Updated: Dec 23, 2019
Wikistrat's top experts weigh-in on the key development that will shape the Middle East in the year ahead
2019 has seen another year of domestic and regional struggles in the Middle East. Despite some commentators’ claims earlier this year that “the Middle East may look calm right now”, 2019 has witnessed widespread popular protests in four countries in the region: Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. In Iraq, the protests resulted in the resignation of the country’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, in late November, but the protest movement in the country continues, calling for a fundamental change in the country’s political system. The protests in Iran, on the other hand, were met with harsh repression by the regime and no concessions to the demonstrators, resulting in the deadliest protests in the country since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago.
In the Gulf, increasing escalation initiated by Iranian proxy forces since May culminated in a devastating missile and drone attack on Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September, for which US officials blamed Iran. In northeast Syria, a Turkish incursion in early October was launched soon after US President Trump green-lighted a withdrawal of US forces, declaring the territorial Caliphate of ISIS “defeated”. More recently, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar seem to wish to deescalate relations between each other following the Aramco attacks, pointing to a possible resolution in the Gulf Crisis which has reshaped regional politics in the Gulf since June 2017.
As we approach the end of 2019, we asked Wikistrat’s top experts to share their insights on the key trends that will shape the Middle East in 2020, as well as to assess the potential dynamics within particular countries in the region. This special report features forecasts by 16 experts from the United States, Britain, Italy, Turkey, the UAE, Jordan, Qatar and Israel for the major trends and developments that will shape the region in the coming year. While many of the experts agree that some of 2019’s trends, such as mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon, economic unrest in other countries, and the Iranian-Saudi conflict, will continue, they also forecast a gradual de-escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, as well as efforts to stabilize Yemen.
Head of Middle East Desk
Dr. F. Gregory Gause, Head of the International Affairs Department, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University:
The main trends in the Middle East will be:
Continued public demonstrations in a number of countries, but without an organizational framework to bring about regime change.
Somewhat improved economic circumstances, with a small increase in the price of oil and a decrease in global trade tensions. This improvement will be felt more strongly, obviously, in oil-producing states.
The shift from a civil war in Libya, Syria, and Yemen to relative peace but fragmented authority. The rebuilding of central state control over those countries will take years to accomplish.
Dr. Mitchell Belfer, President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre, Rome, Italy:
With 2019 winding down and the period of inter-year reflection underway, it is interesting to theorize on the very different directions the three main subregions of the wider Middle East seem set on. The Levant, the Arab Gulf, and North Africa are all on different trajectories and projections of what lies in store – while still guesswork – reveals variance. This short overview breaks out the crystal ball and aims to provide a brief indication of the year ahead.
The short story of the Levant is one of heightened crises and conflicts. Syria’s civil war may be en route to its finale – with an Al Assad and allies (Iran, Russia) win – but the larger question of Syrian sovereignty and who wields power will remain a salient feature of 2020. Russo-Iranian relations continue to be tense as does the Turkey-everyone relationship. There is a possibility that tensions will reignite proxy warfare in Syria or at least in the country’s northwestern corner. 2020 might not see a regional war replace the Syrian civil war but it is likely to take a giant step toward that end.
At the same time, Lebanon and Iraq (Levant +) are in the throes of major internal turmoil which can only end in either the consolidation of Iran’s power position or the outbreak of yet another round of both of their enduring civil wars. The idea of a peaceful transition of power is remote especially as the Badr Brigades reassert themselves – flush with ISIS defectors and the defeated. At the same time, the Israel-Palestine relationship seems set to remain in a state of suspended animation – no breakthrough on the horizon, no matter who governs either.
The only state with a positive outlook into 2020 is Jordan; member of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) and largely insulated from the unfolding regional tensions, Jordan will remain a partner for all into the next year. Daesh (ISIS) is going through a leadership crisis and, while there is little hope for it to reclaim a territorial Caliphate, it will continue to evolve into a digital Caliphate; it will recruit and conduct wild acts of terrorism. Civilians in the Levant beware!
