By Ahmad Taleb
Torn between conflicts and insurgency, the Middle East has witnessed a rise of non-state-actors at the expense of states weakened by a struggling global economy and social changes that exceed their capacity to handle them. After reviewing last year’s events, it would be worth asking two main questions: How far will these factors shape events in the upcoming year? And what new significant trends are likely to occur in 2016?
Last year, several factors contributed to shaping the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. War, whether between governments and their opponents or against terrorism, was a common theme that seems set to resume in 2016.
Setting off a global refugee crisis, there have been few sustained hopes to end some of these ongoing bloody political conflicts. In addition, the relationship between Arab states was not optimal in 2015; neither was the relationship between them and their non-Arab neighbors: Israel, Turkey and Iran.
The conclusion of a nuclear deal between Iran and Western powers will not necessarily improve regional tensions. This all comes amid global economic instability and a fall in oil prices, the impact of which is not limited to the petro-economies.
A Year of Negotiations and Fragile Peace
If anything is certain about 2016 in the MENA region, it is that it will be a year of fragile peace. During the last few weeks, hopes for a positive change have been rising as parties involved in different conflicts across the region have shown readiness for reconciliation or at least negotiation.
In Syria, both the regime and different factions of the opposition have finally agreed to sit at the same table after international pressure was exercised on both of them.
On the Yemeni front, the government announced in November, as its forces were advancing deeper into rebel-held territory, that it was ready to negotiate with the Houthis after a round of failed peace talks earlier in 2015. Meanwhile, Libya’s warring factions signed a United Nations-brokered agreement in December to form a national unity government.
As good as it seems, these announcements and agreements will remain endangered by the heavy involvement and intervention of multiple regional and international players in these conflicts. In addition, each of the warring factions on the ground has already developed its own agenda empowered by the abundance of arms and financial support provided to them.
The three conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya vary in length but none of them is less complex than the other, mainly due to the sectarian and tribal structures of these societies. The peace process needed to end these conflicts will be equally complex. It will probably take several broken cease fires, unfulfilled promises, and lengthy negotiations under fire to reach a settlement.
The year 2016 might be the year when talks for peace kick off but it will unlikely be the year when peace is actually implemented.
The Return of the Fighters
The last few months have witnessed the formation of several regional and international military coalitions against terrorism — specifically the Islamic State (“ISIS”) — out of which the most recent is the 34-country Muslim anti-terrorism coalition formed by Saudi Arabia. On the ground, ISIS has been suffering losses in both Syria and Iraq, as shown during the most recent campaign by the Iraqi army and the Sunni tribes to recover the city of Ramadi in Anbar province.
After committing horrible atrocities and causing much damage, the days of ISIS might seem numbered, but the days of terrorism are definitely not. ISIS has created an army of terrorists who will go back home deeply brainwashed, armed with tactical skills and a penchant for extreme violence. Not to mention, it has created a generation of child soldiers that will plague Syria and Iraq for long after the disappearance of the organization.
In 2016, it is most likely that attacks will spike in North Africa and the Gulf countries as more fighters return back from the war zones. Several plots have already been foiled in the UAE, most of which were being organized by home-grown terrorists. Egypt and Tunisia have had their share of terrorist attacks last year, but they could suffer even more if they do not reform their security sector to make it more efficient, fair, and diligent.
Deep Rifts Across the Gulf
The deal between Iran and the Western powers has been hailed by many as an end to a longstanding international conflict. The deal is yet to be implemented and its impact on the MENA region is yet to be revealed. But the initial signs have not been promising.
Cooling Western relations with Iran has already pushed the Gulf States to a new frontier of proactivity. Since the announcement of the negotiations, the Gulf States — namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE — have adopted a more aggressive approach in their regional policy.
Saudi Arabia has initiated the military coalition against the Houthis in Yemen whilst the UAE participated in the campaign with ground troops and lost, for the first time since the country’s foundation, tens of soldiers, alongside Bahrain.
