While the world has become more peaceful for the first time since 2009, the Middle East and North Africa, the region known as MENA, dragged down by revolutions, civil wars and ruthless crackdowns by totalitarian regimes, has now surpassed sub-Saharan Africa as the least peaceful region on earth.

According to the new Global Peace Index which looks at 158 countries, the four least peaceful countries in the world are Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq. But the top four countries and the number of places each dropped in the peace index were Egypt (-38), Syria (-31), Tunisia (-28) and Oman (-18).

All countries in the region dropped in ranking, with the notable exception of Jordan, which rose from 64th to 62nd place. Israel dropped five placed to 150, making it one of the least peaceful countries in the world, even lower than Iran, Egypt or war-torn Syria.

The annual index was published by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP) and measures 23 indicators, ranging from civil unrest and crime; to military spending, involvement in armed conflict and ties with neighbors.

“What comes across dramatically in this year's results and the six-year trends is a shift in global priorities. Nations have become externally more peaceful as they compete through economic, rather than military means,” Steve Killelea, founder and Executive Chairman of the IEP

He said that regional wars in sub-Saharan Africa were waning, while the turmoil of the Arab Spring was largely internal. The drop largely reflects the upheaval and instability driven by the Arab Spring, the IEP said.

“[Global] peacefulness has returned to approximately the levels seen in 2007, but while external measures of peacefulness have improved, there has been a rise in internal conflict. This is particularly noticeable in the rise in fatalities from terrorist acts,” Killelea said.

The index also measures the degree of a nation’s militarization, export of arms, number of soldiers and the volume of heavy weapons owned by the state, which could explain why peace index dropped for Israel, which has one of the most powerful conscripted militaries in the world even though it exists in relative peace at the moment.

Although tens of thousands of Eritreans have been fleeing to Israel in recent years, and the UN deems their country so dangerous that they cannot be repatriated, the GPI nevertheless ranked the east-African nation at 122, significantly more peaceful than Israel.

Israel actually came out more threatening to world peace than Syria, ranked 147, although the uprising against President Bashar Assad has so far claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people in the past 15 months according to United Nations figures.

“Syria’s descent into civil war caused it to fall by the largest margin, followed by post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia respectively,” said a statement from IEP, a non-profit research organization.

In the region, Qatar was ranked the most peaceful country and was ranked 12th globally. The UAE was 46th, Kuwait was 47th and Saudi Arabia was 106th.

Bahrain has plummeted in the latest edition of the Global Peace Index as a result of months of unrest in the Gulf kingdom. The country fell to 118th place out of 158 covered after being placed 62nd back in 2007. Bahrain, a US ally and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since pro-democracy protests led by Shiites erupted early last year following revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

Killelea said that austerity-driven defense cuts were a leading factor in making the world a more peaceful place. He noted that Brazil, France, Germany, India, UK and the US had all cut their defense budgets in 2011.

This didn’t seem to be the case in the Middle East. Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, holds that many states in the region, particularly the Gulf states, are making “massive arms purchases.”

“The threat of terrorism has so far been contained, but remains all too real. Moreover, it has driven many regional states to make major increases in their paramilitary, security and special operations forces,” Cordesman concluded in a paper called The Gulf Military Balance 2012.

Western Europe remains markedly the most peaceful region with the majority of its countries in the top 20 for the sixth consecutive year, with Norway having dropped out of the top 10 for the first time to 18th position. North America showed slight improvement, continuing a trend since 2007, while Latin America experienced an overall gain with 16 of its 23 countries seeing improvement in their GPI score. All regions excluding the Middle East and North Africa saw an improvement in levels of overall peacefulness.

The 158 nations included in the survey represent roughly 99% of the world’s population, IEP said.

Ironically, the two most peaceful nations are Iceland and New Zealand, which appears to prove that having no neighbors is the best condition for peace.

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