Trends of 2019: Middle East and Central Asia
MECA Editor Jaime Moore-Carrillo contributed to this Trends of 2019 piece.
Socioeconomic Trends: The Rich, the Sluggish, and the Desperate
The Middle East and Central Asia (MECA) region is characterized by gaps between the economic fortunes of the Gulf states; the economic stagnation of non-oil Arab states, Iran, and Central Asian states; and the economic devastation of war-torn states in need of reconstruction like Syria. In the coming year, the region will witness ongoing state-led diversification in the Gulf, a political contest between regional powers in Syria’s reconstruction, and an increasing tendency among Central Asian states to turn to Chinese investment to prop up their economies.
State-Led Economic Diversification
Aware of the volatility of relying on oil to prop up the economy, Gulf countries have taken measures to diversify their revenue sources. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s diversification plan, Vision 2030, calls for localizing the defense sector and industrial production, increasing religious pilgrimage and tourism, and privatizing public services. The United Arab Emirates has developed its services and trade industry in Dubai and its manufacturing and renewable energy industries in Abu Dhabi. Oman’s diversification strategy focuses on developing its budding tourism industry. The Gulf countries will push forward with their lofty diversification plans—even as firm proof of their effectiveness remains elusive.
Official policies to reduce the number of foreign nationals employed in industry in the Gulf countries, including policies of “Omanization” and “Saudization,” accompany many of these economic reforms. After the oil boom in the 1970s, Gulf countries undertook huge infrastructure projects. Due to small populations, these countries imported foreign labor from non-Gulf Arab states and, increasingly, from South and Southeast Asia. Now, the Gulf states are characterized by the stratification of labor, with nationals holding government jobs and high-ranking private sector jobs and foreign workers taking low- and medium-skilled work. Despite government efforts to increase the proportion of their citizens in the private sector, a deficient labor supply, the unwillingness of their population to work in low-skilled jobs, and ongoing subsidies for basic goods will hamper the effectiveness of such policies.
The Belt and Road Initiative
In 2018, China marked the fifth year of its Belt and Road initiative (BRI), a development project that includes infrastructure investment in 65 countries across Eurasia and Africa, including in Central Asia. China aims to develop infrastructure across trade corridors, and several of its land trade corridors cross into Central Asia en route to Eastern Europe and Turkey. Many countries involved have warned against the BRI, calling it a strategy for political encroachment and a violation of national sovereignty. However, Central Asian countries are suffering from economic stagnation and crumbling infrastructure and have accepted Chinese investment in projects like railroad construction. Some countries in Central Asia have also deepened economic interdependence with China by expanding cooperation into the technological, cultural, and industrial fields. With Russia’s stalling economic power unable to bolster Central Asia, the shift to accepting Chinese investment—and whatever strings might be attached to it—will grow.
Reconstruction in Syria
As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad plans to retake the remaining rebel-held territory, stakeholders in the conflict have begun developing plans for rebuilding the ravaged country. In late October, Turkey, France, Russia, and Germany met in Istanbul to discuss the subject, but the parties did not reach a conclusive agreement. However, several countries have already signed contracts with the Syrian government for construction projects. Many of these contracts will go to Russia, a staunch ally of the Assad regime. Additionally, Russia hopes to convince Western and Gulf donors, such as the European Union, to invest in the reconstruction process. However, since many key Western and Gulf states remain dedicated to a policy of Syrian regime-change, influence and contracts in the reconstruction process are likely to be distributed to Assad’s allies. For instance, Iran, another backer of the Syrian government, plans to build power plants and oil refineries in Syrian cities. Brazil and China are also seeking a role in the reconstruction process. Turkey, although one of the countries that supported opposition rebels seeking to overthrow the Syrian government throughout the civil war, is looking to exert influence over reconstruction efforts and, in the process, boost its own stagnant economy. This power dynamic between global stakeholders will continue to play out during the course of 2019 as the Syrian government finishes its final assaults on rebel-held territory.
