From 1 January, the year 2022 has looked very different in contrasting corners of the Middle East and North Africa – from wealthy Gulf nations to countries in crisis like Afghanistan and Yemen. As we look ahead, our Middle East analyst sees some hopeful signs of nations beating swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4), but too few leaders using their power, or lessening their grip on it, for the good of all.
An important positive trend we will see continuing from 2021 is renewed diplomacy by key players and rivals in the region. We saw this in the easing of tensions by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with its ostracised member, Qatar. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reached out to Turkey with a $10 billion investment olive branch. Both countries are looking to de-escalate the tensions which have resulted, for example, from their military support for opposite sides in the Libyan conflict and their opposite policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey has also sought to ease tensions with Egypt and began the new year with a new rapprochement with Armenia. A growing number of Arab countries, including Egypt, UAE and Jordan, have reached out to Syria’s beleaguered president, Bashar Al Assad, and the slow process of normalising Syria’s relations with other Arab countries and its possible readmission to the Arab League has begun.
The conditions that prompted these moves last year remain in place. US interests are now focused on East Asia, the destabilising effects of the Arab Spring era have passed, and the activities of Iran, Russia and now China in the region are pushing nations to counterbalance their influence. In addition, all players face common challenges from COVID-19, structural economic problems, the impacts of climate change, a fall in tourism and international travel, and disruptions of international trade. Together, these factors point towards more diplomatic openings between countries that have been antagonists over the last decade. This should have positive economic repercussions, ease some of the proxy conflicts played out in weaker states, and halt the negative propaganda campaigns many nations have indulged in. Let’s pray that these developments will lead to tangible benefits in peace and prosperity.
Yet the anxieties of powerful leaders over their futures and ambitions will also intensify. In Turkey, President Erdogan is seeing an unprecedented fall in his popularity, and the Turkish opposition is openly speaking about the end of his era. The Turkish lira is continuing its historic devaluation, primarily due to Erdogan’s poor economic policies.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hoped that international actors and media would forget the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the 2017 detention, seizure of assets and alleged abuse of several hundred rival royals and tycoons, and the further silencing of dissent. Instead, he has aimed to focus attention on dazzling construction projects, radical reforms on issues like women driving alone, and the rapid growth of a host of previously prohibited entertainments and sports. While world leaders engage with him, they keep a cautious distance.
In Iran, new president, Ebrahim Raisi will focus on consolidating his power and future. The noises around talks on a new nuclear agreement with Iran (Joint Comprehensive of Action or JCPOA) are positive; this would lead to sanctions relief for the country and strengthen his position.
In Tunisia, President Kais Saied looks set to continue to seek ways to maintain one-man control and shape a new political structure while facing rising social discontent, some 11 years since Tunisia launched the Arab Spring.
In Lebanon, the corrupt political class will continue to hinder any chances of the radical reform the country needs. Lebanon’s long-suffering people are set for another year of a weakening economy, crumbling infrastructure and spiralling costs.
As usual, the region will have its share of shocks and surprises. Last year the world reeled when the abrupt departure of Western forces from Afghanistan saw the country return to Taliban control. International sanctions, including freezing central bank assets, combined with drought, the onset of winter and Taliban restrictions on women’s working, have put over half the population in need of humanitarian aid. As the crisis worsens, negotiations with Afghanistan’s new rulers and flexibility on all sides will be essential for its people.
Sudan, meanwhile, saw the military under Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan halt the country’s promising journey to democracy and its strides forward in religious freedom and women’s rights. Despite claiming that he wants to “correct” Sudan’s transition and deliver elections in 2023, he is likely to continue resisting popular protests to allow full civilian government.
Long-standing issues in the region have been shunted into the sidings. The new government in Israel has eased the polemics of the Netanyahu era, and the government coalition is holding up against all odds in Israel’s precarious political arena. Yet, like its predecessors, it has no desire to pursue a two-state or alternative solution to the Israel-Palestine question. In December, the Archbishop of Canterbury added his voice to that of senior Church leaders in the Holy Land, voicing concern that attacks and intimidation by “radical groups” are driving Christians out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.
In Syria, the broad outline of the current division of power will remain, with Assad controlling some 70 per cent of the country, and a complex web of Syrian rebels and non-Syrian forces controlling the North and East. There is little chance of an end to ongoing clashes and tensions between Turkish forces and Kurdish fighters of the SDF/YPG. Some sort of truce seems to be holding back Assad and Russia from taking over the opposition stronghold of Idlib. At least half of its estimated 3 million residents have been forcibly displaced here from other opposition areas. Some 70 per cent of Syrians are living in extreme poverty, and 5.5 million have become refugees.
Yemen has started the year with an escalation of clashes between UAE-backed southern separatists and northern Houthi rebels and the first Houthi drone attack on Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Seven years on, attempts to find a solution to Yemen’s war keep failing while over 16 million people are food insecure and several million experience acute malnutrition.
The Church in the region will continue to face the economic and political challenges experienced by all. Christians will face increased dangers in the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. For the first time, the country tops the World Watch List of nations where Christians face most persecution. In Egypt, they will feel more secure as President Sisi continues to assert the equality of all citizens. Christians in Iran have been heartened by two court decisions, one ruling that apostasy (conversion from Islam) is not a crime under Iranian law and another ordering a retrial of nine believers on grounds that the “promotion of Christianity and the formation of a house church is not criminalised in law”. A branch of the Supreme Court said that going to a house church is not “acting against national security”, a charge that is frequently used against Christians. We should pray that this ruling will set a precedent that will allow Christians from non-Christian backgrounds the freedom of worship guaranteed under Iran’s constitution. Elsewhere, in the region and in the West, Christians will have opportunities to show and share the love of Christ with many who are seeking to escape conflicts, repression and severe hardship.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed when thinking about what is next for the Middle East, especially if we have been following the region for a long time. But the hope that we have in Christ and in a God who wills good for His world compels us. Christian hope is not a feeling or an anticipation, but an active commitment to continue His work, be His voice, be His hands, be the peacemakers the region desperately needs, and bring His gospel to others.