By Robert Springborg
The negative political and economic trends that characterised the Middle East in 2017, look set to intensify in 2018. At whatever level one reviews the region’s prospects for the coming year, they look bleak.
On a country by country basis, all will face major challenges in 2018. In the failed states of Libya and Yemen, no end to violence is in sight.
Indeed, in the latter, it appears that the Saudis are now intent on defeating the Houthis, who seem equally committed to retaining their control of much of the north. Fighting there will thus intensify, while the south will continue to be plagued by internecine struggle between a host of factions.
The chances that armed conflict in Libya will be brought to an end as a result of the general election which UN Special Representative Ghassan Salame has promised for 2018, look increasingly bleak.
The pro-Haftar forces remain intent on imposing a military solution and those opposed to them just as committed to resisting it.
Iraq is not a totally failed state akin to Libya or Yemen, but is disturbingly close to that condition, and does not appear on the verge of dramatic improvement.
In Syria, where dictator Bashar al-Assad remains in power, protracted negotiations on the country’s future might yield a formula for transition to some – as yet undefined – future political status. That looks problematic though, and in any case, implementation of any agreement will be plagued by a host of difficulties.
Iraq faces elections in 2018 while having to reintegrate former IS held territory in the North, reduce Kurdish-Arab tensions, and resolve ever more bitter internal conflicts within both the Kurdish and Shia political communities.
In both Syria and Iraq the prospects for meeting political challenges are rendered even more difficult by virtue of intensifying economic crises. Projected costs of rebuilding both war damaged countries run into the hundreds of billions of dollars, capital way beyond domestic capacities and anticipated regional and global contributions. The same is true of Libya and Yemen.
In the Arab republics that did not fragment in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, the picture is not so bleak, but nor is it favourable.
Egypt’s presidential election is scheduled to be held as early as May. The intensifying crackdown on all opposition, including hobbling of the three leading potential candidates to oppose President Sisi, combined with the removal of the military chief of staff, suggest nervousness in the presidential palace.
Just as in Saudi Arabia, revelations about financial indulgence and misspending on the part of the leader, coming as President Sisi and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman call for ever increasing economic sacrifices on the part of their peoples, inevitably stoke discontent, in turn stimulating more repression.
Egypt faces debt repayments of almost $13 billion in 2018, compared to just over $5 billion in 2017. It must, therefore, borrow yet more to meet these obligations as there is zero chance it can generate such funds from its own economy.
With a debt to GDP ratio now of about 140 percent, Egypt is on a slippery economic slope from which recovery will be difficult if not impossible, but attempts to do so will place ever greater political pressure on an increasingly unpopular regime. In sum, Egypt will be lucky to end 2018 in the shaky political and economic conditions it entered it.
Tunisia’s relatively competitive political system has enabled it to meet successive crises without resorting to the crude oppression found in Egypt, but the country’s economic difficulties continue to intensify, thereby placing yet more strain on the precarious three-legged balance between Islamists, secularists, and residues of the deep state, especially in the security services.
Again, if the country ends 2018 in the same precarious political and economic situations it has entered it, it can count itself lucky.
Neighbouring Algeria faces presidential elections in 2019. Because stroke-afflicted incumbent President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika is unlikely to stand yet again, the behind the scenes struggle to anoint his successor that began in 2017 will redouble this year. That struggle has already led to high level purges in the military-security apparati and may well produce more.
Political instability in the face of Algeria’s steadily deteriorating economic condition will jeopardise the unsteady domestic peace that has prevailed since the end of the insurrection.
The other Arab republic, Lebanon, has in truth never recovered politically or economically from the civil war that ended more than a quarter of a century ago, a clear warning of the potential fates of Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
In 2018, Lebanon will face parliamentary elections that will exacerbate the profound tensions between Shia and Sunni, which will in any case intensify as a byproduct of the negotiations over Syria’s future and the deepening hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Trump administration might choose Lebanon as a battleground on which to confront Iranian proxies, as it is being urged to do.