Protests in Iran
Protests, fueled by discontent over social issues and Iran’s stagnating economy, materialized at several points throughout 2018. The value of the Iranian rial nosedived against the dollar after President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reinstate sanctions on the country. Iran’s population, unhappy that the nuclear deal did not bring the economic prosperity that President Hassan Rouhani has promised, have protested the regime’s economic policies, which cut subsidies and increase gasoline prices.
However, most of these protests were unorganized and led by rural and urban class youth, rather than the middle class or members of the regime opposition. Thus, these protests did not pose a threat to the stability of the regime, as they merely demanded policy changes—some of which the government granted—from the existing regime. On the other hand, these demonstrations did point to growing discontent within Iran on a range of issues outside of the economy. Women protested the policy that made wearing the headscarf compulsory; religious minorities clashed with security forces; truckers and bazaar workers in the Kurdish regions went on strike over border trade restrictions; and protests over water shortages spread to several cities. These protests have made investors warier, straining the Iranian economy yet further, but the regime is likely to weather these protests as they have done many times since 1979. However, these economic issues will pressure the Iranian government into tackling the country’s underlying economic weaknesses and making concessions to a discontented populace.
Political Trends: Protests Surged and Squashed
Already performing poorly on metrics of political freedom, the MECA region will witness a further decline in political liberties in 2019. Saudi Arabia, though loudly announcing some supposed social liberalization, has detained and even assassinated activists and journalists critical of its royal family and their policies. Bahrain has also doubled down on its repression of dissenters and political activists, which has included continued oppression of Shia Muslims. Furthermore, although the Great March of Return protests in Palestine have abated since the end of the six-week demonstration campaign, sporadic protests and violence are likely to continue as Israel continues its blockade of Gaza and its illegal construction of settlements in the West Bank.
Suppression of Activism and Dissent
Though Saudi Arabia has made steps toward reducing social restrictions, such as granting women the right to drive, the kingdom has continued its crackdown on political dissent and activism. The most notorious example was the assassination of journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a move that global leaders loudly condemned. Furthermore, since May 2018, the government has arrested more than a dozen women’s rights activists, many of whom advocated for the right to drive and for the end of the male guardianship system, which remains in place and limits women's’ ability to participate in society and the economy. Jailed human rights activists, often indefinitely detained without formal charge, face torture and sexual assault in prisons, according to Amnesty International. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to redress these human rights violations, as it continues to operate under the cover of unconditional U.S. support and shallow economic and social reform.
Bahrain has undertaken similar measures against its activists and political opposition. In the parliamentary elections in November 2018, the Bahraini government arrested or disqualified almost every opposition leader running, imprisoned dozens of human rights activists and journalists, and dissolved independent media. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, a non-government human rights group, estimates that there are 4,000 political prisoners in Bahrain. The arrests often take on a sectarian tone—many activists are part of the Shia majority that suffers from government neglect and lack of opportunities as a result of their marginalization at the hands of the Sunni monarchy. The crackdown on dissent and activism is unlikely to abate, and it has only heightened since the 2011 uprising which forced Bahrain to call on aid from allied Gulf Cooperation Council troops.
Protests in Israel/Palestine
Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the 1948 founding of the State of Israel and subsequent exodus of Palestinians. Around half of the Palestinian population fled from their homes in 1948. Beginning on March 30, Palestinians in Gaza began a six-week-long protest campaign, called the Great March of Return, demanding the right of return—the concept that Palestinian refugees can return to the land from which they were displaced. During the course of the demonstrations, Israeli security forces killed more than 150 and injured more than 10,000 protesters along the border fence between Gaza and Israel, according to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. The Israeli government stated that it used force to protect the border fence, which it said protesters are not permitted to approach. It also claimed that those killed were militants. However, many activists insisted that peaceful protesters, medics, and journalists had also been targeted. Though the Great March culminated on May 15, sporadic protests have continued and are likely to resurface, as the main concerns driving the demonstrations remain unaddressed.
Military Trends: Cruel Means and Loose Ends
In 2018, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia were racked by conflict. The coming year, we expect, will be no more peaceful. Civil wars continue to rage in Syria and Yemen. The Taliban have ramped up attacks in Afghanistan, securing control of half of the country. Saudi-Iranian tensions run high, and American disengagement will enable greater instability.
