It’s rarely a quiet year in the Middle East, even when the US president doesn’t unilaterally reshape the prospects for peace in Palestine. 2017 has been heavily defined by the conflict between the region’s two greatest powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who continue to treat the rest of the region as a giant chessboard.
Yemen: from bad to worse
This was no more obvious than in Yemen, where a long running civil war has turned increasingly brutal. Yemen is split almost equally between Shia’a (45%) and Sunni (53%) Muslims. In its most basic terms, the conflict is between the Shia North and Sunni South of the country after a plan to establish a federal system of governance broke down.
The recent conflict started when the Houthis, a group of Northern rebels made up primarily of Zaydi Shia, surged south and took control of the capital, Sana’a, and the port of Aden. Iran supplies them heavily, although they do not fully operate within Teheran’s orbit.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have thrown their weight behind the government forces, engaging in a seemingly indiscriminate, and thus far ineffective, aerial campaign to push the Houthis back northward.
Forty times more people have died in Syria’s civil war but such has been the damage wrought upon Yemen’s basic infrastructure that the UN has dubbed it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Saudis are unlikely to end their campaign soon and are seemingly more than content to starve the northern population into insurrection against their Houthi overlords. Some observers have begun to call the conflict ‘Riyadh’s Vietnam‘.
Hezbollah rising, Qatar held in check:
The jostling for pre-eminence between Riyadh and Teheran stretches from Mediterranean Lebanon to Qatar in the Gulf. In the former, Saudi Arabia attempted to engineer the removal of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in November, likely for being too close to Iranian proxy Hezbollah. Ostensibly summoned to Riyadh for a jaunt in the desert with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Hariri was held hostage and forced to read out his resignation live on Saudi TV. Cue international uproar and bewilderment; the ensuing diplomatic parley saw Hariri eventually returned to Lebanon and rescind his resignation on December 5.
Whilst alienating and alarming many of Saudi Arabia’s allies, the aborted diplomatic coup has seen Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon strengthened even further. The Syrian Civil War has transformed what had been a powerful Lebanese militia into a powerful regional player with a military capability greater than that of many Middle Eastern states. It has played a large role in coordinating the Syrian and Lebanese armies on the battlefield in Syria, despite the fact both are backed and funded by entirely different sources.
Meanwhile Qatar, a minnow in terms of territory, but the world’s richest economy per capita, has found itself subject to sanctions from its largest neighbour, along with Egypt and other Gulf States. Doha has long pursued a nuanced foreign policy that balances Saudi Arabia and Iran and was very supportive of revolutionary governments that emerged from the Arab Spring. In the new black and white world of Saudi foreign relations, such policies were untenable. Qatar now faces sanctions, trade and travel bans from Saudi, Egypt and the Gulf and has been ordered to shut down the regional news station, Al-Jazeera. In a show of defiance, Qatar has restored diplomatic relations with Iran and stunned the world of sport by purchasing Brazilian footballer Neymar for a world record $262m, for Qatari-owned Paris St-Germain.
Syria and Iraq: IS vanquished but a Kurdish reckoning awaits
Russian president Vladimir Putin arrived in Syria in early December to congratulate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a war well won. The visit might as well have been orchestrated to congratulate Putin himself. In September 2015, then US president Barack Obama warned that Russia was wading “into a quagmire” in Syria. Nevertheless, through an air campaign whose brutality shocked the world, Moscow has succeed not only in bolstering Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power, but also delivering on Putin’s purported aim of “defeating international terrorism”.
The campaign has been immensely successful for Russia in establishing itself as a regional power broker, ending its international isolation in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and boosting its arms sales to regimes around the world.
Meanwhile, just over 500 kilometres to the East, an Iraqi army backed by US air power laid siege to Mosul, held by Islamic State. They eventually capitulated in July after a grinding assault that saw up to 40,000 lose their lives. Such was the devastation wrought upon on Mosul that Russian authorities, aware of the irony, promptly levied the charge of war crimes at the United States. Islamic State is now a vastly diminished force and has seen its territory wither away over the course of the year.
Meanwhile Kurdistan, the world’s largest stateless nation, continued its long battle for independence. September’s referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan resulted in 91% of people voting for independence. But celebrations in Erbil were quickly quashed by the hardline stance taken by the surrounding powers. Iran and Turkey cracked down on Kurdish communities within their own countries whilst Iraq halted all flights to Erbil airport and mobilised troops to secure oil fields in the southern parts of Iraqi Kurdistan.
North Africa: Disorder, migration and slavery
Libya remains highly unstable. A UN agreement to broker peace in the country expired on December 17 and threatens the prospect of violence before elections next year. The disorder and porous Saharan border mean that Libya continues to haemorrhage migrants to Europe. Indeed, many militias now fund themselves through the smuggling, ransoming, and enslaving of African migrants. Footage emerged in late November of slave markets where sub-Saharan Africans were sold by local militia groups – the going rate for a healthy male was around $400.
Israel/Palestine: Unity in adversity
The Muslim world did at least achieve a level of unity in December when the United States president went ahead with his campaign pledge to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel. This caused consternation amongst almost the entire international community. Turkish president Racip Tayyip Erdogan described “taking such a step [as] tantamount to throwing the region into a ring of fire.”
A UN motion was held over whether to condemn the US for it’s decision to recognise Jerusalem. Despite US threats to reduce aid to many countries, 128 voted in favour, including the entire Muslim world, and only 9 against. It remains to be seen when, or if, work will begin on a new US embassy in the Holy City.
Saudi Arabia: Some good news?
Domestically, Mohammad Bin Salman has undertaken a programme of creeping modernization. This has included removing a ban on female drivers in the Kingdom that should come into force by June 2018. This admission came a few days after women were permitted to enter the King Fahd national stadium for the first time to celebrate the country’s 87th anniversary. Focussing as it did on nationalism rather than religion, this celebration caused the umbrage of religious authorities – as did a rollback of a ban on cinemas which has been in place since 1982.
Modernisation efforts have been inspired by a low oil price. With oil revenues accounting for over 50% of GDP and 80% of government revenues and half the population being under 25, bin Salman knows that the current Saudi social model is unsustainable. His Vision 2030 sees Saudi Arabia as a more diversified economy, relying not only on oil but on petrochemicals, tourism and solar power.
Those who block the Crown Prince’s ambitious reform plans do not last long. Around 200 of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful individuals, including princes, ministers and business leaders are now being held under luxurious house arrest in the Ritz-Calton hotel in Riyadh. Bin Salman is now head of the military and security forces, postions once shared out amongst the various heirs to the Kingdom’s founder Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud. Such a concentration of power, it has been argued by some analysts, increases the risk of the monarchy collapsing if it’s leader were to be assassinated or deposed.
The modernisation of Saudi Arabia has the potential to be one of the great events of the twenty first century. However, the Arab Spring also had the potential to be one of the most positive events in recent decades, but with any convulsive change comes the prospect of instability.
On the other side of the Gulf, Iran knows this well. Elections were held in the Islamic Republic this year, and although they were once again won by the moderate Hasan Rouhani, it has done little to alter the power structures at the heart of the Islamic Republic.
It is unlikely that either country will concede ground in the titanic clash between the two nations for control of the Muslim world, but it may just be that Saudi modernisation brings sweeping change to the whole region, whether desirable or not.