Joseph Bahout | Nonresident scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Program
In 2019, I will focus on Lebanon, Syria, and the Gulf. Lebanon is inexorably nearing the tipping point of economic and financial collapse. This process will be accelerated if a functioning government is not formed soon. Such a collapse could engulf the country in a series of problems and turmoil that it has not seen.
In Syria, two dynamics will be interesting to track. First, friction between Iran and Russia, which will mostly be hidden but could take lethal forms. And momentum toward confrontation between Iran and Israel in southern Syria, which will have regional ramifications.
Dynamics in the Gulf will largely be linked to the political trajectory of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his capacity to escape the blowback caused by the Khashoggi affair. The prince’s ability to succeed his father as king and moves toward conflict or compromise in the region will stem from that.
Nathan Brown | Nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
In 2019 I will be focusing on the absence of a state in Palestine and the presence of assertive states elsewhere. In Palestine, the crisis of the national movement—the lack of a strategy, aging leadership, decaying institutions—does not mean a decline in national identity. For decades, when asking how Palestinian society is organized politically, we have looked to structures and movements (the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, and Hamas), which today seem to be losing all sense of direction. How are Palestinians reacting? What structures are they building? What ideas are they discussing? And what will their choices mean for the future of the national movement?
In other Arab societies, the state’s strong presence in the religious realm (by controlling mosques, curriculums, and charities) is being used much more robustly by security-minded and increasingly autocratic regimes to squeeze out autonomous voices and make them toe the line much more than before. Are these attempts successful? How do members of the pious public react? These are some of the questions I hope to explore in the coming year.
Frederic Wehrey | Senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
Across the Arab world, the year ahead offers no shortages of looming risks for renewed conflict, as well as modest opportunities for reconciliation. In Libya, I will be watching to see whether a planned national conference and elections provide the basis for unity and movement beyond a divisive transition period. Violence by spoilers and a weakened but still-lethal Islamic State is an ever-present danger. Reconstituting the fractured Libyan security sector will be another key challenge. This is a theme that increasingly occupies my attention beyond Libya’s borders, in states such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq that will emerge from conflict. How can local militias, often backed by foreign powers, be reintegrated into national-level militaries? Is this even possible or will the de facto norm of “hybrid” security governance persist?
A second and related issue that will drive my research is how Islamic institutions are being reshaped by conflict and, especially, by authoritarian-led, top-down “reforms,” most notably in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck | Resident scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut
In 2019 and beyond, the Maghreb-Sahel region will face significant economic and security challenges. The question of jihadi returnees and their rehabilitation is still pending in many countries—worryingly in Tunisia, which has no strategy to prevent violent extremism or rehabilitation programs in place. The specter of jihadism will continue to haunt the region and some countries—Libya, Tunisia, Egypt—will have bigger challenges to confront than Algeria and Morocco.
That said, Algeria will be at the top of my watch list in 2019. The country is preparing for a presidential election and yet seems stuck in a state of perpetual transition. The latter is aggravated by a deep economic crisis and mounting social anger leading to a disconnect between the population and the leadership. There is a possibility of social unrest. I will also be watching closely the trends in political Islam in Algeria. Finally, I will continue to look at females in jihadi groups, but also in Arab militaries, as this is becoming a topic of debate in several countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
Ahmad Nagi | Nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut
My main focus will be on developments in Yemen and prospects for peace between the warring parties, particularly after the recent Stockholm agreement, which covered several issues: the fate of the port city of Hodeida, the mechanisms for prisoner swaps between the sides, and an understanding on the city of Ta‘iz. Even though the Stockholm peace talks were, in principle, a step in the right direction, the understandings reached focused on specific issues in such a way as to represent confidence-building measures, nothing more.
