Michele Dunne | Director of and senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
One of the issues that will absorb my attention in 2021 is the best way for the United States to diminish its military involvement in the Middle East without sacrificing crucial national security interests. President-elect Joe Biden, like presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him, will want to bring down the human and financial costs of involvement in a region of declining strategic importance in order to pivot to other domestic and global interests.
Some are arguing that the U.S. should sell or give massive amounts of sophisticated arms to allies in the Middle East—for example through the proposed sale of F-35 fighter aircraft to the United Arab Emirates—with the idea that once allies can protect themselves, the region will stabilize and the U.S. can withdraw. But is that really the case? What have allies done with the weapons that Washington (by far the largest purveyor of arms to the Middle East) has given or sold to them so far? How have those arms affected the trajectory of regional conflicts as well as the political stability and economic development of countries? The Biden administration will inherit a set of highly securitized relationships in the Middle East, but will have a chance to consider whether doubling down on that approach is the way to go.
H. A. Hellyer | Nonresident scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Program
I’ll be looking for four things in particular in 2021.
A decade on from 2011, when Arab revolutionary uprisings occurred in Arab states, after the first one in Tunisia in late 2010, I’ll be looking to see if any upheavals, not on the level of uprisings, take place. Legitimate grievances exist in plentiful supply and as such it is important to assume that there will be understandable reactions.
The second relates to the post-Abraham Accords era. Once President Donald Trump has left the White House, the accords will cease to have new recruits. On the other hand, the Palestine question will remain. How will the Biden administration engage on the issue? What might take place that invites, or discourages, such engagement?
The third “event” relates to unpredictable happenings that will show if the region is taking seriously the end of the more permissive atmosphere the Trump administration engendered by ignoring international law. The jury is out on whether or not a Biden administration will take steps to hit a reset button on that front, but we will probably see a number of situations that will test that.
Finally, I’ll be looking at the two main power axes of the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian alliance and the Turkish-Qatari partnership. Some events over the last few years have brought elements of these coalitions together. However, the news this week of a reconciliation among the Gulf Cooperation Council states may bring new configurations in that regard, even if underlying tensions will remain. I will be watching closely to see how regional geopolitics develop.
David Linfield | Visiting scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Program
As Covid-19 spread throughout the world last year, it also displaced attention from preexisting political and economic problems. This was particularly apparent in the Middle East, where a series of protest movements that had emerged in 2018 and 2019 temporarily subsided as focus turned to the pandemic.
In 2021, as vaccines hopefully bring an end to the health crisis, I will be watching whether protests reemerge in places such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. There is reason to believe that they will, as Covid-19 has only exacerbated many of the factors that first led demonstrations to erupt, especially economic inequality.
Another issue that warrants monitoring is the demographic composition of any protests that occur. Prior to the pandemic economic tensions had united strange bedfellows, as people from lower classes—whether Sunni or Shi‘a, Christian or Muslim, tribal or not—increasingly realized they had more in common with each other than with the elite classes of their own confessional groups. Will this phenomenon recur once Covid-19 subsides?
Finally, how will international donors manage aid intended to help the Middle East deal with the pandemic’s economic aftershocks? In an Arab Barometer survey conducted across the region in 2018, the percentage of people in each country who said that corruption was present in their nation to a medium or large extent ranged from 71 percent to 93 percent. Any aid flows that appear to benefit elites disproportionately will likely exacerbate societal tensions.
Aaron David Miller | Senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focusing on U.S. foreign policy
In 2021, I’ll focus not so much on any particular Middle East headline, but on a trend: How much attention will the Biden administration be willing and able to devote to the Middle East?
President Joe Biden will want to engage Iran, especially on the nuclear accord, because it’s the one issue that could fundamentally disrupt regional stability, lead to war, and distract from his overriding priority—domestic recovery.
But what of the other issues? Will Biden devote any serious attention—even working with others—to help bring an end to civil wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria? Will he invest much effort in stabilizing Iraq? Will the Biden administration energetically encourage normalization between Israel and the Arab states or focus largely on trying to make even modest progress on the broken peace process between Israel and Palestinians, or both? Will candidate Biden’s pledge to focus on egregious human rights violations in dealing with problematic partners such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt fall by the wayside, or bring greater accountability—even conditionality—to these relationships? And will Biden continue his predecessor’s rush to the exits in Afghanistan or hold the current line to test whether the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban can be implemented, as he works with others on stabilizing the country?
