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Wikistrat's Key Trends in the Middle East in 2020

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.


Adam Hoffman,

Head of Middle East Desk

Wikistrat


Regional Trends


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 refinery attack cannot be ruled out.

Political instability will continue to plague the region. While protests in Iraq and Lebanon have garnered international attention, government transitions in Algeria and Sudan have not. That is because these nations are marginal players in the Arab world. Algeria has never had good relations with its neighbors and Sudan is just as much African as it is Arab. In contrast, Iraq and Lebanon are largely controlled by Iranian proxies and sympathetic forces. Tehran will likely have to persuade its allies to make some concessions. This will require the efforts of the Iranian Republican Guard Corps, thus reducing the bandwidth it can dedicate to other regional issues.


Key Trends in the Gulf:


Prof. Anoush Ehteshami, Professor of International Relations and Director, Institute for Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies, Durham University:


At the inter-state level, the Gulf region will remain focused on the inter-GCC tensions in 2020 [and] more on how to reduce these tensions and, for this, there’ll be growing pressure from DC as well, given that this will be a presidential election year and the White House will need foreign policy stability. [This will be] followed by efforts to finally stabilize Yemen and reduce the conflict to skirmishes. This will be easier said than done, however, as the gap between the warring parties remains wide and, in certain respects, unbridgeable. But, going forward, the KSA appears keen to bring the conflict to an end so there’s hope that that might happen.

In Kuwait, the new government is full of promise, in terms of a representative mix of females and all ages serving the country at the cabinet-level. But another election in 2020 will mean another reshuffle and more changes. With regard to Oman, the country will continue to act as a bridge between Tehran and the GCC/West/USA and will more actively engage with Riyadh to end the carnage in Yemen. How much success it will have will depend on how much effort Sultan Qaboos is able to put into trying to resolve these regional tensions. He’s the linchpin of stability in the lower Gulf.


In the northern Gulf, domestic conditions will remain tense. In Iraq, there exists little prospect of a stable and popular government being set up which can address the population’s very real socioeconomic concerns, end corruption, and reduce Tehran’s overwhelmingly presence in the country. Instability will breed violence and government heavy-handedness will fuel discontent and could herald the return of jihadi activism in the heart of the country.

In Iran finally, the Majlis elections will be a sideshow for the vast majority of the population. But it will likely return to parliament a more conservative and hardline grouping to form a majority. As the so-called reformist/centrist/pragmatic camp is now totally discredited there is little hope that the pendulum of politics will remain in the center. American-imposed sanctions remain unrelenting and it is unlikely that, in the 2020 US election year, Tehran and DC will make such rapid progress as to having all the sanctions removed in time for a Trump declaration of a foreign policy success by November. So, the pressure of sanctions will continue to shape the Islamic Republic’s policies at home and abroad and Tehran’s inability to shield its vulnerable population from the biting sanctions will result in more unrest, more regime-induced violence, and further erosion of the regime’s legitimacy. Sanctions have deeply securitized the regime’s policies, and this is unlikely to change in 2020 if there are no improvements in Iran’s economic conditions.


At the international level, expect China’s economic footprint to continue to grow, making China the only international actor to have positive and constructive relations with every single Gulf state. Its ability to steer away from the region’s geopolitical potholes is admirable, but we wonder if such a strategy is sustainable in the long run if tensions between the Gulf states themselves do not recede, or if Washington decides that others should shoulder the burden of security in the region.

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 Gulf will be:

  • A mild but perceptible détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, based less on a common understanding of regional issues or an agreement on hot spots, but [more] on Saudi caution in the face of American inaction in response to the Abqaiq attack of September 2019.

  • A doubling down by Iran on consolidating its influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, despite the public protests against Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon.

  • Saudi efforts through diplomacy with Russia to sustain a $60 floor under oil prices (WTI).

