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2020 outlook: Where is the Middle East heading?

MEE writers give their take on some of the themes likely to dominate the region in the year ahead
Will common sense break out in 2020, or will more of the Middle East follow the path of Syria? (Illustration by Mohamad Elaasar)

David Hearst | Who will douse the flames of Middle East conflicts?

Well, we survived 2019 - just - but what beckons for the new year and the new decade cannot but make us hunker down even deeper in our bunkers. There is no doubt about it, even to the liberal globalists of the Financial Times, that the western world, long advanced as the example the rest of the world should follow, is in a profound political crisis.

The region is so unstable, it would not take much to trigger a third Gulf war

Voters in England and Wales have just handed the most unstable prime minister in postwar history the biggest mandate since Margaret Thatcher. I say England and Wales because undoubtedly now, if given the chance, a majority of Scots would choose to leave the union first set up in 1707.

The virus of rightwing white nationalism has spread throughout Europe and the US. Watch out for the rise of the neo-fascist League in Italy in 2020, and the strong possibility it could form a government.

This and US President Donald Trump’s re-election will continue to have profound impacts on the Middle East. The unpredictability of western actions in the region, as well as the profound absence of a coherent policy, will affect regional actors such as Turkey, Iran and Israel.

The Gulf is on a hair-trigger, but my betting is still against war on Iran in 2020. Military action in the Gulf is unpredictable, and Trump fancies his chances of turning impeachment into an electoral asset and getting re-elected. That said, the region is so unstable, it would not take much to trigger a third Gulf war.

The Americans are worried, so they recently put substantial efforts into publicly embracing Qatar (Ivanka Trump showed up at this year's Doha Forum) in order to pressure Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman into talks aimed at ending the two-year blockade against Qatar. The talks themselves, however, are in their infancy, and both Bahrain and the UAE are against any change to the status quo.

The civil war in Libya could easily descend into house-to-house fighting in Tripoli, unless both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin come to an Astana-like deal. The military balance has recently swung in General Khalifa Haftar’s favour with the arrival of hundreds of Russian mercenaries.

Overall, we enter a new decade with record temperatures, strong winds and bush fires raging throughout the region. There are limited means to fight those fires. Will common sense break out, before vast tracts of the Middle East look like Syria? No time soon.

Madawi al-Rasheed | Only a change in leadership could promise a better future for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salamn (Reuters)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Reuters)

If success is measured by achievements, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sunk deeper into trouble on many fronts over the past year. 

The domestic scene has been punctuated by the contradiction of reform and repression. Regionally, Saudi oil fields suffered two attacks that crippled production, and an aborted reconciliation with Gulf neighbour Qatar stumbled before it even started.

The crown prince has let down his own people, regional powers and the international community

Globally, bin Salman is yet to salvage his reputation as a reliable leader after a failed five-year military adventure in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in late 2018, both of which tamped enthusiasm for his project to draw international investors and float the oil company Aramco in global markets. 

On these three fronts, the crown prince proved successful only in undermining the kingdom’s credibility, and tarnishing its reputation beyond repair. 

For Saudi Arabia, the coming year does not look bright, as the entrenched repression and regional adventures appear destined to continue. The crown prince has let down his own people, regional powers and the international community. Only a change in leadership could promise a better future for Saudi Arabia and restore its image beyond its borders.

Marco Carnelos | Three unpredictable variables

Lebanese expats are welcomed by demonstrators upon their arrival at the Beirut International Airport in the Lebanese capital on 22 November (AFP)
Lebanese expats are welcomed by demonstrators upon their arrival at Beirut International Airport on 22 November (AFP)

In 2020, the key trends for the Middle East will continue to be conditioned by the long-running clash between the so-called Arab Nato, consisting of the United States, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the so-called Axis of Resistance, composed of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Yemen. Both camps are contending the leadership in the region. The first one is attempting the reaffirmation of Pax Americana, the second one openly challenging it.

In 2020, the street protests, more than those in power, could affect events in the Middle East

Russia, China and Turkey will be the spoilers. They will exert their influence from outside - which is increasing anyway - and affect the balance of power between these two camps in a pragmatic way, on a case-by-case approach. In such an established geopolitical framework, three additional elements should be considered.

Firstly, there is the presidential election campaign in the United States, where the US role in the Middle East could be debated between Trump, who aspires to limit it, and Washington’s foreign policy and defence establishment, which remains inclined to persevere with endless wars in the region. To some extent, both mainstream Republican and Democratic parties remain subscribers to endless wars, adding further confusion to an already complex picture.

Secondly, there are the ongoing protests in several Arab capitals, mainly, but not only, Beirut and Baghdad. It remains to be seen whether, and how, the protests will be able to alter the balances in the region - and, in particular, Iranian influence. 

