Conflict prevention in the Mediterranean region

Conflict genesis

The word ‘conflict’ refers to some form of friction arising within a community, when its beliefs or actions enter into competition. Conflicts can arise between members of the same group (known as ‘intragroup conflict’) or between members of two or more groups, involving violence and interpersonal discord.

The Mediterranean area has peculiar characteristics, as it gathers in a relatively small territory various peoples which have interacted, traded, and fought each other for centuries. In addition, the internal borders of that area have often represented one of the main factors of tension and conflict. According to different cultural and religious traditions, the Mediterranean basin can be subdivided into five main regions:

  • Christian-Catholic (including the North-West Mediterranean countries);
  • Christian-Orthodox (covering a good part of the Balkan Peninsula and the Eurasian-Russian region);
  • Islamic (including North Africa, the Middle East, much of the Horn of Africa, part of the Balkan Peninsula and the Caucasus, Central Asia);
  • Jewish (mainly in the state of Israel and counting numerous minorities in the other regions);
  • Christian-Coptic (minorities in Egypt and Sudan, and dominant in Ethiopia).

The Mediterranean area has always been subject to countless waves of instability and of conflict between the regional actors involved. The globalization process has accelerated different economic and political developments fueling social fragmentation. That resulted in new sources of violence and conflict.

Reasons for conflicts can be found in:

  • the energy reserves, especially in the Persian Gulf, in Central Asia and in the Caspian Sea, and in North Africa. It has to be taken into account that the percentages are about 65-70% of oil world proven reserves and 30-35% of the gas reserves;
  • the Persian Gulf energy resources, which on a world scale are likely to grow due to the expected increase in demand for energy;
  • crude oil and natural gas (both through pipelines and naval transport) present remarkable volumes and an intensity greater than in any other large navigable basin;
  • energy annuities are the main source of lost wealth of the States of the Great Middle East through which they keep their own internal balance and protect their own external interests.

It is clear that energy dependence continues to be one of the main elements of both political and economic vulnerability of the industrialized countries and, due to the different degree of energy dependence of each country, it has led to profound changes among the Mediterranean partners. Moreover, this has thus to unusual international conflicts.


International Community’s role

From the 20th century, the development of international organizations has introduced considerable institutional elements to the International Community, such as Intergovernmental Organizations (International Organizations) or National Liberation Movements (Self Determination of Peoples), to which international law recognizes legal personality. The current system (known as the “Age of Globalization”) is featured by an increasingly widespread and enhancement of the so-called ‘international dimension’ of any economic, social, communicative and political processes, producing a deeper and closer connection between State-level transformations and international ones.

Among the subjects and factors that best embody the change in the system, economic actors (as multinational or transnational corporations) need to be included. In the mutated world scenario, the economic sphere has become fragmented, multinational, provoking a control escalation among States in commercial and financial terms. In the complexity of the new context, a strong role is played by the United States.

Indeed, today’s international community is characterized by political, military and economic hegemony of a single State that exercises its leadership also through a large network working as a pressure tool within the same community. This even though States and Companies with greater resources should attempt to build relationships with the less favored part of the world, based on mutual exchange, cooperation and solidarity. This process has been facilitated by the use of some policies like: the Development Cooperation Policy, which aims at creating the necessary conditions for a lasting and sustainable economic and social development in a third country; the Public Administration, with the purpose of supporting the economic development of the receptor; the humanitarian assistance, responding to emergencies and exceptional situations, usually alleviating the suffering of populations affected by natural disasters or wars.

Initially, these political tools were aimed at promoting economic growth by financing infrastructural projects, but while growing more articulated, they started to seem as very ‘ambitious’ and ‘broad,’ setting important goals difficult to pursuit, such as poverty reduction in the world.

Due to this extension of the commitments, these measures, instead of changing the strategic addresses, led to a proliferation of approaches that are not always coherent.[1]


Conflict Management

The most developed instruments available so far for preventing conflict are those created to avoid the possible types of conflict in the new European order–as those deriving from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the transition from Communist regimes to democracies, market systems and national minority troubles.

In the Mediterranean, most of the conflicts are well established, so the main issues are not transient problems, but structural ones. As for potential conflicts that need to be prevented, three elements deserve attention: the definition of the area, the stage of the conflicts, and the importance of structural factors in Mediterranean conflicts.[2]

In the past, conflicts were mostly resolved through bilateral agreements between States. Nowadays, multilateral systems have been established, including the implementation of neutral organizations, able to mediate between the parties during the various stages of a conflict, seeking solutions by negotiation, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement or other peaceful means. These processes include different steps: preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peacebuilding.

International organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), are part of the system of so-called ‘multi-track diplomacy,’ characterized by the interaction of the interventions of the various players that make up the system (international bodies, institutions, churches, civil society and private actors) working for the maintenance of peace by mutually affecting each other. But, the substantial anarchy that currently governs international relations needs forms of regulation on a global scale. The increasingly dense international interdependence with the persistence of fragmented cultural, political and social realities could be managed by global governance. In recent years, the UN has suggested this view, but the presence of hegemonic States does not allow the development of a democratic view of the world.



Therefore, conflict prevention goes far beyond simple cooperation between States, which are increasingly associated, both globally and regionally. Nor does it concern only economies, with the opening of markets for goods, capital and services, the reorganization of production by multinationals and the boost in direct foreign investment. Various actors are intensifying their transnational interaction–not only multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but also individuals, through new technologies and a growing movement of people, without imposing homogeneity or greater equity. As we all know, the unifying tendencies (global village) are confronted with fundamentalist reactions of local, ethnic and religious groups who feel their identity is threatened. Practices discussed therefore include crisis diplomacy, the deployment of civilian and military missions or emergency humanitarian aid. Conflict prevention, in contrast, is a long-term oriented goal and implies several objectives (such as good governance and democracy, the protection of human rights and minorities, transitional justice or socioeconomic development). The cases of Syria and Libya contributed blurring the boundary between hard and soft security issues as new actors have become increasingly assertive domestically and regionally.[3]


Elvira Vigliano

Master’s degree in Comparative Literatures and Cultures (University of Naples “L’Orientale”)



Notes and references

[1] Zupi, M. (2012). I limiti della Cooperazione Internazionale. In Treccani. Retrieved from

[2] Marquina, A. (1999, June-August). Conflict Prevention in the Framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership: A European Point of View. Perceptions, 4(2), 31–53.

[3] Colombo, S., & Huber, D. (2016, March). The EU and Conflict Resolution in the Mediterranean Neighbourhood: Tackling New Realities through Old Means?. PapersIEMed, 27. Retrieved from