Dr. Mitchell Belfer, President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre, Rome, Italy:


Yemen remains a war zone and the Houthi are intent on ensuring national chaos; the Qatar crisis is proceeding uninterrupted due to Doha’s uncompromising position; instability in Iran – coupled with its regional destabilizing activities – has the propensity to spill over. Yet, things are looking up for all GCC states. The UAE will host the World Expo and Saudi Arabia will host the G20. Bahrain’s economy is growing, and the Iran-backed insurgency has been severely weakened while the succession issues in both Kuwait and Oman are being resolved. 2020 also marks the decade countdown to the realization of Bahrain’s, Qatar’s, Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s 2030 reform programs (Kuwait’s is 2035 and Oman’s 2040) based on achieving the UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals. With such wide reforms underway, it is likely that the GCC of 2020 will be taking giant leaps of progress. Such change is mobilizing Iranian militias to disrupt and undermine the Gulf processes underway. Given that there was no retaliation for the string of Iranian attacks against Arab and international oil facilities and ships, it is likely that Iran will continue to push. The likelihood of Arab Gulf retaliatory action is high in 2020.

Dr. Courtney Freer, Research Fellow, Middle East Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science:


I think we may see efforts to mend the rift among the GCC states, starting with continued bilateral talks between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. There also may be some movement in terms of negotiations with Iran and efforts to make relations with Israel more public.

Dr. Li-Chen Sim, Assistant Professor, Zayed University, UAE:


Most of the Gulf states now have in place policies that require a certain level of local content or which give preferential treatment to companies that demonstrate high levels of localization. This is particularly the case for oil or gas-related contracts. Foreign companies with a local presence are well-placed to take advantage of this; however, overly ambitious local content requirements may delay projects. At the same time, governments in the region have increased pressure on companies to localize the workforce, variously known as Omanization, Saudization, or Emiratization. Unlike the localization of production/procurement, localization of the workforce is not new. Both forms of localization, however, are driven by the same set of imperatives – to diversify the hydrocarbon-based economies and skillsets, and to reduce pressure on public sector employment and wages.


Key Trends in Jordan:


Dr. Rebecca B. Molloy, Senior Analyst, Wikistrat:


Growth projections for Jordan’s economy have slightly dropped for 2019-20 and fall within a modest slowdown in the region as a whole. The main economic trend for 2020 in Jordan will be maintaining fiscal stability as is reflected in the proposed 2020 budget. The government is expected to continuously introduce ways to increase revenues that will skirt a reignition of widespread, angry demonstrations. It will be rolling out cuts while mindful of the mass protests around the region (Iraq, Lebanon) over corruption and severe erosion in standards of living. However, it is unlikely that members of parliament would vote for raising water or electricity prices. With the IMF mission holding consultations recently in Amman on progress with the reform program, it is expected that it will push for more austerity measures. In turn, this would be met with fierce resistance on the part of Jordanian officials in order to curb the risk of instability and civil unrest. All eyes will be on the next parliamentary election in Jordan that is slated for September 2020.

Dr. Saud Al-Sharafat, founder and chairman of the Shorufat Center for the Study of Globalization and Terrorism, Amman, Jordan:


  • The escalation of economic and social problems, due to the failure of the government plan and efforts to motivate the economic sectors, leading to more protests and opposition, which will be used heavily in the campaign of the candidates running for a seat in the parliament during the parliament election that is expected to be held at the end of 2020.

  • Tensions of the bilateral relationship between Jordan and Israel, due to the Palestinian issue, especially the probability of annexing the Jordan Valley by the Israeli government, and the sensitivity of Jordanian system of the possibility of transferring Palestinian from the West Bank into Jordan.

  • Maintaining the status quo with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

  • Positive development in the Jordanian-Syrian bilateral relationship.

Victoria Silva Sánchez, independent journalist and researcher based in Amman, Jordan:


When it comes to Jordan, the country is focused on improving its economic situation. A new IMF package might be negotiated, but its conditions should be less harsh than the current one. Some indicators might improve. However, conflicts still ongoing in neighboring countries are really preventing the economy from flourishing. Social unrest in the line of the professors' strike could extend to other public sector workers. Also, the parliamentary elections in 2020 will show the feeling of the people toward politics and prove the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood in the absence of more meaningful political reforms that could give more content to the ballot itself. The re-organization of ISIS and the possibility of resolving the conflict in Syria will open the question to what will happen to many of those foreign fighters – can they remain in Syria, move to another conflict scenario, or try to return to their countries of origin, including Jordan? Relations with Israel will remain strained since the political paralysis in Israel is worsening the situation on the ground. In general terms, there could be slight improvements in the economic situation but the general malaise among citizens will remain throughout the year.

Osama al-Sharif, a veteran journalist based in Amman, Jordan:


The economy will remain a trigger for public unrest. Jordan-Israeli ties will likely be tested again, especially if Israel annexes the West Bank. Legislative elections are expected to be held but the pressure will mount on the government to amend the election law.

