Dr. Theodore Karasik
REFLECTING on 2016, it is important to understand the transition underway. This year’s legacy is one of swift change undermined by countries’ inability to understand recent developments throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
It is unclear whether Sykes-Picot or ISIS will outlive the other; Turkey has turned East for a rapprochement with Russia; and multi-contextual civil wars and vicious acts of terrorism plague numerous Arab states. Most importantly, Russia took charge in 2016 with not only the Kremlin’s fight in Syria but also by showing Moscow’s prowess and ability to counter Washington as a global power. The region is entering a new phase.
First, governance, and how economies evolve, are in flux. Although the Middle East underwent a series of serious shifts in the ability to control contested territory, the Gulf states stepped forward, led by Saudi Arabia’s entry of Vision 2030, with ambitious plans for economic transformation.
What looked like a potential system-wide malfunction in Saudi Arabia’s ailing economy is being reversed by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. During 2016, he made an impressive tour of the US, France, Japan and China, presenting Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. With the release of the Saudi budget at the end of 2016 and optimistic talk of Aramco’s IPO debuting in 2017, there is optimism.
Depressed oil prices: In 2016, depressed oil prices forced all Middle East states to make serious adjustments to their economic policies by introducing robust plans, reforms, and vision. The imbalance in the Middle East between prosperity and poverty still exists, between urban and rural and areas, and still in urban neighborhoods themselves.
Given the high probability for additional political and economic effects from 2016, several Middle East states from the Maghreb to the Levant – Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan – will face further domestic pressures.
Second, sectarian tension heightened this past year. Sectarian violence led to unfathomable amounts of human suffering across Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, along with sharpened rhetoric from the leadership in Riyadh and Tehran. Iran’s presidential election in June is obviously only going to embolden Tehran’s positions. Only in the final months of 2016 did “the Egypt card” come up on this sectarian front. Egypt’s weakness means Tehran may seek an inroad to Cairo in the coming year.
The geopolitical costs and benefits of a new security architecture based on a Trump administration is going to bring a new order to the Middle East that will play out until 2020
Third, in 2016, urban warfare in the Middle East is in a continuing process of destruction. Internationally-backed local armies and militias are fighting on a multi-tiered chessboard, vying for land, power, and prestige. Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), as well as Russian, Syrian airstrikes, and later in the year, Turkish jet fighters attacked urban areas in order to flush out extremists of all stripes.
Yemen’s plight remains with Saudi Arabia’s Operation Restore Hope (ORH) and the UAE’s fighting al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula. OIR Combined Joint Task Force Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stated that the fight against ISIS will be two more years. Reconstruction projects are still distant and that breeds discontent and disease.
Fourth, terrorism will continue to spread its ugly impact with both al-Qaeda and ISIS and their minions battling over their own visions of achieving an apocalypse that is turning out to be more of a mutation of extremism to meet current religious and ideological requirements.
Importantly, extremists are becoming more proficient at off the shelf military technology to boost their UAV capabilities for both tactical and media advantages.
This trend is likely to lead to more aggressive behavior by extremists and their sympathizers. Low-tech high impact attacks may accompany more shootings, bombings, and the use of heavy vehicles to mow over innocent crowds.
This past year witnessed the playing field between the Middle East and Europe levelling out, meaning the ills and violence that bedevil the Middle East for years now are embedded in European society as already evidence by migrant issues and extremist violence.
Trump reset: By far, 2016 will be remember for Donald Trump. Trump, who I wrote about winning in February 2016, is about to embark on a major reset of relations with the Middle East through transactional foreign policy.
The urban battles across the Middle East will continue with a resetting of the Middle East geo-political order by a Trump administration willing to insert more resources into fighting extremism both with kinetics and with a much-needed reboot of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs.
A Trump presidency that engages Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Iran is going to cause an eruption of support as well as despair from various quarters. To boot, Trump’s policy toward Iran in particular is going to enrage some and bring joy to others. These two variants signal a tectonic shift is about to occur in the regional security environment.
The geopolitical costs and benefits of a new security architecture based on a Trump administration is going to bring a new order to the Middle East that will play out until 2020. Clearly, leaving 2016 behind changes the regional security picture; the New Year brings a more challenging, unprecedented moment.
[Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik]