2021 is the Middle East's year of opportunity - if we can seize it

Last year was challenging, but in many ways set the stage for the region's future success
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Pupils seated for the Mathematic, grade 11  exam hall at Gems Cambridge International School in Baniyas. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

There are pockets of positive momentum almost everywhere you look in the Middle East.

For example, a renewed commitment to GCC unity at the Al Ula summit has provided a boost of energy to what is a powerful political and economic bloc. Also, on Monday, Egypt, Jordan, Germany and France said they were ready to work with the US to further Middle East peace negotiations.

Perhaps most importantly of all, national Covid-19 vaccination programmes are beginning to pick up speed as they scale up across the region.

It is difficult to recall a start to a year that offered so much promise and at the same time so much peril

That is despite a shaky start amid a spike in coronavirus cases across the world and the shocking events at the US Capitol. However, a new American administration is coming in and it is reasonable to expect a flurry of action on the part of President-elect Joe Biden and his team. While it is as yet unclear what that might mean for the countries of the Middle East and in particular the problems caused to them by Iran, there will at least be a window during which Mr Biden will attempt to show he means business when it comes to resolving such long-standing issues. There is also a fresh round of multinational and institutional willingness to co-operate on battling climate change, including Britain's Prince of Wales' “Terra Carta” sustainability plan, announced this week.

It must be taken as a very positive sign that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, a figure who has offered thought-provoking words almost every time I have heard him speak, is now seeking a second term in the role. The bulk of his first five years in office has been beset by immense challenges, yet he has not given up.

He has said that 2021 could be “a year of healing … [he has seen how] rays of hope can reach around the world”.

That is despite him saying only last February: “I have spoken about winds of hope. But today a wind of madness is sweeping the globe.”

What a turnaround in sentiment.

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Covid-19 vaccination programmes are beginning to pick up speed across the region

So, in that vein 2021 could also be a year of real opportunities for the people of the Arab world. The question as always will be; can we seize the opportunities?

Perhaps the more pressing question is what kind of region do we want? One filled with economic and social opportunity for sure. A region which offers inclusivity and meritocracy. These ideals represent a perfect goal which no nation or community can hope to achieve completely but we can say that is what we aim for and to have that ambition fueling and driving everything we do, every single day.

With so many watershed moments upon us at once – the pandemic, a new President for the US, technological shifts, we have a great chance to shape the region as individuals.

Looming over any optimistic prognosis for the Middle East are the structural problems we face. Iran’s destabilising actions, Hezbollah’s intransigence in Lebanon, Bashar Al Assad’s regime immovable in Syria and economic malaise almost everywhere.

Yet, we do know what the long-term solutions are; for example nurturing values such as entrepreneurship and inclusivity, which is happening in parts of the Middle East and North Africa today. These are humble but powerful forces for change and will always be opposed by those who would stand in the way of a progressive, productive and peaceful region.

It feels though that the tide is beginning to turn. The consequences of the global pandemic from which none could escape the reality of has been sobering. It is as if it has woken us up from the malaise.

We know now for example that there are far more people who covet and espouse these positive values. They are no longer drowned out by the more extreme elements manipulating social media. It is not too much of a risk to be hopeful that if we can keep moving forward the current will continue to turn in the favour of a future that is more characterised by peace and prosperity.

I wish that the defining pattern of this year could be that every opportunity will be seized. Realistically, some, if not most, will be missed. However, if we can grab at and hold on to a few that previously we may have let slip from our grasp, then it will be a landmark period.

Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Mustafa Alrawi

Mustafa Alrawi

Mustafa is an assistant editor in chief at The National, and an accomplished journalist and broadcaster, with over 18-years' experience working in the UK, the UAE and the wider Middle East.