Laith al-Ajlouni, Jordanian political economy researcher:


In 2020, Jordan will continue struggling with its challenging economic situation as it witnesses an unprecedented unemployment rate (19.1%), weak economic growth rates, and narrow fiscal space. Despite that, the government is adopting an expansionary fiscal policy in 2020 in order to stimulate the economy. However, the outcome might be risky as spending is going to increase without any indication of increased public revenues. This economic situation might contribute to some protests, but the probability of protest action in Jordan remains low due to the continued communication between the Royal Court and the different sectors of the Jordanian society. Additionally, Jordan will hold parliamentary elections and have a new government in summer 2020, which will play a role in refreshing the political scene in Amman.


At the regional level, Jordan's relationship to Israel will remain cold if the Israeli government keeps the plan of annexing Area C in the West Bank and if it keeps the expansion of settlements. Moreover, Jordan might still have a cold relationship with Saudi Arabia while significantly improving the bilateral relationships with Qatar.

Key Trends in Turkey:


Dr. Ahmet Erdi Ozturk, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at London Metropolitan University:


Economic narrow pass and Turkey’s “double Dutch” foreign policy between Western and Eastern camps will probably protect their “hot potato” positions in Turkish domestic and external politics. Furthermore, it seems that the Erdogan regime’s religious and ethnic-oriented repressive political implementations against Kurds and all other opposition groups will remain. However, all of these problematic political developments have been half-opening doors for new alternatives to Erdogan’s political hegemony. In this regard, now it is clear that there will be three new alternatives for Erdogan. Although three dominant parties – the CHP, Good Party, and HDP – stand in opposition, it appears that the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipal Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu from CHP, Ali Babacan with his new party and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with his newly formed party will stand up in front of Erdogan. It is obvious that they will take something of Erdogan’s popularity and total vote, but one should also think about Erdogan’s counterstrategy against them. It is essential to consider Erdogan’s counter-tactics since his political characteristic is equal to the textbook definition of the Aristotelian concept of a political animal. In this regard, in 2020, we will observe harsh political battles between Erdogan and others.

Key Trends in Egypt


Dr. Allison Hodgkins, Assistant Professor of International Security and Conflict Management at the American University in Cairo:


At the domestic level, events in Egypt will revolve around the economy and the regime’s determination to quash any semblance of dissent. Since Egypt reached a bailout agreement with the IMF in 2016, the country has seen strong economic growth, a resurgence of the tourism industry, and promising developments in the energy sector. At the same time, there are higher levels of poverty in the country than before the 2011 revolution and the middle class has not recovered from the devastating effect of the 2014 devaluation of the Egyptian pound. Even before the outrage sparked by the Mohammad Ali videos, signs of discontent were manifest. However, the regime has responded by doubling down on its policies and ramping up repression. The recent raid on Mada Masr, perhaps the last independent media source in the country, is indicative of how the regime will handle dissent in 2020.


At the regional level, Egypt will continue to support General Haftar in Egypt and will welcome recent overtures by Russia in the Libyan conflict. At the same time, it will continue to look for the United States to support its efforts to break the stalemate over the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam. Egypt views any diminution of its share of Nile River water as an existential threat and has threatened force if the project comes to fruition.


While conflict is unlikely, this will remain a priority for the regime in 2020. Other regional issues of importance to the Egyptian regime are the transition in Sudan, where Egypt is keen to see the military retain the reins of power – even if from behind the scenes. The fragility of its economic situation means it will also continue to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead on other regional conflicts, as evidenced by President Sisi’s recent statement affirming Egypt’s position on Qatar has not changed. At the same time, Egypt will continue to facilitate a lasting ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel that is largely greased by Qatari cash. Despite Hamas being a bogeyman for MB, they are needed to help with North Sinai militant problem. They will also continue to seek ways to keep the military on top in Sudan.


On the global stage, 2020 will likely see a further strengthening of military and economic ties with Russia, again driven by shared interests in Libya and a desire to purchase more advanced military equipment without inconvenient policy conditions. It will also continue to pursue stronger ties with China. While receiving scant notice in the international press, shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Egypt in 2016, the regime began detaining and deporting Uighur students at al-Azhar. None of these developments, however, preclude the maintenance of ties with the United States, given the Trump administration's more permissive stance toward Egypt’s domestic practices.

