Few will miss much about 2020. Despite the trauma it inflicted, reflecting on this historic period helps us to learn from it and move on. It will fortify us for the future.
Covid-19 dominated the year. But even before it emerged as a global catastrophe in February, the year had an eventful start. Much of this took place in our region. Only three days into the year, the US killed leader of the Iranian Quds Force Qassem Suleimani, in retaliation to Iranian provocation. Tensions surged again after Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian Airlines passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board.
On the other hand, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey intensified his confrontational foreign policy, moving into the Eastern Mediterranean on the pretense that he was asserting Turkey's right to energy resources in the disputed waters, angering the country's old rival Greece and the wider EU – an institution already undermined by Brexit, which was concluded only last week. At home, Mr Erdogan challenged the secular identity of modern Turkey, choosing to embolden political Islam and convert the Hagia Sophia – a former Byzantine cathedral, then mosque, then secular monument – back into a mosque. Such actions are ideologically-driven, but also partly to distract from the downward spiral in which Turkey's economy is trapped.
Longstanding regional wars dragged on tragically in Syria and Libya. Other states experienced a more rapid decline. Political corruption in Lebanon culminated in the Beirut blast, an entirely avoidable accident that caused one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, killing hundreds and making much of the city's population homeless. Five months on, the situation is still not resolved, nor is the government being held sufficiently to account. In Iraq, Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi was appointed. His desire to unite the country, battle corruption and restore trust in the state, is impressive. But with Covid-19, and influential militias opposed to his programme, he confronts a major challenge.
But geopolitics was not all bleak. The Abraham Accords saw the UAE and Bahrain establish diplomatic ties with Israel, breaking a decades-long deadlock in the Middle East. This was quickly followed by Sudan and Morocco establishing links with Israel.
The UAE had a better year than most countries. Its pandemic response was swifter and more decisive than most other nations, leading to higher testing rates, lower case numbers, stricter but less costly lockdowns, as well as timely stimulus packages. Covid-19 vaccine science was advanced in the country with the trial of the Sinopharm inoculation. The UAE also launched its Amal – or Hope – Mars probe in July, which will study the planet's atmosphere. Back on earth, the country made significant reforms ranging from the legal system to its business environment.
This year, reasons to be optimistic globally have not been in abundance. Millions have lost loved ones and jobs. Uncertainty led to difficult situations for people all over the world. But, in an age where many have become used to year-on-year progress in its typical sense, is it only bad that we learned to deal with life dramatically altered? Many people endure intolerable conditions. For those privileged not to do so, are there some silver linings to be gleaned from the burden of life channelled through zoom? The Classical philosophy of Stoicism, centred on the teaching that true happiness comes from accepting that which one has no control over, had little traction in the comfortable quarters of yesterday's world. Not so in 2020.
When people set New Year's resolutions, they are, in one sense, exercising a privileged ability to change their lives for the better in almost limitless ways. This year, the luckiest of us were forced to practise something valuable and largely forgotten: how to keep our heads in a world suddenly imposing change on us, not the other way round.