, has induced a healthy reaction in the surrounding countries. Skepticism of Communist motives was never more open. The damage that Suez did to Western prestige in the Middle East three years ago has been nearly matched by that done to the Russians and Chinese by their overt meddling in Iraq.

The first reaction has been the closing of Arab ranks. Relations between the United Arab Republic and the other Arab states have suddenly improved. President Nasser appears to have learned the advantages of coexistence over conspiracy. Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Sudan have responded by resuming diplomatic relations with him. The beginnings of common Arab economic policies are discernible.

Within the U.A.R., the particularly knotty problem of harnessing Syria‘s capitalist economic structure to Egypt’s mixed state-enterprise system is being approached more cautiously. Syrian complaints are being heard, and demands for more local autonomy heeded by Nasser’s trusted deputy governor for Syria, Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer. There is, in short, less bickering within the Arab community, and a good deal more energy is going into solving domestic problems.

Of these the greatest is poverty on the land. Behind the imposing new faςades of present-day Arab capitals stretch the unwatered deserts. For years past, one expensive survey after another has shown what needed to be done to bring water to these dry expanses and make them productive. This overlong period of surveys and studies now seems at an end. The water resources of the Nile, the Jordan, and the Litani arc at last in the process of being utilized.

Up to now Iraq has led the way in river development with its extensive flood-control program on the Euphrates and the Tigris. Great technical progress is visible in Iraq, but the lack of trained people to run new irrigation systems has slowed development. The social lag which hindered real land reform under the old regime continues to plague the new government. Soviet experts brought in, for example, to help speed up land reform have been no more successful than their Western predecessors in getting new farmers into operation.

Dividing the waters of the Nile

The race against hunger in the Middle East is still open, therefore, in spite of Iraq’s head start. The most important new sign of progress in this direction came with the signing in Cairo last November of a new Nile waters agreement between Egypt and the Sudan. The stake for both countries is great. Sudan needed agreement in order to get a loan from the World Bank for the Roseires Dam, which will make possible the extension of its irrigation system. Egypt needed to end the thirty-year stalemate over Nile waters in order to start building the High Dam at Aswan on schedule this winter.

The new agreement is a triumph of moderation over domestic politics in each country. The Sudan gets nearly two thirds of the additional Nile waters that will be saved from running to waste into the Mediterranean when the High Dam is built. Sudan will also be compensated for land in the Wadi Haifa area which will be submerged by the High Dam. Total water allocations will be 18.5 million cubic feet annually to Sudan and 55 million cubic feet to Egypt. The compensation figure finally reached after President Nasser‘s personal intervention is $43 million. Additional features of tHe agreement are that the two states will take a unified stand in dealing with other riparian states, and any waters shared with them will come in equal amounts from the allocations of both.

From any point of view, the water agreement represents a tremendous step forward. It frees both states to get on with ambitious agricultural and industrial plans. Egypt has made genuine concessions in order to obtain this new freedom of action. It secures only a 14 per cent increase in water for irrigation and must seek other water resources more actively than ever. For this reason, Egyptian Army engineers are at work drilling artesian wells around ancient oases in the western desert. Fifteen thousand new acres have been brought into cultivation in so-called Liberation Province, west of the Nile Delta, after some four years of canal and well digging. The High Dam is counted on to add one more million to Egypt’s present six million acres of cultivable land by 1964.

The Jordan watershed

On a smaller scale, but equally significant for Jordan, is the East Ghor Canal, being built to carry water from the Yarmuk, the Jordan River’s largest tributary, to irrigate some 30,000 acres along the eastern slope of the Jordan Valley. This project, being carried out with Jordan Development Board and ICA funds, amounts to a simple diversion just above the confluence of the Yarmuk and the Jordan below Tiberias by means of a horseshoe-shaped tunnel which will carry Yarmuk waters into a 43-milc canal. The tunnel is designed to fit into any future regional water scheme for the Jordan.

An unwritten agreement, in the fashion of Middle East agreements, has restrained both Jordan and Israel from taking from the Jordan watershed more water than either was to have received under the Johnston Plan. The Yarmuk River diversion, however, has revived the demand within Israel for a much greater share of Jordan water. Hence the river again is the focus of fresh ArabIsraeli conflict

The virtues of the East Ghor Canal for Jordan are both economic and social. In economic terms, bringing water to the rich soil of the east bank in a valley which is entirely below sea level will enable Jordan to produce valuable new fruit, grain, and vegetable crops for export. Double and even triple cropping in this favorable warm climate arc expected.

In good years, such products have made up some 40 per cent of Jordan‘s exports. Economists foresee a great increase in this business.

Help for farmers

In terms of social progress, the scheme has promise as well. For, under a new Jordan water law an independent East Ghor Canal Authority will have control over this development and its benefits. The law, enacted a year ago, sets up priorities which favor resident, operating farmers first and limit holdings in the irrigated district to a maximum of 75 acres. Recipients of water are to pay a prorata share of annual costs and over a longer period are to help repay the government for the cost of construction. Meantime, the authority is empowered to help farmers in getting into operation with low-interest loans, setting up cooperatives, and offering assistance for sanitation and soil conservation.

