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Middle East flashpoints on the horizon

Opportunities for resolving some conflicts in 2019 look more positive than before, but the region's fundamental crises remain entrenched

Anyone looking out for events and trends that will matter in the Middle East in 2019 should stay focused on the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul. The repercussions of that shocking episode are set to continue with the potential to undermine Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his ambitious economic and social reforms–perhaps along with the kingdom's place in the strategic calculations of the US in the disruptive days of President Donald Trump.

The stakes are high. The crown prince is aiming to wean Saudis off their long dependence on oil and needs to maintain domestic support and attract foreign investment to diversify the economy and create jobs for the 70pc of the population under 35. His insistent denial that he ordered the Khashoggi killing (which had all the hallmarks of a carefully-planned state assassination) failed to convince Western governments, though Trump, who matters most, controversially gave him the benefit of the doubt. Arab allies have also rallied loyally around him.

Washington's plan for a Middle Eastern Security Alliance—an Arab Nato—is also in doubt as the president cranks up pressure on Iran after unilaterally abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and praises the Saudis as a "steadfast ally". It may very well, in the end, be back to business as usual with what has been dubbed "America's kingdom", although bipartisan Congressional pressure means that it is not guaranteed. Nor, perhaps, is the eventual succession of MbS. Speculation about princely intrigues will not go away.

On the positive side of the ledger, viewed from Riyadh, China's growing interest in the Gulf, for energy supplies and its wider Belt-and-Road ambitions, may compensate for declining confidence elsewhere. Still, there is no substitute for billions of dollars' worth of US and other arms supplies-central to the ongoing war in Yemen. Efforts to broker a political solution in Sanaa will intensify as that conflict approaches its fourth anniversary next March, while aid agencies issue dire warnings that millions face a catastrophic famine.

The UN's new Syria envoy has his cut out to revive a stagnant political process

The hope is that the Khashoggi affair can be leveraged to persuade MbS to back down on that front and on the blockade of neighbouring Qatar—another example of damaging recklessness since his father became king in 2015. The launch of a new Saudi and UAE offensive against the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, a strategic stronghold for the Houthi rebels, suggested that diplomatic efforts focusing on the humanitarian crisis will face an uphill struggle at the UN. But growing international pressure is unlikely to diminish.

Global and regional attention will remain fixed on the Saudis' strategic rival, Iran, as re-imposed US sanctions targeting oil, banks and shipping take their toll, even without the explicit goal of regime change. Ordinary Iranians will be worse off, but they have long experience of living with sanctions, while the rhetoric of a "resistance" economy and the continuing engagement of the EU, Russia, China and India means they will probably muddle through without posing an existential challenge to the government.

Past performance does not suggest any change to Tehran's efforts to maintain its influence in Iraq and use allies and proxies like Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen to pressure its enemies. The hardliners of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the judiciary are in better shape than the pragmatists led by President Hassan Rouhani. There is understandable anxiety about a repeat of last September's attack on an IRGC parade in Ahwaz—claimed by Arab separatists but blamed by Tehran on the Saudis and their American and Israeli allies.

Iran's military and diplomatic presence in Syria will remain a potential flashpoint in the light of Israel's unfulfilled demand that its forces leave the country. If President Assad now rules unchallenged in Damascus, there is still a lot of unfinished business. The fate of the opposition stronghold of Idlib province remains in the balance, while Turkish troops still control large swathes of the north east, where they are confronting Kurdish militias backed by the US. Trump's pledge to withdraw American forces involved in the war on Isis remains to be implemented.

Syrian refugee returns and billions of dollars' worth of reconstruction are rising on international agendas, but the US and Europe will continue to press Vladimir Putin to pick up the tab. There has been little in the way of national reconciliation and many signs of retribution from a triumphant regime presiding over an uncertain future as once-intense media attention fades. The UN's new Syria envoy, the Norwegian Geir Pedersen, has his work cut out to revive a stagnant political process.

In Iraq, the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi will also carry on fighting the remnants of Isis (reinforced by those fleeing Syria) and deal with its war crimes. Other priorities include balancing interests with rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia and tackling poor services, corruption and unemployment in Basra. Iraq's dependence on its eastern neighbour is reflected in its exemption from US sanctions, enabling it to continue buying energy supplies from Iran. Hopes are that President Barham Salih—who has called Iraq "a near-kleptocracy, riven by partisan and ethno-sectarian division"—will soothe tensions between Baghdad and his native Kurdistan as well as intra-Kurdish disagreements. Non-sectarian politics remain the way forward.

Ever-volatile politics in Israel will be dominated by November 2019, or possibly earlier, by a Knesset election that will be a challenge for Benjamin Netanyahu, facing multiple corruption investigations but emboldened by Trump's unwavering support. The fragile ceasefire with the Hamas rulers of the blockaded Gaza Strip, home to 2mn Palestinians, could collapse into new fighting at any time. Polling suggests Netanyahu is likely to be re-elected. But even if he is outflanked by another centre-right politician no one is predicting a significant shift with regard to the Palestinians. On both sides there is declining belief in the possibility of a viable two-state solution to the conflict.

In the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank town of Ramallah, President Mahmoud Abbas will not become any more popular, trapped by the Oslo-era need for security coordination with Israel and unremittingly hostile to Hamas, despite calls for reconciliation. Abbas may face pressure to reopen contacts with the US, even though public fury over the move of its embassy to Jerusalem and other punitive steps has not abated. In Jordan, bound by its 1994 peace treaty with Israel, King Abdullah could become increasingly frustrated with the deadlock on his doorstep, but he has few cards to play.

Efforts to end the Yemen war will intensify as its fourth anniversary approaches

The big imponderable for 2019 remains Trump's long-touted "deal of the century" to unblock the Israel-Palestine impasse, though the key role apparently envisaged for the Saudis has been undermined in the fallout from the Khashoggi affair. Like his good friend in the Oval Office, Netanyahu has argued that a stable Saudi Arabia is needed to confront Iran. Tehran's role in Syria, its backing for Islamic Jihad in Gaza and for Hezbollah in Lebanon, with its growing arsenal of sophisticated long-range missiles, all have the potential to spark a destructive regional war.

Egypt under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi will likely see more of the same. Supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood face repression and arrest, as do liberal critics. Military dominance of the economy does not distribute the benefits of limited growth, boosted by multi-billion preferential loans from Gulf allies. Hopes are for recovery based on improving tourism and natural gas production. Fighting the Sinai branch of Isis will remain a preoccupation, while sporadic terrorist attacks in the Nile Valley seem set to continue. Egypt's presidency of the African Union is seen as an opportunity to boost its regional influence. Sisi's relationship with Trump looks set to preserve Egypt as the world's second-largest recipient of US military aid after Israel.

Prospects for Libya should become clearer after the national conference planned for early 2019. The hope is that it will map out a route to greater stability and elections to resolve the differences between the Tripoli-based and UN-recognised prime minister, Fayez Serraj, and his rival, General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army. European interest will focus on the way the former Jamahiriya has become a permanent haven for Islamic armed groups which are sustained by looting and people trafficking, especially in the far south. Western governments worry about growing evidence of Russian involvement, fearing a repeat of Putin's 2015 intervention in Syria.

Ian Black is visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre, London School of Economics; and former diplomatic editor and Middle East editor of the Guardian

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