From Expo to the World Cup, the Gulf gave hope to a crisis-ridden 2022

This was a landmark year for the region, but perhaps the biggest diplomatic tests are yet to come

2022 finished with a remarkable World Cup staged in Qatar. The National
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What a year. Its full context may yet be unknown, but when historians reflect on 2022, they will surely reach the conclusion that it was among the most extraordinary and important chapters in the history of the Mena region.

As we get ready to welcome 2023, we can look back on a year book-ended by two spectacularly successful events, neither of which were always predicted to be so. When Expo 2020 Dubai finally closed its doors at the end of the first quarter, it did so safe in the knowledge that it had not only overcome the adversities of Covid-19, but also seized its chance to show the world the UAE’s flair for innovation, openness to other cultures, and ability to deliver a project of grand scope on time and on budget. Expo was much more than a spectacle for its more than 20 million visitors, it was a declaration of intent and confidence for a UAE with a clear-eyed view of its path.

Visitors during the Expo 2020 Dubai Closing Ceremony at Al Wasl Plaza. Credit: Expo City Dubai

Then, in December, Qatar was able to revel in the triumph of a World Cup that defied international expectations and escaped a narrative of controversy to be remembered as perhaps the most entertaining ever. Yes, there were caveats, but most of those visiting the tournament were united in their praise for the way it played out, and the Middle East was able to chalk off yet another first by hosting one of the world’s most complex and prestigious global events. It introduced Arab culture and values to a global audience and, in the shape of Morocco, had its own unifying Arab hero story – an unprecedented and important subplot that brought the region together.

The months between these two showcases underlined the fact that this is a region evolving at a rapid pace while remaining as complex as ever. Wherever you looked across 2022, the signs and signals of current or future change were clear.

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim honours Argentina's forward #10 Lionel Messi with a traditional bisht, at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup final football match between Argentina and France on December 18. AFP

No conversation about 2022 can ignore the most seismic geopolitical upheaval since the Second World War: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has touched every corner of the planet in some way, and the Middle East is among the parts of the world most affected. From the physical arrival of Russians and Ukrainians seeking new opportunities in the UAE, to the diplomatic role played by Abu Dhabi and by countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia in brokering deals to transport much-needed grain or secure the release of hostages, the region has played an active role throughout.

Most significantly, the region has provided the only readymade solution to a crisis in Europe that was as immediate as it has been profound. The sudden removal of Russian oil and gas from the energy menu meant a scramble for new deals, and old fuels. Fossil fuel-producing nations in the Middle East have seen interest in the products on which their sovereign wealth was built, even as many are seeking to diversify away from their traditional reliance upon them.

The consequence of this has been a swelling of the region’s coffers, and with it renewed capital investment in energy infrastructure. Moreover, it has also meant increased influence for the region’s major players as geopolitical sands shift. Put simply, the war in Ukraine has made the Gulf states more important.

The Sustainability Pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai site marks "Earth Hour", on March 26. EPA

I was in Jeddah when US President Joe Biden visited the kingdom, and the dynamic at play was very different to that of previous visits by American leaders; certainly, the balance of power was much harder to discern. Likewise, the visit there of Chinese President Xi Jinping was further evidence that there is more than one direction in which this region can turn, and more than one superpower that is turning to the region.

This is not just about Ukraine. Even before the current crisis, there was a sense of an emerging new world order, and with it a more active and independent role for countries such as the UAE. The US had already signalled a clear intent to step back from the Middle East, looking for players such as the Emirates to take regional positions to deal with regional problems. Indeed, this change has been evident in this year’s launch of multi-billion-dollar funds for investment in countries such as Egypt and Jordan aimed at shoring up stability, security and peace.

And it has shown it can play a key diplomatic role in other ways, too. When the UAE assumed the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council in March, it could scarcely have anticipated the importance that role would have taken on as Europe descended into conflict, but its stated priorities – around advancing inclusion, spurring innovation, building resilience and securing peace – were all startlingly relevant.

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic's morality police, on Istiklal avenue in Istanbul on September 20. AFP

The protests in Iran, always a country with an uneasy relationship with much of the rest of region, have highlighted the connection between stability and an openness to more progressive policies. The UAE has long been a beacon of both in the region, but even in Saudi Arabia there is evidence that other, more conservative states can benefit from change, especially when it comes to the rights of women. Time will tell whether the protests in Iran will lead to long-term shifts, but there is no indication that the voices being heard there are prepared to be silenced.

The thaw in relations between some Arab players and Israel also brought with it a few landmark moments: the first flights from Tel Aviv into Doha, a requirement of Fifa when Qatar was awarded the World Cup, were among the most eye-catching. But there were countless exciting examples of possible collaboration in fields such as technology, particularly in relation to space and agriculture, that served to underline the potential benefits of the Abraham Accords. While experience warns that any optimism should be carefully tempered, especially with a new right-wing coalition in the Knesset and clear evidence that support for the Palestinian cause remains steadfast among ordinary Arabs across the region, the subtle shifts that have taken place can at least point to fresh approaches and new ideas.

But there was one problem in 2022 that will not be going away any time soon, and it is without doubt the most pressing concern for the region and the world. On June 21, Abu Dhabi recorded a temperature of 50.7°C, and a number of cities in the region witnessed record-high temperatures over the summer. Projections tell us that in future this will become the norm, rather than the exception. An additional priority for the UAE when it took on the presidency of the UNSC was that of climate change, but even with the positive steps taken at the climate summit Cop27 in Egypt, few could argue that any significant blows have been struck in the climate crisis fight this year. Thanks to the war in Ukraine, quite the opposite is the case, in fact.

The UAE will take the lead in this battle in 2023, as Cop28 comes to Dubai. The region has proved its determination to seek solutions to a problem that it knows it is also a part of, but the need is more urgent than ever, especially right here in the Gulf. This is a fight we must win; the price of failure is too high to contemplate.

Published: December 30, 2022, 6:00 PM