Withdrawal of more Gulf funds from Lebanon will put mounting pressure on the Lebanese pound, pressure which other potential patrons – key of which is Iran – lack the economic capacity to relieve. In sum, as with the other republics, Lebanon will be fortunate if it is able to celebrate New Years 2019 in the same uncertain, unsatisfactory political and economic conditions with which it entered 2018.
As for the monarchies, the situation is little better. The key issue is whether or not Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman will be able to consolidate his position as effective, or possibly actual ruler of Saudi Arabia.
If he fails and instability ensues, the repercussions for the entire region would be huge. But even if he succeeds, the uncertainties surrounding that process and its outcome are likely to be politically and economically unsettling for the country and its neighbours in the GCC.
At present the Crown Prince is trying to spend his way to popularity, drawing down Saudi reserves while relying more heavily on foreign borrowings. This profligacy, combined with oil export revenues that are unlikely to substantially increase, will place ever greater strain on the country’s finances and the prospects of success of the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030.
In sum, after having been one of the more stable of the Arab world’s leading countries for two generations, Saudi Arabia has become one of the most unpredictable. The very thought that in 2018 the audacious bid for power by the young prince could fall short and result in political instability is sufficient to suggest that the future of Arab monarchical rule, heretofore rock solid in that turbulent world, is now in question.
The Kings of Jordan and Morocco both responded in 2017 to growing economic difficulties and at least latent political challenges in their kingdoms by reversing previous liberalisations and cracking down on the opposition.
This looks set to continue in 2018 because of increasing economic difficulties, especially in Jordan, and because of the dialectics of authoritarian rule, whereby increasing repression begets growing opposition.
In the case of Morocco’s Muhammad VI, his apparent loss of political dexterity could be resulting from ill health, thereby making 2018 a yet more challenging one for him and his country. The refugee crisis in Jordan will be further aggravated by negotiations over the future of Syria.
The smaller monarchies of the GCC face the prospect of stagnant revenues in 2018, combined with rapidly expanding, youthful populations needing jobs, so in all the political pressures resulting from uncertain micro and macro economic futures will intensify.
The ill health of Sultan Qaboos may result in royal succession in Oman, a test which the country has not undergone in almost half a century. Simmering discontent among Shia in Bahrain will be further intensified if broader Sunni-Shia hostilities worsen, as they may well do.
Israel, Turkey and Iran can also expect 2018 to prove more challenging than 2017. In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to shift the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the Palestinian challenge to Israel is bound to become more substantial and violent, while adding tension to intra-Arab relations.
Israel’s over-identification with the Trump administration will generate greater political backlash in both countries.
Turkey’s President Erdogan is tightening his personal grip on power in the wake of the 2016 failed coup attempt. In 2018, reaction against this growing oppression will intensify, fed in part by his increasingly unpredictable foreign policy initiatives.
Backlash against oppressive rule by the mullahs in Iran became manifest in the final days of 2017 and has already increased pressure on the regime in 2018, and the hoped for economic miracle in the wake of the nuclear agreement will not occur. Economic pressure on the regime, coupled with political discontent, will grow.
These various national political and economic strains will generate increasing regional tensions.
That which pits Qatar against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt will be further aggravated as the Saudis dig in against Yemen, the Emiratis behind Haftar in Libya, and Egypt against Erdogan’s Turkey.
Iranian-Saudi tensions will be fed by their proxy contests in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Divisions within the entire region will be further exacerbated by Russia’s military and diplomatic re-entry, coupled with the Trump administration’s unpredictable and possibly dangerous responses to it.
In sum, the Middle East in 2018 faces plenty of known difficulties and challenges. There are also some “known unknowns” lurking which could make the year even more unfavourably memorable, such as the resurgence of Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq, renewal of similar conflict in Lebanon, or the collapse of virtually any of the region’s authoritarian regimes.
Finally, there are “unknown unknowns” or, in other words, profound uncertainties even the parameters of which at this stage cannot be discerned.
2018, in sum, will not be a vintage year for the Middle East. The best that can be hoped for is that it is not much worse than 2017. This can hardly be encouraging news for the region’s more than half a billion people, but it is news most already know.
Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs.