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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 January 2021

The Middle East in 2021: what lies ahead?

Diminishing hope in Lebanon, legal reforms and economic respite in Sudan; 2021 may bring change, or deepen crisis in the Middle East

Last year was undoubtedly difficult for many people across the world.

The Middle East faced its own challenges, with some countries heavily dependent on oil dealing with prices plummeting because of the pandemic. Others beset by long-running conflicts also had to grapple with the virus.

Though 2021 might offer some much-needed relief for some countries in the region, in others, the socio-economic and political landscape isn't looking as bright. The National's correspondents share their views on what to expect this year.

Lebanon

Lebanon is facing an unprecedented economic and financial crisis – the worst since the country's civil war ended in the early 90s, The National's Senior Beirut Correspondent Elias Sakr writes.

The small Mediterranean nation has been without a fully-functioning government since the resignation of the cabinet in the wake of the massive Beirut port explosion that killed more than 200 people and destroyed large parts of the capital in August.

Lebanese security forces wearing protective masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, as they stand guard at a street full of restaurants where revellers celebrating the New Year Eve, in Beirut. AP 
Lebanese security forces wearing protective masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, as they stand guard at a street full of restaurants where revellers celebrating the New Year Eve, in Beirut. AP 

The formation of a government of experts, tasked with implementing reforms and fighting corruption has been a long time demand of the international community and a prerequisite for much needed financial support amid dwindling foreign currency reserves.

Rival political parties have been trading blame over the crisis, with negotiations on the formation of a new Cabinet recently hitting deadlock.

Talks came to a standstill as the US further intensified sanctions on Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese armed group, and its key political allies. Recent sanctions have targeted the president's son-in-law and leader of the largest parliamentary bloc, Gebran Bassil.

Barring a political breakthrough, Lebanon's crisis is expected to deepen with the World Bank projecting over half of the population plunging into poverty in 2021.

Sudan

This year could be big for Sudan as it reaps the benefits of its removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SSTL) after 30 years, paving the way for a $111 million fund to help pay off its bilateral debt with the US, and an additional $120 million to pay off its International Monetary Fund loans.

Sudan will also receive $700 million in US assistance, which will be available until September 2022, writes Nada AlTaher, senior foreign reporter for The National's Foreign Desk.

Sudanese children walk past an armoured vehicle of the United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) in Kalma Camp for internally displaced people in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, on December 30, 2020. AFP
Sudanese children walk past an armoured vehicle of the United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) in Kalma Camp for internally displaced people in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, on December 30, 2020. AFP

Having already paid a $335 million settlement to victims of the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa – an amount that was negotiated down from billions of dollars – Sudan is now en route towards economic respite after decades of state failure. Corruption, political repression and poor economic planning had led to decades of untapped potential.

“Omar Al Bashir’s regime engaged in a lot of ideological adventures but the Sudanese people are peace-loving, with no relation to extremism. They were victims of the former terrorist regime,” Amjad Farid, Chief of Staff of Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok, told The National.

Sudan has also regained its sovereign immunity, which protects it from being sued in US courts in relation to previous crimes committed under Al Bashir’s rule.

Sudan has also been witnessing a stream of legal reforms which are set to continue in 2021. These include the criminalisation of female genital mutilation and abolishing a law criminalising apostasy – steps that international rights groups have praised, and steps that Mr Farid said would help improve the country’s human rights record.

In 2019, civilians and the military brokered a power-sharing agreement that led to the creation of the Transitional Sovereign Council. The 11-member body made up of six civilians and five military members is currently headed by General Abdul Fattah Al Burhan who, under the agreement, would preside over council for 18 months.

But the October signing of the Juba peace agreement between Sudan’s transitional government and groups that played a role in the revolution has restarted the transitional process. The next 12 months are likely to see a lot more political jostling between military, tribal and civilian members of government.

Iraq

Iraq's woes are set to deepen in 2021, Baghdad correspondent Sinan Mahmoud writes.

Escalating tension between Iran and the US could spiral into open warfare, as nearly happened in early January last year. Even if Iran and the US manage to de-escalate tensions, Iran-backed militias could attack US forces on their own terms.

Secondly, the ongoing economic crisis caused by plummeting oil prices and the ongoing pandemic all add up to an uneasy year ahead for Iraqis.