Barak Barfi, Research Fellow at the New America Foundation:


The chief issue to watch in Egypt is the economy. With the completion of austerity reforms that have resulted in price increases for everything from water to electricity, Egyptians expect to see a bright future. They have instead been confronted by the same cloudy forecasts that have historically plagued the country. Non-hydrocarbon growth is marginal and foreign investment has not met expectations. If the economy continues to underperform, Egyptians are likely to voice complaints about corruption, possibly leading to more protests. But these will not pose a serious threat to the regime.


On the regional front, Egypt will continue to be a marginal player, subordinating itself to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Nevertheless, there are several issues that, while of great importance to Egypt, garner little attention from its allies. An Ethiopian dam will significantly reduce Egypt’s Nile water flow while its reservoir is being filled. Cairo has no military option and its quest to seek out international mediators have been stymied, largely because the Ethiopians are self-financing the dam. The only impediment to the dam’s completion is internal Ethiopian politics. Sudan’s plight is of similar concern. Egypt is reluctant to have a true democracy on its border. It also seeks to improve relations that have been in the doldrums since the early 1990s.

Key Trends in Iran:


Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Brookings Institution in Doha:


For Iran, 2019 was a memorable year on many fronts, setting the path for on even more tumultuous 2020. Externally, the erosion of the JCPOA –the Iran nuclear agreement with world powers – continued after the May 2018 US unilateral withdrawal, or de facto violation of it. While the US “maximum pressure” campaign led the Iranian oil export collapse, Iran’s “maximum resistance” counter-strategy with its gradual reduction of its nuclear commitments coupled with a series of calibrated attacks on the Persian Gulf region’s oil infrastructure (all attributed to Iran, although denied by it) was partly successful in that it demonstrated to its Gulf foes the immensely heavy costs of confrontation with Iran.


Tehran’s gradual reduction of commitments, however modest in each of its single steps, accompanied by Europe’s repeated promise to provide Iran with the economic dividends via the special payment vehicle INSTEX – meant to balance the US withdrawal – remained merely symbolic and buried under the Sword of Damocles of the vast reach of US extraterritorial sanctions. In other words, the JCPOA was merely kept on life support. 2020 might see its ultimate demise, with Iran continuing to unflinchingly withdraw from it and the political pressure in Europe mounting toward moving to the next stage at which EU and UN sanctions could ultimately be re-imposed, which could prompt Iran to not only withdraw from the JCPOA altogether but also from the NPT.


The result of such a scenario would be a veritable revival of the “Iran nuclear crisis” of the early 2000s, triggering military urgency for some and diplomatic urgency for others to deal with the re-emerging crisis. The only exit from such a scenario would be an Iranian–American deal centered around US sanctions relief versus Iranian ballistic-missile or regional-policy concessions, the chances of which remain modest.


Regionally, Iran will have to find ways to mitigate the fallout from the most formidable threat posed in at least a decade to the future of its influence in Lebanon and especially in Iraq, where its allies and Tehran’s own sectarian policies have been a prime target of ongoing popular mobilizations there.

Dr. Raz Zimmt, Iran expert, Institute for National Security Studies (INSS):


Domestically, Iran will continue to deal with a deepening economic crisis which is driven by structural failures that are exacerbated by the economic sanctions, in particular the limitations on oil export. The economic crisis will continue to feed the growing desperation and frustration among the public, which might manifest in further waves of popular protest.

In the political arena, the parliamentary elections (which will take place in February 2020) are estimated to consolidate the control of the conservative right in the political system and to further strengthen the hardliners ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, which are scheduled for 2021.


In the regional arena, Iran will continue its current assertive and aggressive policy, at least as long as there's no change in the US "maximum pressure" strategy and for the purpose of piling bargaining cards in waiting for potential negotiations. Simultaneously, Iran will seek to continue its entrenchment in the region while trying to overcome the implications of the continued protests in Iraq and Lebanon and the American, Israeli, and Saudi-led efforts to contain its regional influence.


In the international arena, Iran's willingness to show flexibility in its positions and to agree to return to negotiations will diminish as the date of the US elections approaches. In the case of an American consent to agree to relief in the sanctions, Iran might agree to go back to the negotiating table, but without agreeing to give up interests it deems vital.

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