Finally, North Africa is speckled with islands of both stability and turbulence. Algeria is on the brink of major violence, as is Sudan. The Libya front may finally see a Haftar victory and, with it, the return to a semblance of pre-2011 normality. But then again, the conflict is unpredictable, and it seems that 2020 will only intensify the violence with or without an increasingly potent Turkish threat of intervention. All of North Africa – including Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Mauritania, Mali – will face the consequences of ISIS flows into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Sahel. Terrorism will define the next year in North Africa. Only Morocco and Tunisia seem poised to focus on global affairs, as the others are locked into domestic political life.
All in all, while there are some positive things to watch for any optimism in the region should be guarded.
“Syria’s civil war may be en route to its finale – with an Al Assad and allies (Iran, Russia) win – but the larger question of Syrian sovereignty and who wields power will remain a salient feature of 2020. "
- Dr. Mitchell Belfer, President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre, Rome
Dr. Allison Hodgkins, Assistant Professor of International Security and Conflict Management at the American University in Cairo:
There are three main focal points for the coming year: the impact of global economic trends on domestic politics; the impact of regional power struggles on unresolved conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya; and the reemergence of Russia as a regional power-broker. In many ways, these dynamics are interconnected and feed off each other. For example, promises of military and economic aid to regimes beset by domestic protests conditioned on support for the donor regime’s objectives in one of the ongoing conflicts, which in turn creates further inroads for Russian intervention. However, evidence of increasing outreach to Russia by states like Egypt and Jordan should be taken in the context of US disengagement from the region, which began under the Obama administration, and anxiety over the erratic foreign policy of the Trump administration. Lastly, if there is any movement on the much-awaited and long-deferred “deal of the century,” its publication is likely to demonstrate the limits of Arab rapprochement with Israel in the absence of a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict that can be reconciled with the outlines of the Arab Peace Initiative.
“There are three main focal points for the coming year: the impact of global economic trends on domestic politics; the impact of regional power struggles on unresolved conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya; and the reemergence of Russia as a regional power-broker.”
- Dr. Allison Hodgkins, Assistant Professor of International Security and Conflict Management at the American University in Cairo
Dr. Rebecca B. Molloy, Senior Analyst, Wikistrat:
Some of the significant geopolitical trends in the region will be determined by the March 2, 2020 elections in Israel. The outcome will have an impact on the pace with which Israel-Gulf states relations develop, and therefore a direct effect on Israeli policies vis-à-vis Jordan, the PA, and Hamas. In addition, Iranian behavior in the Gulf (continued heightened risk of Iranian maritime aggression) and the troubled status of its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon in the midst of ongoing protests there, may be the harbingers of small but steady shifts in power balances in the region. Moreover, the regime’s behavior in the international arena and pressures mounting against it will continue to inform the Republic’s reaction to intensifying domestic resistance in the coming year.
Some of the pressure in 2020 will be reflected in the ongoing KSA-Houthi rebel indirect peace talks that aim to undercut Iran’s foothold in the border area by negotiating the dismantling of Houthi ballistic and drone capabilities and the KSA’s border security. The Saudis are looking for assurances that the Houthis will distance themselves from the Islamic Republic. Lastly, Russian and Iranian presence/movements (and American absence) in Syria will be closely monitored in 2020 for its impact on the resurrection of ISIS, the security of Israel’s northern border, and the health of Jordan’s economy, as well as its unresolved refugee crisis.
“Russian and Iranian presence/movements (and American absence) in Syria will be closely monitored in 2020 for its impact on the resurrection of ISIS, the security of Israel’s northern border, and the health of Jordan’s economy, as well as its unresolved refugee crisis.”
- Dr. Rebecca B. Molloy, Senior Analyst, Wikistrat
Dr. Li-Chen Sim, Assistant Professor, Zayed University, UAE:
Toward the end of 2019, Saudi Arabia and the UAE indicated their willingness to dial down tensions perpetuated by their more muscular foreign policies. These included conflicts with Iran, Qatar, Syria, and in Yemen and Libya. Toward this end, the Gulf states will look to leverage on Russia’s ‘friends with everyone’ policy and its willingness to claim the mantle of great power with interests beyond its immediate neighborhood. Increased cooperation with Russia – for instance, on OPEC+ quotas, on taking a stake in its Arctic LNG2 project, on wheat purchases, on joint development of defense equipment – is likely to go hand-in-glove with this strategic interaction on regional issues.
