2012: looking back on world events

As The National's foreign correspondents look back on 2012, the headline-grabbing stories may not always have been the most significant.
A Syrian man cries while holding the body of his son killed by the Syrian Army near Dar El Shifa hospital in Aleppo, in October. Manu Brabo FRE
A Syrian man cries while holding the body of his son killed by the Syrian Army near Dar El Shifa hospital in Aleppo, in October. Manu Brabo FRE
It was a year when Syria descended into all-out civil war, the Palestinians triumphed at the United Nations and Barack Obama was re-elected as US president. But as The National's foreign correspondents look back on 2012, it was not always the headline-grabbing stories that were the most significant.


Iran - Israel delays its decision to attack, but crippling western sanctions bite

Would Israel defy Washington and bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, embroiling the United States in yet another war in the Middle East? That question dominated global headlines for much of this year. Eventually Israel, the region's sole nuclear-armed power, backed off. It grudgingly postponed any decision to attack until next spring.

This gives the newly re-elected US president, Barack Obama, a chance to curb through coercive diplomacy a nuclear programme that Tehran insists is purely civilian in nature. This year saw the West go for Iran's jugular vein by targeting its oil exports and financial system with draconian sanctions. Tehran's oil sales plummeted, its currency was battered and inflation soared. - Michael Theodoulou


Europe and the United Kingdom - Euro zone economy is in crisis, sparking riots

It was another tough year in Europe, with riots in Greece and elsewhere, plus increasing unemployment and rising debts in many countries. The clammy hand of austerity measures will likely linger on the continent's shoulder a while longer. Economists point to indicators suggesting a turnaround - labour costs are down and deficits have been trimmed. But the measures have come at a cost. Anti-austerity proponents gained ground during the year, winning elections in Romania and France. European Union finance ministers, meanwhile, have agreed to new powers for the European Central Bank to take effect from 2014.

A closer union will satisfy those who argue the cause of the current crisis was partly that the countries of the euro zone were neither close enough together nor far enough apart. But moves toward greater integration will pose tough questions for countries such as Britain, which may find it harder to retain influence. The Olympic and Paralympic Games came to London in a spectacular celebration of sport and the human spirit. Their economic impact in the impoverished part of London where they were staged - one of many blighted by riots in last year - remains to be seen. - Omar Karmi


The Arabian Gulf - GCC leaders oppose the Syrian regime and bloodshed caused by the civil war

In a year marked by the descent of Syria into civil war, the decision by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia to throw his weight behind the opposition to Bashar Al Assad stands out as the pivotal story in the Arabian Gulf. "Dialogue about what is happening in Syria is futile," the kingdom's state news agency quoted the monarch as saying in February, during a telephone conversation with then-Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev.

Qatar was already backing the opposition but it was the Saudi monarch's nod toward the rebels that most drastically altered the region's political landscape. With Saudi Arabia's decisive entry into the conflict, the war in Syria became the latest battleground in the regional struggle between Riyadh and Tehran, which continued to back Mr Al Assad. The regionwide Sunni and Shiite tensions made the resolution of sectarian differences in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf much more difficult. As this year ends, the Arabian Gulf was inextricably embroiled in Syria. - Elizabeth Dickinson.


Iraq - Photographer captures the effects of violence on the Iraqi people.

Iraq was largely empty of American troops for the first time in a decade, but the dawn of a "new" Iraq has been marred by militia violence, government corruption and, in the capital Baghdad, the enduring presence of checkpoints. Yet it was neither a politician nor a cleric but a photographer who seemed to sum up best the cloud that still hangs over Iraq from the most tumultuous years of the war. In April, Ahmed Majeed Al Musafer lamented the decline of Iraq's cultural life and grieved over the loss of the life he once had. The subjects of his photographs were once celebrities and dignitaries. Now, just to make a living, he must photograph the consequences of the violence that continues to afflict Iraqi society. Mr Al Musafer also offers a eulogy of sorts for his beloved city: "The once-beautiful Baghdad is now virtually gone. It is dirty now, and covered in ash and rubbish." - Nizar Latif


Tunisia - Gallery riots reflect divisions of Islamists and secularists

On June 11, a few men walked into an art gallery in the fancy Tunis suburb of La Marsa and did not like what they saw. An installation designed to raise questions about the stoning to death of women, a nude woman with couscous, a painting with the word "Allah" spelt out in ants ... these did not fit their vision of Tunisia after the fall of the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years in power. Deeming the art blasphemous, the Salafists went to a nearby mosque and returned in numbers. The demonstrations that followed spread across the country and, according to authorities, left at least 74 people dead and 94 wounded.

Artists were horrified that their own post-Ben Ali flowering was being squashed by the simultaneous flourishing of militant Islamists. Many conservative Tunisians, while not condoning the violence, felt queasy about the artistic subject matter. An anti-blasphemy law was later discussed and may pass into law next year. Until that moment the divisions in Tunisian society among secularists and moderate and ultraconservative Muslims were visible but vaguely drawn. The gallery riots were the moment that crystallised what will be a conflict for years. - Alice Fordham


Syria - Poorly equipped, ill-trained and uncoordinated rebels hold their ground in Aleppo.

Declared the "decisive battle" for Syria by both sides, the Free Syrian Army's assault on Aleppo may yet prove to live up to its billing, despite the grim stalemate that quickly emerged there. Regime officials initially predicted that victory in Syria's largest city was just weeks, if not mere days, away. The rebels would be routed and the armed uprising broken once and for all, they said. Five months later, the fighting rages on. In a year of unprecedented tumult in Syria, there were other key moments. The collapse in April of a UN-brokered ceasefire within hours of its start shattered any hopes that Syria could stall, perhaps even reverse, its descent into all-out civil war.

Like other mass slaughters in this war, the massacre in the village of Houla on May 25 was shrouded in secrecy and apparently fuelled by sectarianism. Yet with the scale of the bloodshed - 108 people were killed, including 34 women and 49 children, according to the United Nations - Syria was plunged past the point of no return. Still, it is the continuing fighting in Aleppo that is the most notable event in Syria this year. It is hugely symbolic that a poorly equipped, ill-trained, ill-coordinated coalition of militants held ground in the northern city against some of the best units the regime could throw at them - hundreds of vaunted Republican Guard soldiers were sent up to reinforce regular troops, and air strikes were widely used for the first time. It boosted rebel morale and shocked government loyalists. The massive destruction in Aleppo, and the influential role of hard-line Islamists there, also offered a bleak portent of Syria's future. - Phil Sands


United States - Climate change see Midwest devastated by drought, sending food prices soaring

The re-election of Barack Obama and the massacre of children in Newtown, Connecticut, captured the biggest headlines in the US this year. But it was the consequences of climate change that may prove to be the year's most lasting - and most important - story. During the warmest year ever recorded, the nation's Midwestern breadbasket was punished by the most devastating drought in decades, sending food prices up in the short term and, more ominously, spurring talk among scientists of eventual "desertification".

Soon after, Superstorm Sandy hit the mid-Atlantic region like no other storm in recent memory, flooding parts of New York City and inflicting billions in physical and economic damage, to say nothing of lost lives. The ominous trend was underscored by a report in July in the prestigious journal Nature, in which top scientists claimed that climate change, population growth and the destruction of natural ecosystems was pushing Earth past a "tipping point" that would have catastrophic consequences in as soon as a generation. Washington seemed slow to grasp the perils, especially in the face of another major development of 2012 - the country's "energy revolution". New technology has unlocked vast reserves of oil and natural gas, the glut wiping out economic incentives for the development of large-scale renewable energy any time soon. - Taimur Khan


Libya - US ambassador one of four Americans killed in attack on diplomatic compound

When the first reports began to appear late on September 11 of an attack on a United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, it seemed like more of the same - the clearest sign of how many warnings had been ignored. British diplomats and the United Nations had already been targeted with bombs, the International Committee of the Red Cross had been forced to curtail operations after attacks and Libyan officials had been singled out, sometimes by well-established hardline Islamists.

But the Benghazi attack underscored Libya's worrying direction as no other development late last year because four Americans, including ambassador J Christopher Stevens, were killed. The ensuing controversy threatened the re-election of the US president, Barack Obama and highlighted a problem often ignored by supporters of outside military intervention anywhere in the world - what comes afterward? Eastern Libya, with its long history of militant Islamism, did not submit quietly to the yoke of liberal democracy. Anger still bubbles about who ended up with the weapons paid for by the backers of the Libyan rebellion. That has made overt support for Syrians fighting the regime of Bashar Al Assad far more politically difficult. - Alice Fordham


Turkey - Premier lashes out at veto power of UN preventing action in Syria

The government's ambition for regional leadership experienced a reality check this year that demonstrated the limitations of Ankara's influence. After spending months trying to get the United Nations and Turkey's western allies to agree to a no-fly zone above Syria to hasten the exit of the president, Bashar Al Assad, Turkey finally gave up. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, marked the bitter moment in a speech in Istanbul on October 13, when he lashed out in a powerless fury at the veto power held by the UN Security Council's permanent five - especially Russia, which has used its veto to defeat all efforts to pass resolutions against Mr Al Assad. He had a message for Turkey's western partners, too. "The West is not the world's only centre anymore." - Thomas Seibert


Lebanon - Syria's civil war crosses the border and an airport worker's bigotry highlights racial tension

