Brian Katulis – Vice President for Policy
Look to the people of the region first, then the evolving competition among regional states and global powers, for signs on what to expect.
A look ahead at the drivers likely to shape the Middle East in 2022 finds a complicated array of internal and external forces impacting the people of the region — same as it ever was. What may be different this time is how the internal political dynamics in particular countries intersect with a shifting regional and broader geopolitical landscape.
Three overall areas to monitor in 2022 in the broader Middle East include:
- How social contracts between the people of the region and their governments might change.
The people of the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) make up nearly 10% of the world’s population as it approaches 8 billion. The lives of hundreds of millions of people in this region stretching from Morocco to Pakistan are shaped first and foremost by their immediate surroundings, including overwhelming economic, demographic, and social pressures from within their own societies. The voices of the vast majority of people living in this broad region are often marginalized or completely ignored.
Debate often has a narrow focus on leaders or governments that tend not to fully represent their people’s full range of views. In addition, extremist groups and some retrograde governments hold hostage and expropriate the voices of millions. Across the region on any given day, ordinary people are struggling for basic dignity and freedoms from Sudan to Turkey to Iran. This struggle over the basic social contract will remain a key driver of events in 2022.
The human security challenges identified starting 20 years ago in a series of Arab Human Development Reports are some of the same ones that drove popular revolutions and uprisings across the region beginning more than a decade ago. These conditions are still present at the start of 2022 in most countries, joined by new stresses from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and global economic shifts that are impacting different parts of the region in dissimilar ways.
Social contracts between the people and their governments are always subject to renegotiation, with some systems of government giving more voice to the people than others. Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen are among several countries teetering on the brink of economic and political implosion, as the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) remains in the millions, a long-standing crisis that has worsened in recent years as a result of conflict and instability.
In 2022, only a handful of countries like Libya and Lebanon have national elections on the calendar that hold the prospect for some leadership change. But as the past decade of transitions, revolutions, and civil wars has shown, change can come quite unexpectedly and sometimes at quite devastating costs — and rarely with clear progress on human security.
The social contract is not only affected by elections. Even in countries that held elections last year like Iraq and Iran, leaders are scrambling to provide their people answers to unresolved questions about living conditions while power struggles at the elite levels of politics continue. Many of the region’s monarchies are trying to adapt and respond to the concerns of their people and continue to update the economic models in a way that addresses the demands for greater security and prosperity. At the same time, the escalating authoritarian crackdowns in multiple countries across the region and the closing off of basic freedoms demonstrate a lack of confidence among certain governments and leaders about their own standing with their people — brutal repression is a sign of weak leadership in the face of human security challenges.
In 2022 all countries of the region will face added pressures from climate change and rising prices, against a backdrop of uneven economic growth. Extreme heat, sustained drought, and the risks of water and food shortages could add to the burdens of a state system that is already straining from multiple pressures. These drivers will further impact the interplay between governments and their people and broader regional stability.
- How relationships among key regional actors might shift.
The competition for power and influence among key countries and important non-state actors continues to shape the regional landscape, with many countries operating with a greater degree of independence and assertiveness than in previous eras. These countries continue to test the limits of their power and influence against each other with security and diplomatic moves, and this state competition is complicated by aggressive non-state actors like ISIS and quasi-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.
2021 was a year when countries of the region tested the limits of their power and influence in multiple arenas, including stepped up diplomacy to de-escalate tensions and build new ties — even as conflicts that had regional dimensions such as Syria and Yemen continued. The diplomatic openings and de-escalation through diplomacy along several fault lines in the broader Middle East over the past year could easily be obliterated at a moment’s notice by the attacks and security incidents that happen regularly in the region — a risk underscored by the Houthi drone and missile strikes on the UAE in mid-January.
2022 will be a year when the spotlight will continue to shine on Iran and its relationship with the broader region. Even if diplomacy succeeds in tackling thorny questions related to Iran’s nuclear program, a bevy of broader regional security questions will likely remain unresolved and add to uncertainty across the Middle East.
The trend toward rebuilding relations damaged over the past few years and normalizing ties between countries that had cut them or never had formal relations in the past will likely continue. The rapprochement between Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will move forward slowly, as countries seek ways to coordinate and cooperate on a range of issues such as the economy, energy, and shared security. Yet a certain degree of mistrust and lack of confidence will linger between these countries, and the scars from the wounds of battles fought in the aftermath of the 2011 popular uprisings will endure.
The 2020 normalization accords between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan brought certain ties out into the open, but major leaps forward in openings with new countries are unlikely in 2022 without some progress on the Palestinian front.
- How the shifting geopolitical competition in the world impacts the Middle East.
As a region linking Asia, Africa, and Europe, the broader Middle East remains at the intersection of the competition for influence among global powers. A third driver that will continue to shape the broader Middle East in 2022 is the impact of competition between the U.S., China, Russia, and Europe, as well as emerging powers like India, which has worked to build ties across the region in new ways.
Most countries in the region are already hedging strategically, seeking to maintain good ties with all of these external actors in this wider competition. At the same time, a number of countries in the region such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will likely continue to operate more assertively and independently to pursue their own goals and interests in ways that could produce unpredictable outcomes and discontinuities in the region.
This back-and-forth competition among external powers seeking to impact trends in the Middle East will add another layer of complexity along key fault lines, including Iran and the Gulf, Israel and Palestine, and tensions in North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
The United States will remain involved in the region as the external actor with the broadest and deepest set of ties, but it remains unclear what direction America will seek to take in its broader regional approach given all of the challenges it faces at home and in other parts of the world.