With vital U.S. interests, allies, and partners to support, and adversaries to counter, Washington cannot withdraw from the broader Middle East. And an unanticipated crisis can always draw it back in. But in view of changing foreign policy priorities, the primacy of its own domestic recovery, independence from Arab hydrocarbons, and a myriad of other Middle Eastern problems that are beyond America’s capacity to resolve, the administration may well discover that the region, while still important, has become decidedly less so.
Marc Pierini | Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels
In the eyes of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), 2021 opens with two-and-half game changers.
First, Turkey is now a political and military actor that nobody can ignore and few can constrain. It has deployed an assertive and militarized foreign policy in its wider neighborhood—Syria, Libya, Iraq, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the South Caucasus. In so doing, Ankara has used new and effective military hardware, especially tactical drones in Idlib Governorate, in western Libya, and in Azerbaijan. It has also focused on issues that remained unresolved for a long time–maritime boundaries, Cyprus, the Kurdistan Workers Party’s insurgency, Nagorno-Karabakh–which had the distinct advantage of creating a rally-around-the-flag effect in domestic politics. Turkey has also deployed Russian S400 missiles, a major hindrance to NATO’s missile defense architecture.
Second, Russia is now a permanent player in the Mediterranean and has reestablished permanent military bases in Syria–Hmeimim air base and Tartous naval station on the coast–which contribute not only to supporting its military operations inside Syria, but also serve as a stepping stone to other operations in eastern Libya and soon in the Red Sea. Should Russia set up a permanent naval station in the Red Sea and a permanent air base in Libya, the implications for NATO and the EU would be far reaching.
Third, and this is only a half game changer because we still have to assess its impact, the EU will rekindle a dialogue with the Biden administration over the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Such a dialogue will end four painful years of unpredictability.
Jake Walles | Nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
I’ll be watching to see if 2021 finally brings an end to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure in office. Israel will hold elections in March, the fourth contest in the past two years. Netanyahu outmaneuvered his opponents in the previous rounds, but he faces an even more serious challenge this time. His Likud faction has splintered, with former Knesset member Gideon Sa’ar forming a new rightwing party. Sa’ar has joined other former Likudniks Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, who also lead parties on the right opposed to Netanyahu. The center-left Blue and White party has also fractured, but the remaining factions remain determined to end the Netanyahu era. The prime minister will also lose his ally in the White House with the departure of President Donald Trump on January 20.
Israeli politics at the moment no longer revolve around issues of war and peace and the future relationship with the Palestinians. The main issue that will determine the electoral outcome is the public’s perception of Netanyahu himself. While he withstood the onslaught against his leadership in the previous three elections, his management of the Covid-19 pandemic may be decisive this time. Israelis are unhappy with how the country has handled the pandemic. Netanyahu is trying to counter this negative perception with a massive public vaccination campaign. The electorate’s evaluation of the Covid-19 situation could determine Netanyahu’s fate, just as the U.S. electorate did for his friend in the White House. But Netanyahu has defied the odds before, and the outcome won’t be known until the votes are counted in March and coalition negotiations begin.
Sarah Yerkes | Senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
I will be watching how the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring is commemorated in the region. The reminder of this monumental series of events is likely to unleash pride at what was accomplished in 2011 and reflection and frustration over what was not. While Tunisia achieved a dramatic political transition that ushered in an era of free speech, free expression, and a powerful and vibrant civil society, there and in most states that experienced some sort of uprising the economic situation is worse than it was a decade ago.
As activists and politicians reflect on the past decade, they are also confronted with the immense economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic that continues to ravage the globe. The pandemic set back the progress that was being made in the economic sphere, leaving many people unemployed and unable to feed their families. While I do not expect to see a second Arab Spring in 2021, I do expect to see continued expressions of frustration and despair. This could come in the form of mass protests, increasing numbers of regular and irregular migrants, higher suicide rates, and a growing number of recruits to violent extremist groups.
Therefore, my hope is that governments in the region as well as the international community take seriously the need to address the root causes of socioeconomic inequality, marginalization, lack of accountability, and corruption that have yet to be addressed a decade after Mohammed Bouazizi’s courageous act of self-immolation set the wider Arab world on fire.