Dr. Ahmet Erdi Ozturk, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at London Metropolitan University:
Since the last days of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Middle East’s political landscape has been very complicated and gloomy because of political instabilities, ethnic and religious-oriented divisions and tensions, and the role of the outsider actors. Among many complicated issues in Iraqi Kurdistan, Central Iraq, Iran, and other MENA countries, from my point of view, the Syrian issue will still protect its current position as one of the most problematic pains in the neck. This is because of three main things: 1) USA President Donald Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw US troops from Syria, 2) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Sunni Islam and ethnic-oriented foreign policy behaviors, 3) The domestic political ethnoreligious divisions into the Syrian socio-political atmosphere because of long-lasting, multi-dimensional tensions.
Dr. Courtney Freer, Research Fellow, Middle East Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science:
I think we'll see continued protests in the Levant, contestation about the American role, particularly post-election in the US, and debate surrounding a reformulated nuclear deal with Iran.
Dr. Saud Al-Sharafat, founder and chairman of the Shorufat Center for the Study of Globalization and Terrorism, Amman, Jordan:
The political and economic protests will continue in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Reconciliation between the Gulf states and Qatar.
The continuation of the Syrian crisis.
A kind of pacification in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
A resurgence of ISIS in Iraq due to the present economic and political problems, especially in the western Sunni provinces of the country.
Victoria Silva Sánchez, independent journalist and researcher based in Amman, Jordan:
I think 2020 will see great uncertainty in the Middle East. On one side, it remains to be seen if Donald Trump is reelected as President of the United States. His continuation will have an impact on many fronts. In the Gulf, a tense calm remains but there are no prospects of improvement for relations between Iran and the Gulf Countries, although the split in the GCC might be reduced. With regard to Palestine, uncertainty comes in the failure of Israel in forming a new government to know if Netanyahu will continue as Prime Minister. While he remains in power, the policy of facts on the ground will continue and the lack of a political solution (which the 'deal of the century' will not offer) does not discard the possibility of a new insurrection. The different crises sparked during the last months do not seem to have a solution in sight, even though the level of protest might decay.
Osama al-Sharif, a veteran journalist based in Amman, Jordan:
What appears to be the second version of the Arab Spring will continue in Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria with varying outcomes. There will be fears of a contagion affecting Egypt and Jordan. The likelihood of an Israeli-Iranian showdown through proxies is great but will be clearer after the Israeli elections. Turkey’s increasing influence in regional affairs will go unchecked.
“What appears to be the second version of the Arab Spring will continue in Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria with varying outcomes. There will be fears of a contagion affecting Egypt and Jordan.”
- Osama al-Sharif, veteran journalist based in Amman, Jordan
Laith al-Ajlouni, Jordanian political economy researcher:
It seems that the second version of the Arab spring will continue in Lebanon and Iraq as long as the new generation is looking for new civic-based solutions beyond sectarian politics. In Lebanon, the terrorist militia ''Hezbollah'' may attack Israel in order to mobilize the Lebanese public in the interest of its agenda and to keep them from demanding reform in Lebanon.
In the Gulf, the embargo on Qatar might end as more economic cooperation is needed in the region, especially with the Saudi need for Qatari investments in Aramco's IPO and other projects that fulfill the Saudi vision 2030.
Barak Barfi, Research Fellow at the New America Foundation:
The Iranian-Saudi Arabian proxy conflict will continue to vex the Middle East. Though the Iranians have proved to be much more adept in this contest, the Saudis can rely on American support. Washington will continue to ratchet up the pressure. With Europe unwilling to provide Tehran sanction relief, future irrational moves such as the September 2019 Abqaiq refiner