Thirdly, the parliamentary elections in Iran, due to be held in February, could significantly constrain President Hassan Rouhani’s room to manoeuvre in a possibly controlled de-escalation with the US. The popular mood in Arab, American and Iranian streets will be one of the key, unpredictable, wild variables. In 2020, the street protests, more than those in power, could affect events in the Middle East.

Peter Oborne | Boris Johnson's year of reckoning 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (AFP)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (AFP)

The years 1914, 1945 and 1979 were three turning points in British history. 2020 will be another. Britain leaves the European Union to forge its own destiny.

Some regard this move as lunacy. Others see it as a magnificent assertion of British national independence. In the short term, there’s an immediate problem to resolve: can Britain strike a trade deal with Europe before the end of the transitional period on 31 December 2020? Experts believe Britain can’t do this. That means exiting the EU on World Trade Organisation terms.

Will a British desire to cultivate the Gulf States and Israel cause her to overlook the brutality of the Arab regimes and the degradation of Palestinian rights?

Meanwhile, pressures are mounting on the union. Will Scotland and Northern Ireland seek to break away from Britain in the same way that Britain has departed the EU?

Another core question: will the pressure to strike independent trade deals following Brexit cause Prime Minister Boris Johnson to mute criticism of immoral foreign leaders, such as Narendra Modi in India and Xi Jinping in China, as they pursue genocidal policies against their Muslim populations? 

What about the Middle East? Will a British desire to cultivate relationships with the Gulf states and Israel cause her to overlook the brutality of Arab regimes and the degradation of Palestinian rights? Johnson and his Brexiteer government assert that Britain will become an independent nation standing up for free trade and moral decency.

In 2020, we will start to learn the truth of those claims. Meanwhile, the threat of global recession looms.

Joseph Massad | Jews should not be defined as Zionists

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish anti-Zionism protesters join a demonstration in central London in support of Palestinians in Gaza on 7 April 2018 (AFP)
Ultra-orthodox Jewish anti-Zionism protesters join a demonstration in London in support of Palestinians in Gaza on 7 April 2018 (AFP)

During the last year, and with the rising tide of the global movement opposing Israeli racist and colonial policies towards Palestinians, Israel and its western allies have sought to criminalise all opposition to Israeli colonialism as nothing but "antisemitism".

Jews have fought since the 19th century against antisemitism, which targeted them as a group, and have refused to accept the antisemitic claims that they are a race

This month alone, the US and British governments have taken measures in that direction, while France, Germany, and the EU have done so over the last year. They have based their criminalisation of opposition to Israeli racism and colonialism on the new definition of antisemitism that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted in 2016, which includes in its definition opposition to Israeli policies. 

Jews have fought since the 19th century against antisemitism, which targeted them as a group, and have refused to accept the antisemitic claims that they are a race. The new IHRA definition might be construed as an attempt to make all Jews worldwide responsible for Israeli and Zionist colonial crimes against the Palestinian people, and in so doing, to make it impossible for anyone to oppose these crimes under threat of being charged with antisemitism.

That so many Jews and gentiles today across the world, especially within the BDS movement and movements such as Jewish Voice for Peace, insist that Jews should not be defined as Zionists, let alone as colonists, has effectively challenged the new antisemitic strategy of implicating all Jews in Israel’s colonial policies. The recent legal measures across Europe and the US to implicate all Jews in Israeli crimes are the clearest evidence of the failure of the IHRA strategy to be effective on its own without legal repression.

Harith Hassan | The unprecedented scrutiny of the Iraqi public

An Iraqi girl gestures during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq December 20, 2019. REUTERS
An Iraqi girl gestures during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq on 20 December (Reuters)

The year 2019 will be remembered for the largest and most enduring anti-government protests in Iraq’s modern history. 

What started in October as a relatively small demonstration of young men, mostly unemployed or underemployed, quickly became a mass movement demanding the fall of the regime. The government and its allied paramilitaries responded with disproportional violence, killing more than 400 protesters so far and injuring thousands.

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The political elite is facing unprecedented scrutiny by the Iraqi public, and its expected failure to implement major reforms could further energise the protest movement. The next steps taken by the elite, beginning with the selection of a new prime minister, will determine the trajectory of events in 2020. 

It is difficult to imagine a smooth process by which ruling factions would make the right decisions, bridging the trust gap with the public. These factions have parasitically channelled state resources to their patronage networks and militias, and their survival depends on perpetuating the system of power apportionment that distributes these resources among them, while diffusing responsibility for the government’s failures and dysfunctionality. 

The game-changer today is the ability of a large number of Iraqis to mobilise and coordinate protest actions without the effective involvement or manipulation of any organised political group. But the success of the protest movement relies on its ability to develop a cohesive agenda for the future, and to turn street mobilisation into an organised political force. 