There are dozens of other issues in many areas of Yemen that I will be watching next year, such as the military fronts in several governorates between the Houthis and government forces, deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions, the dynamics of tribal and local governance in the midst of conflict, the campaign against Al-Qa‘eda, and the status of Yemen’s south and the rivalry among the southern factions. I will also be watching the relationship among the allies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in several of Yemen’s governorates controlled nominally by the legitimate government, including Mahrah, where Saudi and Emirati troops are present.
The struggle between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one side and Oman on the other will be another main topic of interest, as will be Iranian support for the Houthis, the rivalries in the Red Sea, as well as the effects of the Yemeni conflict on the Horn of Africa.
Marc Pierini | Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, Brussels
At Carnegie Europe I will watch four foreign policy issues in 2019, one of which will have implications for the Middle East. Number one on my list will be the delivery of Russian-made S400 missiles to Turkey and the fallout from this with regard to the delivery of U.S.-made F35 stealth aircraft to Ankara and Turkey’s participation in the aircraft’s manufacturing process. If the Turkish Air Force actually operates S400s, this will represent a massive game-changer for NATO with respect to its dealings with Turkey.
Number two will be the foreign policy impact of Brexit and the type of links London will want to keep with the European Union foreign and security policy apparatus. Little can be predicted at this stage, but this will be another game-changer on the European scene.
Number three will be whether the coalition government in Germany will survive the changing of the guard at the Christian Democratic Union, and whether Chancellor Angela Merkel will be able to fulfill her duties until it is time to hand over power to her designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
An unexpected number four will be the impact of the current civil contestation in France on President Emmanuel Macron’s ability to move forward with his ambitious plan for deeper European policies, especially on the Eurozone’s economic policies and budget. His recent concessions to protesters will dent France’s budgetary discipline and may weaken his hand in European Council debates.
Maha Yahya | Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut
I will be watching Lebanon, which will face significant milestones in the coming year. Eight months after parliamentary elections a government has yet to be formed, even as the country faces critical political and economic challenges.
On the political front, the pro-Syria lobby is gaining traction and is increasing pressure so that the incoming government normalizes relations with the Syrian regime. Such pressure will take various forms, including the continued politicization of the Syrian refugee issue, the blocking of key cabinet decisions, and the display of limited force on the ground. The next government, which will likely be headed by prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri, will also face international pressure to curb the activities of Hezbollah. In light of new sanctions, Hezbollah is looking for ways to ensure financial sustainability, which may implicate Lebanese state institutions expected to be under the party’s control, such as the Health Ministry. This could threaten international support for the army and for economic sectors on which Lebanon relies. All this while the prospect of a conflict with Israel remains high.
Economically, despite considerable foreign currency reserves, Lebanon is facing tremendous challenges—with a budget deficit of $3.3 billion and a mounting debt of close to $84 billion, representing 150 percent of GDP. The erosion of confidence in the country’s institutions has expanded to include the banking sector, as ordinary Lebanese worry that they may lose their savings. Meanwhile, the deterioration in services means the incoming government will likely be confronted with a wave of protests. While Lebanon may not be facing an imminent financial meltdown, without key reforms an economic crisis, including the devaluation of the Lebanese pound, seems increasingly likely. The repercussions on ordinary Lebanese will be significant if their savings are wiped out and their standards of living slip further. For a government under siege, addressing these trials requires a collective agreement to place Lebanon’s stability above all other interests.
Sarah Yerkes | Fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
In 2019 I will continue to focus on state-society relations, and particularly the role of non-state and informal actors in influencing change. Sitting in Tunis eight years after the Arab Spring, in a country that has been a model of peaceful protest, I am hearing repeated reference to the Gilets Jaunes movement in France and the potential for the copycat Gilets Rouges movement in Tunisia to build momentum. Across North Africa and the Middle East as well as in Europe and the United States, people are growing fed up with their leaders—whether they were elected or appointed. In 2019, as people continue to be unable or unwilling to engage with their governments, I will be watching the shift from the ballot box to the street and trying to understand what it will mean for stability, particularly in Tunisia.