Security forces stand guard while supporters of Popular Mobilization Forces protest, in Tahrir Square, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021. Thousands of Iraqis converged on a landmark central square in Baghdad on Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's Quds force in a U.S. drone strike. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Security forces stand guard while supporters of Popular Mobilization Forces protest, in Tahrir Square, Iraq, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021. Thousands of Iraqis converged on a landmark central square in Baghdad on Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's Quds force in a U.S. drone strike. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

The current interim government has suggested early national elections to be held in June, but that date has not been approved yet by the political parties. If approved, elections are expected to further increase tensions between the country's political rivals, mainly among pro-Iran and pro-US camps. One casualty of this tension could be a loss of focus on economic reform.

The sum of these crises, combined with pro-reform protests and violent crackdowns – mainly by pro-Iran groups – have pushed the country's poverty rate to 31.7 per cent this year, from 20 per cent in 2018. That rate is expected to rise further next year, with the inability of the government to address the issue.

Jordan

Jordan faces tough economic and public health challenges in 2021. Discontent is rising with the government response to the coronavirus, says Khaled Yacoub-Oweis, The National's Amman correspondent.

The government ignored warnings not to go ahead with elections for the country’s mostly nominal parliament in November, amid a surge of deaths from the pandemic. Turnout was dismally low at less than 30 per cent.

In March, the king invoked an emergency law to deal with the coronavirus and authorities were keen to project a strong image of the system.

Jordanian men, mask-clad dur to the novel coronavirus pandemic, walk in front of the Al-Bishara Greek Orthodox Church, in the capital Amman, on December 18, 2020. / AFP / Khalil MAZRAAWI
Jordanian men, mask-clad dur to the novel coronavirus pandemic, walk in front of the Al-Bishara Greek Orthodox Church, in the capital Amman, on December 18, 2020. / AFP / Khalil MAZRAAWI

They renewed a coronavirus curfew and other pandemic measures after the elections.

The bans are expected to ease sharply in 2021 as part of a new strategy to try and reverse the country’s economic retreat. Citing potential pent-up demand, the finance ministry expects 2 per cent growth in 2021 compared with a 3 per cent contraction this year.

Official data shows that unemployment reached a record 23.9 per cent in the third quarter of this year.

By early 2021 officials expect Jordan to have at least six new coronavirus field hospitals. They say the new bed capacity, and immunisation against the virus, will make the public health system better able to cope with any new coronavirus wave without repeating the same curfew measures of 2020.

Amid a toughened crackdown on dissent, popular distrust runs high regarding the ability of the heavily indebted government to source and distribute vaccines equally, as well as easing Jordan’s social inequality.

Egypt

Much of what awaits Egypt in 2021 will hinge on how well its government handles a ferocious second wave of the coronavirus, which rocked the most populous Arab nation in the final weeks of 2020, writes Cairo Correspondent Hamza Hendawi.

The curve of infections is widely expected to start a downward trend by spring, although there is nothing scientifically concrete to suggest that the high number of cases is linked to the winter months, given that the virus’ new, more infectious strain may prove more resilient.

Egyptians walk in front of the main gate of New Capital Stadium that will host the IHF Handball World Championship in January 2021 in the New Administrative Capital (NAC), east of Cairo. Reuters
Egyptians walk in front of the main gate of New Capital Stadium that will host the IHF Handball World Championship in January 2021 in the New Administrative Capital (NAC), east of Cairo. Reuters

But assuming that the pandemic will ease by, say, April, Egypt is likely to go ahead with the inauguration of two milestone projects: The government's move to a new capital in the desert east of Cairo and an extravaganza marking the opening of its $1-billion Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza Pyramids.

Both occasions had been planned for 2021 but the pandemic forced the government to reschedule them.

The two projects have taken years to build. More importantly, they both enjoy the personal attention of President Abdel Fatah El Sisi, whose six years in office have been defined by his high-octane construction drive.

Construction of the museum began about a decade ago, but the Egyptian leader has paid special attention to the project, which is likely to join the list of Egypt’s major tourist attractions. The new capital, however, is a pet project of Mr El Sisi, who ensured building work did not stop during the March-July lockdown to contain the pandemic.

On the economic front, Egypt hopes that in 2021 it can repeat its stellar performance of 2020 when it avoided the meltdown suffered by many nations in the world, as a result of the pandemic. Egypt managed to post a GDP growth forecast at 3.5 per cent for the year, down from nearly six per cent in 2019 but still good for a year where recession is globally widespread.

Updated: January 3, 2021 08:41 PM

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