If you thought 2017 was extraordinary, 2018 might be even more momentous

David Rothkopf looks at some of the key questions facing the region

epaselect epa06410380 Iranian students clash with riot police during an anti-government protest around the University of Tehran, Iran, 30 December 2017. Media reported that illegal protest against the government is going on in most of the cities in Iran. Protests were held in at least nine cities, including Tehran, against the economic and foreign policy of President Hassan Rouhani's government.  EPA/STR
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2017 produced more questions than it answered. The answers the year ahead provides will determine whether or not the region is entering a year of hope or a descent into unprecedented chaos. In honour of 2018, let’s look at some looming questions.

Can Iran’s winning streak continue? As 2017 drew to a close, Iran’s influence extended across the entire arc of the northern Middle East. The nuclear deal won influence and significant financial resources.  Its allies were divided and weakened by internal challenges. Iran seemed to be on a roll, or has Iran’s winning streak actually been that or have the costs been too high, the victories too tenuous, the allies chosen too flawed? Or maybe not. Bashar Al Assad and Vladimir Putin are uncertain allies. America may bolt from the nuclear deal and things are unsettled at home. Are Iran’s internal challenges greater than those it faces from beyond its borders? Whether these recent protests produce major change or whether they produce more repression will be perhaps the most important issue confronting the region in the year ahead.

What will the Saudi government be known for this year?  Mohammed bin Salman has pushed through change and targeted corruption. He is popular at home and a source of cautious optimism for observers, but he has also got Saudi involved in intrigue and complex mega-projects. Are they masterstrokes?

Can there be any victories in Yemen? Choices made in 2018 may not determine winners but they are likely to reveal who will suffer greater losses.


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Is Russia’s hard play for a permanent foot in Syria and expanded influence in the region a strategic masterstroke or will it bog it down in unintended conflicts? Russia has been winning as America has retreated. But what costs will come with maintaining ties to the Al Assad regime and seeking to expand Moscow’s regional role?

Will the Middle Euphrates Valley remain a “deconfliction” line or will it become a new frontier in a US-Russia confrontation that even the Russia-loving US president is clueless about?

Quietly, without much fanfair, a new rump Syria seems to be emerging as a quasi-US protectorate. US-Russia tensions seem certain to grow along the line.

Which extremist sect will succeed ISIL? Terror groups do not disappear, they evolve, so who will take the place of a weakened ISIL?

Will the marginalisation of Egypt be short term or is it the new normal? Egypt was once a pillar of the region, can it resume a leadership role in the foreseeable future?

Will the corruption and political scandals swirling around the Netanyahu government lead them to take even more extreme and inflammatory actions regarding the Palestinians?  The bribery scandal has rattled Bibi Netanyahu, exacerbating his already strong tendency to be confrontational. Can matters get any worse in 2018 for him? For tensions between Israel and Palestine, the two are linked.

Will the corruption and political scandals swirling around the Trump administration lead them to take even more provocative and dangerous steps in the Middle East to produce distraction?

Russiagate investigations could mean the undoing of the Trump administration or trigger a big opposition victory in elections, paralysing Donald Trump. Will he seek conflict elsewhere to distract from him problems?

Will the US abandoning the Iran nuclear deal do more to isolate Iran or America? The US wants to squeeze Iran. The move away from the deal might strengthen the regime at just the wrong moment and hurt US standing worldwide.

Qatar who? With all the above swirling will anyone even have the bandwidth to remember the boycott of Qatar? That seems unlikely.

What would the consequences of a global economic slowdown be for the economies of the region? Trees don’t grow to the sky.  A nine-year global recovery seems unlikely to go on forever. What would the reversal look like and would it squeeze Gulf economies?

Just whose side are the Turks on? Not only do we not know, they may not even know. That’s a problem for allies and stability.

Whither China?  Interested in the long-term view? This is the question. China is slowly making its moves and is already, quietly, the most important foreign power in the Middle East regardless of what Russia or the US may think.

So, the punchline is, if you thought 2017 was a wild ride, think again. This year may have you remembering it as the good old days.