A grisly civil war continues to ravage Syria. Pro-Assad forces have reclaimed much of the country, squeezing the now weakened and disorganized rebel forces into smaller pockets of land in the Northwest and Southeast. In the coming year, we can expect Assad to strengthen his stranglehold on the rebels. However, the abatement of formal conflict will not necessarily bring peace. Continuing his streak of unabashed cruelty, Assad will likely leverage his position of strength to mount vicious reprisals against perceived enemies and dissenters. Many Syrian refugees hesitate to return to the country out of fear for their safety. Civilian volunteers from the emergency response group White Helmets have fled to Jordan to escape targeted regime airstrikes against their medical operations.
Embattled Kurdish forces, who control a swathe of territory in the country’s North, are attempting to cement their control. However, the future of Kurds in Syria is uncertain. Turkish military forces have penetrated Syria’s northern frontier and are advancing into Kurdish-held territory. As Kurdish forces continue their effort to fend off Turkish incursions, conflict will continue. However, Kurdish strength seems tenuous. With the retreat of American forces, we may soon see the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the very forces, backed by America, which once seemed to have government troops on the defensive—in headlong retreat.
The U.S. has also signalled a military retreat from Afghanistan. Though troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a campaign promise trumpeted by American politicians for years, Trump seems prepared to follow through with the proposal, much to the chagrin of his military staff. Afghanistan, he believes, is beyond hope; this characterization is not outlandish. The Taliban have amassed impressive power, now controlling large swathes of the country. Racked by corruption and disorganization, the Afghan government will not be able to withstand constant Taliban onslaughts in the year to come. Afghan citizens, distrustful of their government and dismayed by persistent violence, may welcome the first whiff of security they get, even if the Taliban are the ones providing it.
The civil war in Yemen rages on, and conflict seems bound to continue. What began as a political dispute has degenerated into one of the region’s bloodiest conflicts in recent history. The civil war has bred one of the worst humanitarian crises of the decade: 130 children under five-years-old die of malnourishment every day, and 50 percent of the population is on the brink of starvation. Weeks before the new year, the UN brokered a peace agreement between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. Though the agreement is a positive step, experts don’t expect the deal to hold. Few truces have helped in the past. Ceasefires introduced in 2015 and 2016 collapsed, some within weeks—and others within days. Therefore, we should expect the slightest disagreement or miscommunication to edge the country back into intense fighting. With zealous combatants on the ground and regional powers with their foot in the door, the civil war will likely expand into a prolonged struggle, and Yemen will be pushed to the brink of collapse.
Saudi Arabia vs. Iran
Yemen has become a front in the continuing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The sworn enemies will continue to vie for regional hegemony in 2019, flexing their hard and soft power wherever they can capitalize on instability. This competition will continue to inflame tensions and create conflict throughout the region. Iranian and Saudi proxies have entrenched themselves in wars in Syria and Yemen. In Bahrain and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran have meddled in domestic political affairs. More worryingly, the two nations seem postured for a more direct engagement. With the U.S. having abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, Iran will more aggressively pursue its nuclear ambitions if Europe cannot keep the country in line. A month before the new year, U.S. security officials reported that Iran had tested ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This possible escalation will unnerve Saudi Arabia. After being shunned by the international community following the assassination of Saudi reporter Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom may well pursue more drastic measures to reassert its authority and bolster its security.
American Retreat & Russian Ascendancy
The Trump administration’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan in December foreshadows an American retreat from regional affairs. Of course, American foreign policy in the region has not and likely will not drastically change. Unless Trump shifts American policy yet again, the U.S. will maintain a military presence from its bases in the Gulf, continue to supply arms to its military allies and continue sophisticated intelligence and counter-terrorism operations around the region. Nevertheless, the American exit from Syria leaves a power vacuum that Russia is most able to fill. Syria’s future is in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands, and with al-Assad’s regime bolstered, he will be able to further exert Russia’s influence throughout the region.