When Covid-19 took the planet by storm in the early months of 2020, forcing billions of people into lockdowns, closing borders and paralysing the global economy, it soon became clear to most people that we were living in a world forever changed. Nearly three years later, the lesson of 2022 may be best captured by the old French adage: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.
From the invasion of Ukraine to growing Sino-American tensions, and from the rise of extremist governments in several countries to the continued challenge of reaching a viable global agreement on climate change, 2022 has shown us that the problems of the pre-Covid world, like a chronic illness, still linger. The pandemic has receded in most countries, but war, economic inequality, ideological extremism and environmental degradation have returned to the foreground.
In the Middle East, in particular, this phenomenon has been brought into sharp focus by the fact that little progress has been made in solving the region’s most persistent troubles. The war in Yemen, despite a fragile truce, remains unresolved. As does the conflict in Syria, where a stalemate has left millions of people in the country’s north in the hands of competing militias and millions around the country in dire economic conditions.
In Lebanon and Iraq, political intractability, rather than large-scale violence, has degraded everyday life, as well as the natural environment – though in both countries violence continues to play its role. In Israel, the year closes with the inauguration of the most extreme right-wing government in the country’s history. In Iran, a protest movement that has attracted international solidarity for the country’s women has yet to produce any meaningful change on a national level. And in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Taliban government has proven increasingly intent on snuffing out any hope for women altogether.
The silver lining is that the region, like the world at large, has dealt with a particularly trying year with remarkable resilience, thanks to the persistence of those who believe in a better future. Many leaders in the worlds of business and politics have worked double-time to enhance regional integration and further the cause of diplomacy.
While February will come to be remembered as the month that Russia invaded Ukraine, it also saw a warming, after many years, of relations between the UAE and Turkey – two states whose ties will prove critical in achieving greater integration and prosperity in the region. October saw the signing of a major maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon, demonstrating once again the role of pragmatic thinking in forging a path to peace. In November, Egypt, the region’s most populous country, hosted the Cop27 climate summit, and gave new voice to developing countries in the global conversation on climate change. The UAE will progress these efforts next year as it hosts Cop28. And this month, Qatar made the Arab world proud by successfully hosting one of the most thrilling World Cups in living memory.
In 2022, the role of wise leadership was eminently clear, not only from the leaders who guided the world towards progress but also those whom the world lost. The stream of world leaders who came to Abu Dhabi in quick succession to pay their respects after the passing of Sheikh Khalifa in May highlighted the significance of such figures both at home and abroad. When Queen Elizabeth died five months later, the world was reminded again of the importance of leadership.
The more things stay the same, the greater our impetus to change them for the better. This year may have seen mixed results when it comes to our ability to achieve progress, but it has seen no diminishment in our desire for it. Throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world, millions of people want to see a post-Covid world brought closer together, with greater integration, mutual understanding, tolerance and respect. It is the kind of world that may seem far as next year approaches, but if there is one more lesson to be drawn from 2022, it is that a year is plenty of time for fortunes to change.