At one jump, therefore, the law strikes at prevailing usurious interest rates to farmers, which range from 20 per cent to 50 per cent for those offering collateral. It prevents the enrichment of a very few large landholders in the district and at the same time makes it possible for owners of fragmented holdings to acquire minimum tracts of seven acres to operate profitably. The law has been hailed in Jordan as the beginning of a fair deal for small farmers.

The East Ghor Canal is the most dramatic of several water-development schemes now under way with IGA assistance. Well-drilling equipment and assistance in the last five years have enabled Jordanians to discover thirty-two sweet-water wells in previously arid areas. At the same time, American aid has made possible the construction of a new road system running north and south to carry freight to Jordan’s single port on the Red Sea, Aqaba.

Without substantial Western aid, Jordan would, of course, collapse entirely, creating a vacuum in which neighboring states would inevitably clash. For this reason, some $145 million has gone from the United States to sustain Jordan‘s government since 1952. The aim of U.S. aid is to make the country more productive and less dependent on foreign aid than it has been during the past ten years.

A third river project, on the Litani in Lebanon, is under way again after interruption during the civil conflict of 1958. The emphasis on the Litani is on power development to relieve a chronic shortage. A $27-million loan from the World Bank was granted in 1955. Since then, both technical and political difficulties have delayed its progress. Here, as throughout its economic system, Lebanon has paid a heavy price for the internal struggle which nearly split the country.

Compensating the refugees

The sense of urgency about getting on with economic improvements, and particularly with water development, gives a more hopeful tone to Middle East news, in spite of general anxiety over political developments. Next to the common concern over Iraq’s fate is a renewed public interest in the Arab refugee question. This came to a head with the publication last summer of a report by Secretary-General Hammarskjöld on the refugee question. His recommendation that UNRWA be continued included an outline of the projected costs of any possible future settlement of the refugees anywhere in the region. He arrived at a figure of some one and a half to two billion dollars, which would be required in the next five years from outside the area in order to speed up its economic growth on a regional basis to a point where better employment opportunities could be created to attract refugees. In essence, he suggested that such general economic development would be a necessary precondition to resettlement, if the refugees could ever be persuaded to accept it.

This emphasis on the actual costs of resettlement, even in theory, sounded an alarm throughout the Arab world and stimulated a united and uncompromising response. The Arab argument was addressed to the Secretary-General in October in a letter signed by representatives often Arab states. Conceding that the Secretary-General had in no way disregarded the existing body of UN resolutions which affirm the rights of the refugees to choose between repatriation and compensation, the Arab spokesmen came out strongly on the compensation issue. They stressed the failure of the UN to carry out its resolutions and suggested that UNRWA’s load could be greatly reduced if Palestinians who owned property before partition could now receive full compensation, including income which such properties earned during the last ten years. Such income should be turned over to the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine, which was established for that purpose.

UNRWA would then not need to beg annually for funds to keep the refugees alive, and some measure of justice would at last be achieved. Meanwhile, the Arabs emphatically reaffirmed their reliance on the letter of the standing resolutions which call for repatriation and compensation.

To date, the Conciliation Commission has succeeded in two of its assigned tasks, It has, as of June, arranged the release by Israel of some 2,781,164 Israeli pounds in blocked bank accounts to refugees. Transfer of other valuables has been insignificant in amount, partly because of the failure of refugee owners to apply for them. The commission has also identified 450,000 properties as those of former Palestinian owners from official mandate records. However, no machinery for compensation of these absentee owners has been set up, as the current Arab complaint emphasizes.

The question arises as to whether this complaint, with its emphasis on compensation, may not reopen the door to negotiation about properties, which could in fact lead to a reduction in tension over the whole refugee issue. Some such possibility appears between the lines of President Nasser’s offer to accept UN good offices in negotiating all standing resolutions on Palestine and on Suez, an offer which apparently still stands.

Relief for another decade

Meanwhile, UNRWA’s relief operations have had to be extended officially for another three years in order to prevent the explosion which would follow their abandonment. UNRWA’s director, John H. Davis, has admitted that the agency may be needed for another ten years. Most informed observers agree. Within its charter, UNRWA has accomplished such specific steps as getting those in camps out of tents and into huts. Its distribution services have never failed, even in times of acute trouble. And it has managed to prevent any major epidemics, riots, or mass demonstrations, which could touch off a general conflagration.

Mr. Davis credits the Arab host countries with contributing tangible and intangible services, amounting to about $10 million a year, to keep the refugee situation stabilized. He hopes in the coming year to increase UNRWA’s stabilizing influence by expanding some of its complementary functions. These are vocational training, for which demand is growing, university scholarships, and individual loans and grants to refugees able to start small enterprises. Of all the refugee population, the 30,000 people who reach maturity each year for whom there are no jobs cause the agency the greatest anxiety.

Entangled with the refugee question is that of passage through the Suez Canal for Israeli cargoes. Egypt’s present argument that it is still in a state of war with Israel rests on the legalistic grounds that Israel denounced the existing armistice at the time of its attack on Sinai in 1956. The latest Israeli response to the blockade has been to lobby strenuously in Washington against a World Bank loan to Egypt for widening and improving the canal.

The first bank mission to Israel has reported favorably on this request. Essentially, however, the bank takes the position of other United Nations agencies — that it must remain independent and apolitical.