The Briefing’s Middle East analyst outlines the factors that will shape the next year in the region.
Another year starts with hopes, fears, anxieties and prayers. It is almost impossible to remember that last year began with the US strike against a major Iranian defence figure, Qassim Soleimani, which led many to think that 2020 could bring war with massive international repercussions. Instead, it brought us a global pandemic, lockdowns, and almost two million deaths worldwide. But, while the pandemic has taken centre stage in much of the world, important events and changes have unfolded in the Middle East and will continue to shape the region’s future. Here are some of the factors that will direct developments in the year ahead.
The first one is external: the outcome of the US presidential election. This might seem a strange place to start forecasting trends in the Middle East, but the reality is that the Biden victory has already started to impact Middle East relations. This can be seen in a reduction of several, paralysing tensions. One of the worst diplomatic crises in the Gulf region ended on 4 January when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt agreed to end their three-year blockade on Qatar. Their prolonged pressure had brought no real change in the policies that aggrieved them, but the Saudis, especially, are now eager to please the incoming US administration. With Biden, we expect to see a more structural, consistent and balanced foreign policy than under the previous administration.
The second factor affecting the region is the continuing question of governance. The region is plagued with varying levels of bad and poor governance. People, especially those of a different ethnic or religious background, are denied their rights under authoritarian leaders who are backed up by strong militaries and security services. Pandemic conditions, crumbling economies, lawless security forces, unaccountable politicians or life-long rulers will continue to impact the lives of millions. Lebanon continues to remain broken from the explosion in the harbour with little sign of accountability or real reform. Many educated Lebanese people, including medical personnel, have been reported to be leaving the country as the economy continues to worsen. Similar conditions can be seen across the region, whether in devastated and divided Syria, post-war Iraq or seemingly stable Egypt and Turkey.
How political and business elites either address or ignore the basic needs of their populations will continue to shape things to come. The causes of the discontent that led to the “Arab Spring” protests in 2011 have not gone away. Only Tunisia so far has emerged with a working multi-party democracy, fragile as it is and facing severe economic problems. Sudan, a late-comer in ousting its repressive president in 2019, is bringing some fresh air to the region under its transitional government. Resisting Gulf pressures, it has reversed Al-Bashir’s Islamising policies, introduced a separation of religion and state, and in peacebuilding, it signed an agreement with the five main rebel groups last year to end decades-long conflicts in Darfur and in the north. A near empty treasury, however, is the biggest threat to Sudan’s people and the civilian-led government, which has another year to complete its work before elections in 2022.
The third factor is the impact of ongoing wars. Libya is still mired in civil war with foreign players backing both sides as its people continue to suffer the effects. The most severe fighting may lie behind us now in Syria and Yemen, but the unresolved questions of what happens to the millions of people who were forced from their homes and now face hunger, a pandemic and unemployment have not been addressed. We will see more fallout from these problems, including dangers from so-called Islamic State terrorists and other related groups still hanging around the region.
Finally, what is the future of Christianity in the Middle East? While governments acknowledge the existence of Christian communities and, from time to time, issue messages on tolerance and religious harmony, by and large, the diminishing Christian presence in the Middle East is unchanged. Islamists right across the region view Christians either as people to tolerate if they accept the status of second-class citizens, or to push out of their countries to “purify” the land.
Authoritarian regimes make the right noises about “protecting” Christian minorities to win favour in Europe and North America, while they actually offer them little or no protection nor open opportunities to them for investment or high-level employment in the public sector so they can prosper. Governments in countries like Iran will continue a policy of persecution, especially towards those who convert to the Christian faith. So, with the exception of states like Lebanon or Egypt, where Christians have a larger share of the population, or relatively accommodating countries like Jordan, overall we will continue to see Christian numbers fall across the region.
The role of ministries such as SAT-7, which gives MENA Christians tools with which to strengthen believers under pressure and to witness positively to the Gospel in their societies, is ever more valuable. Contacts with SAT-7 audience teams that rose almost a third during last year evidence this. Vital too are the prayers and the informed lobbying of other believers worldwide. Last month, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed Fiona Bruce MP as his new Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief. She is a courageous and longstanding campaigner against religious persecution. Pray for her and for all who seek to ensure freedom of belief for Christians and others.