Jonathan Cook | Terrible setbacks for justice

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London on December 13, 2019
Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London on 13 December (AFP

The year ended with two terrible setbacks for those seeking justice for the Palestinian people. 

One was the defeat in the British election of Jeremy Corbyn - a European leader with a unique record of solidarity with Palestinians. He had suffered four years of media abuse, recasting his activism as evidence of antisemitism. The second was a new executive order issued by US President Donald Trump that embraced a controversial new definition of antisemitism. It sought to conflate criticism of Israel, Palestinian activism and the upholding of international law with hatred of Jews. 

The year ended with two terrible setbacks for those seeking justice for the Palestinian people

The order was designed to chill speech on campuses, one of the few public spaces left in the US where Palestinian voices are still heard. These moves have recently been replicated elsewhere in France and Germany.

There are more such curbs on the horizon. 

Boris Johnson, fresh from winning the UK election, has promised to ban local authorities from supporting a boycott of Israel, while his antisemitism adviser is threatening to shut down online media outlets critical of Israel - ones that also happen to have been supportive of Corbyn. 

Two political constituencies are behind these laws and resolutions - and neither is concerned about protecting Jews. One faction includes western centrist parties that were supposed to have overseen a quarter of a century of peacemaking in the Middle East. Not only did their limited, Israel-centric version of peace fail, but it achieved the opposite of its proclaimed goal. Israel exploited western passivity to entrench and expand the occupation, and to intensify racist legislation inside Israel.

The other is the resurgent, racist right and far-right. They can point to their love of Israel, emulating its brand of Jewish nationalism, as they whip up a wave of white nationalist, anti-immigrant fervour at home.

Nada Elia | BDS: We still have huge hurdles to overcome

   Palestinians demonstrate at the Ofer Israeli checkpoint near Ramallah, through which Israeli goods are usually transported to the West Bank, calling on Palestinians to boycott such imports, on August 6, 2019
Palestinians demonstrate at the Ofer Israeli checkpoint near Ramallah on 6 August (AFP)

The year 2019 saw many BDS victories around the world, from South Africa downgrading its relations with Israel, to major international companies withdrawing from bidding for the construction of Israel’s illegal settlement railways, to tens of thousands of tourists heeding the call to boycott Eurovision in Tel Aviv, resulting in an attendance of only 10 percent of the expected number.  

In the US, and even though the expression comes from a different context, it feels extremely appropriate to say of BDS activism: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” Indeed, the multi-pronged campaign to criminalise the movement seems only to have increased its popularity. 

Possibly the most significant BDS victory of the year is the fact that US politicians are broaching the topic of conditioning aid to Israel - that is, discussing sanctions

This is happening in the street, but also within Congress, where a number of legislators have signed on to a resolution affirming the right to boycott.  

Possibly the most significant BDS victory of the year was US politicians broaching the topic of conditioning aid to Israel - that is, discussing sanctions.

From Representative Betty McCollum’s bill prohibiting the use of US aid money for the military detention of Palestinian children, to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stating that some of the money given to Israel should be redirected to Gaza, to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggesting that the US cut off all aid to Israel, a discussion of holding Israel accountable has entered the national discourse at the highest level. Of course, we still have huge hurdles to overcome. 

But every attempt to delegitimise BDS has been legally challenged, and defeated, by civil rights and Palestine advocacy organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights. So, while we certainly still have major battles ahead, our solid record shows we will be victorious.   

Orly Noy | 2020 Israel: Shattering the illusion

  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israeli nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and retired General Benny Gantz (AFP)
Left to right: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israeli nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and retired General Benny Gantz (AFP)

As Israelis prepare for a third election in less than a year, the start of 2020 finds Israel mired in a political impasse of unprecedented proportions. Theoretically, this deadlock could have presaged a breakthrough in a new direction - given that, for the first time in years, the right wing in Israel has been unable to form a government. 

In 2020, Israeli citizens will be forced once again to choose between two war criminals - and as far as Palestinians are concerned, the differences between the two are mainly semantic

The left could have jumped at this chance to offer voters a real political alternative to occupation and apartheid. The more placatory stance of the Joint List's chairman, Ayman Odeh, could have been a good point of departure to at least consider the possibility of a leftist government supported externally by Arab parties (guaranteeing support in the event of a vote of no confidence). 

This would of course be contingent on substantive policy changes regarding Palestinian citizens of Israel and the oppressive occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. But not only was the Israeli left, insofar as it exists at all, unable to present a real alternative to the status quo, the man heading the opposition to the rightist bloc, Benny Gantz, did not even sit down with the Joint List representatives for an authentic, candid discussion of some sort of cooperation.