The region is also experiencing an arms race.
An Iran relieved of sanctions is an Iran with more legitimate financial resources. Although a better relationship between the West and Iran can make the latter a more responsible regional player in the long run, it is not likely that this would happen within the course of 2016.
The hardliners in Iran are still in control and the regime’s current mindset will require years to change. The dispute has already been reflected in the relationship between GCC members, as demonstrated in the disagreement between most GCC members and the pragmatic Oman, which hosted and discreetly mediated the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran.
As simple as it looks, 2016 could easily be the year of more explicit sectarian and regional tensions. Such tensions are the main reasons why the peace efforts in Syria and Yemen could be undermined.
Budget Cuts Equal Growing Discontent
The drastic fall of oil prices is going to deeply affect the region in 2016. For the first time, oil-rich GCC countries are witnessing a budget deficit resulting in expenditure cuts. In the tax-free rentier state, the regime’s legitimacy is built upon its material contribution to the well-being of local citizens.
Budget cuts resulting in fewer benefits to the local community is an earthquake shaking the foundation of a regime’s legitimacy. This case is even more severe in poorer countries plagued by social problems and corruption, such as Algeria. In 2016, the GCC countries are likely to witness a widened political debate about taxation, citizenship rights, and, most importantly, the diversification of the economy.
Cybercrime and Cyber Warfare to Hike in MENA:
Cyber activism in the Middle East has so far been politically or ideologically motivated. DDoS attacks or “cyber vandalism” against websites of governments are the most typical form of cyber warfare techniques in the MENA.
As some of the region’s governments are heading towards implementing e-government applications, as well as encouraging the private businesses to be more technology-friendly, the region will become more prone to money-driven cyber-attacks. The lack of sufficient cyber security precautions could make the damage bigger.
In December 2015, a hacker stole customer data from a UAE bank and requested a US$ 3 million “ransom” in bitcoins. This is nothing but the start of a trend to grow in 2016. Several more recent attacks have shown that professional cyber criminals have recently been taking advantage of the undeveloped cyber infrastructure in the region.
What to Look Out for in 2016?
For the avoidance of pessimism, there have been some positive developments that are worth looking out for in 2016. On the one hand, there have been efforts exerted by some governments to combat corruption, such as the recent investigations and sackings of high-profile officials in Iraq and Egypt. But questions remain: how serious were these efforts? Will they resume in 2016?
On the other hand, Morocco has been establishing itself as a stable cluster for hosting innovative renewable energy mega projects. The question remains: how will the Kingdom take this forward in 2016?
Apart from these, there will be some interesting developments to follow. The first is watching the elected regimes in Egypt and Tunisia consolidate their legitimacy or losing their support as time goes by after the 2010- 2011 uprisings. Egypt’s neo-nationalism in particular will start showing its limitations. It will also be interesting watching the Turkish regime working under the global economic and regional geopolitical pressures. Resuming diplomatic ties with Israel and reopening the EU membership negotiation files are all measures taken by a party ruling under a tight majority.
Lebanon, Sudan, Kuwait, Algeria and Palestine are cases worth paying attention to in 2016. Lebanon’s recent uprisings show the birth of a social movement daring to question and contest the existing legal and social structure. Sudan is a case of a boiling youth population pressured by the bad conditions of life in a country plagued by state-sponsored Islamism.
Can we witness a second wave of the Arab Spring in 2016? In Kuwait, the tensions between Salafists, Shia, and secular Arabs have long been taking place in the parliament. However, after the terrorist attack this year on a Shia mosque, will things take a different direction in 2016? In Algeria, will an absent president — engaged in a power struggle with the DRS intelligence service — be able to stabilize a country affected by unemployment and extremism?
Last but not least, would a new American administration push Israel back to the negotiations? Would the efforts pursued by the newly established State of Palestine in the UN and the other international organizations affect the peace process?
All of these questions will define the MENA region in 2016.