The Lebanese government struggled this year to avoid being sucked into Syria's maelstrom. Syrian refugees flooded across the border, while the assassination in Beirut of Wissam Al Hassan, a security official, was blamed on Damascus. Lebanese factions, divided along the sectarian lines of the Syrian conflict, fought battles on the streets of Tripoli. But it was words uttered over the public address system at a crowded Rafik Hariri Airport in Beirut in October that lingered the most as the year drew to a close. "Filipino people, stop talking," announced a giggling agent for Middle East Airlines, his admonition directed to the Nepalese domestic workers waiting in line. The agent's casual bigotry sparked nationwide outrage and underscored the widespread but rarely publicly discussed problem of racism in a community that touts its openness and tolerance. In a matter of hours, social media was abuzz with the incident, and thousands of Lebanese took the opportunity to denounce the brazenly insensitive act. Later that week, MEA, Lebanon's national airline, fired the employee. While weary Lebanese suffered the worst tourist season in decades, the remarks by an airline agent - and the response to it - gave them the most pause in 2012. - Racha Makarem


Jordan - Demands for an end to the monarchy prompt constitutional reforms

After cuts in November on subsidies for oil and gas, thousands of Jordanians publicly demanded an end to the monarchy. Although the calls subsided, the mere fact they were voiced was a shock to many Jordanians, and an indication of how serious Jordan's economic and political straits became this year. King Abdullah is not deaf to the public's mood and sees elections scheduled for January 23, 2013, as central to the constitutional reforms he has launched, which aim to create a parliamentary government. Jordan's Islamists are among those groups threatening a boycott, but the king ended the year by reaching across Jordan's various political divides in a conciliatory tone. - Suha Ma'ayeh


India - Nation mourns musical genius Ravi Shankar, but demise of dictator reminds of cruelty of politics

The last few months of this year brought the deaths of two influential Indians whose lives represented very different, extreme experiences of the country. The first was Bal Thackeray, the Hindu right-wing leader who controlled Mumbai through fear and was rarely reluctant to unleash violence upon his city. His death on November 17 at the age of 86 was a reminder of India's cynical politics and its continuing vulnerability to demagoguery. When Ravi Shankar passed away a few weeks later at the age of 92, he left a legacy of his enduring music and his consummate mastery of the sitar. His death was a blow and marked the end of an era. But it also was a reminder of the beauty that India can produce and give to the world - in this case, a musical aesthetic of immense versatility and an unparalleled body of creative work. Thackeray supplied India with despair; Shankar continues to fill it with hope. - Samanth Subramanian


India - People take to the streets to protest against violence against women and political corruption

This year was one of protest in India. Whether the target was corruption, moves to open the country to more foreign investment or the horrific gang rape of a 23-year-old student, Indians poured into the streets to voice their anger and discontent. The assault on the female student aboard a chartered bus on December 16 galvanised Indians furious at the indifference of many of their fellow citizens to sexual violence against women. It also represented frustration at rising crime, particularly in India's major urban centres. India's endemic corruption continued to emerge as a potent platform for aspiring politicians. The prominent anti-graft campaigner and former government official, Arvind Kejriwal, formed a new political party and its single plank is fighting corruption. Graft has cost the government billions of rupees in lost revenue and Mr Kejriwal hopes public impatience will translate into a reshaping of the political landscape, which is dominated by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. - Suryatapa Bhattacharya


Israel - Relations with the US are strained over demands for action against Iran

It was a tough year for Israeli diplomacy. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, irked the US president, Barack Obama, with blustery demands for tougher action against Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme. Their strained relationship worsened when Mr Netanyahu declared his support for Mr Obama's Republican Party opponent in the US presidential election, Mitt Romney. At least publicly, Washington remained tight-lipped. Yet where it feared to tread out of worries about the political fallout among Israel's influential US constituency, others stepped in. On December 3, after Israel announced new settlement plans in retaliation for the Palestinian success in upgrading its status at the United Nations, Israeli ambassadors in Britain, France, Sweden, Denmark and Spain were summoned to explain their government's action. A day later, Australia and Brazil followed suit. Notably, the White House did not come to Israel's defence. - Hugh Naylor


Palestine - United Nations General Assemby votes to recognise country as a non-member observer state

The international community's support for a Palestinian state could hardly have been underscored more firmly. On December 2, by a vote of 138-9, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly recognised Palestine as a non-member observer state. The new status gave the Palestinians official standing in institutions such as the International Criminal Court, where charges of war crimes by Israel and its leaders could theoretically be brought. It also gave Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, a needed political boost at home. Mr Abbas defied opposition to the UN bid from Washington, which instead demanded he return to peace negotiations with Israel. Mr Abbas's triumph at the UN may yet prove a pyrrhic victory, however. Israel's subsequent announcement of plans to build yet more Jewish homes in a strategic corridor east of Jerusalem further undermines the contiguity of an actual Palestinian state. If left unchecked, such building may forever make the nation of Palestine only a notion.  - Hugh Naylor

Published: December 28, 2012 04:00 AM


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