So in 2020, Israeli citizens will be forced once again to choose between two war criminals - and as far as Palestinians are concerned, the differences between the two are mainly semantic: one engages openly in wild incitement against them; while the other is prepared to sit with them at the table to discuss nothing more than crumbs of civil rights stripped of any collective or comprehensive dimension.

As for their respective policies towards the occupied territories, differences between left and right are even harder to find. Apart from whatever government Israel may end up with, 2020 symbolises the ultimate shattering of the illusion of an alternative to the Jewish Israeli stance of superiority that has been the essence of Jewish Israeli politics across the entire political spectrum.

Thus, the role of international actors clearly becomes even more crucial for leveraging the kind of change that Israeli citizens themselves cannot and will not bring about. The decision of the International Criminal Court in the Hague to investigate war crimes committed by Israel could be an important step in that direction. 

Richard Silverstein | A make or break year for Trump and Israel

US President Donald Trump greets members of the Shalva Band after their performance at the Israeli American Council National Summit 2019 on 7 December (AFP)
US President Donald Trump greets a member of the Shalva Band after their performance at the Israeli American Council National Summit 2019 on 7 December (AFP)

Both the US and Israel face momentous elections in the coming year.

Israel’s will be in early February, and the third such election in the past 12 months, an unprecedented political stalemate. It doesn’t promise to bring much in the way of change, regardless of who wins. 

If Trump loses and Democrats strengthen their hand in Congress, US policy will likely revert to the approach favoured by former President Barack Obama

The US election in November promises to be much more pivotal, as it marks an opportunity to unseat Donald Trump, who has brought volatility and uncertainty to relations with the Middle East: from the precipitous withdrawal from Syria at the instigation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to the near-attack on Iran for downing a US drone (avoided at the last minute if Trump is to be believed), to a wholesale sellout of Palestinians in favour of Israel regarding the much-vaunted "deal of the century".

Trump has been weakened by his impeachment in the House of Representatives, but it appears unlikely the Senate will convict him and remove him from office. This means that he will limp into the November election as a wounded candidate. Nevertheless, he will retain much of his Republican support and still be formidable. If Trump loses and Democrats strengthen their hand in Congress, US policy will likely revert to the approach favoured by former President Barack Obama.

Though there will be little chance for improvement regarding Israel-Palestine, a Democratic president could ease tensions with Iran considerably. Leading Democratic contender Joe Biden has not been known to stake out a clear policy towards the region. Senator Bernie Sanders has been the most outspoken in his willingness to criticise Israel. He is the first Democrat in decades to threaten to withhold US aid to Israel.

This marks a sea change among normally obeisant Democratic candidates who refuse to rock the boat on Israel.

Belen Fernandez | Israel: The criminal enterprise

Demonstrators in the Federal Building Plaza protest the deaths of more than 30 Palestinians killed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza on 20 November (AFP)
Demonstrators at the Federal Building Plaza in Chicago protest against the deaths of more than 30 Palestinians killed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza on 20 November (AFP)

In an end-of-year article headlined “Israeli migraine-busting device saluted as 2020 ‘game changer’”, the Times of Israel enthused: “After its product was selected earlier this year as one of Time magazine’s 100 best inventions for 2019, Israeli startup Theranica, the developer of a medical device for the treatment of acute migraine, has been chosen by New York data company CB Insights as one of next year’s 36 startup ‘game changers’.” According to the New York firm, Netanya-based Theranica is one of an exclusive group of “high-momentum companies pioneering new ways to solve big problems” in 2020.

If only the year 2020 would enable people to see Israel for the criminal enterprise that it is, that would be a 'game changer' indeed

Of course, the custom of whitewashing Israeli apartheid and lethal brutality vis-a-vis Palestinians is nothing new. For years, proponents of the Zionist state (along with potentially unwitting collaborators) have marketed Israel as an oasis of technology, modernity, civilisation and all that good stuff - and never mind the fact that it regularly massacres Arabs and otherwise deprives them of rights.

The Gaza Strip, for example, is no stranger to Israeli-induced casualty counts in the thousands. Forget "game-changing" solutions to the phenomenon of migraines - Israel is perpetually behind the proliferation of all manner of "big problems" on Palestinian land, from slaughter and mutilation, to trauma, to terrorisation-by-constant-buzzing-drone-presence (an extraordinary sort of headache in its own right).

Over the course of two days alone this November, 34 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air raids in Gaza, among them eight members of one family (including five children and two women) - before a ninth member also succumbed to his injuries. And if the Israeli military’s murderous response to Palestinians’ ongoing Great March of Return is any indication, it seems 2020 will be yet another year of more-than-migraines for Israel’s perennial victims.

As we all know, the number 2020 is associated with perfect vision. If only the year 2020 would enable people to see Israel for the criminal enterprise that it is, that would be a “game changer” indeed.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.