With Morocco’s diplomacy dominating the headlines it is easy to overlook regional issues
Rabat – While Moroccans have been preoccupied with their country’s geopolitics regarding Israel and Western Sahara, several trends are emerging in the Middle East. 2020 has been dominated by the pandemic and its economic fallout, but diplomacy never sits still. As a key part of the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco’s future will be impacted by the issues that dominate the region.
2020 has been a strange year for economies in the Middle East. The year started with many countries in the region presenting ambitious new budgets based on a positive outlook for oil revenues. Most oil states presented modest long-term plans for “diversification,” in an attempt to slowly move their economies away from extreme dependency on oil revenues in coming decades.
Now that 2020 is wrapping up, those ambitious budgets have been hammered by a slump in oil prices. Diversification plans are being accelerated and many oil-rich states are suddenly dependent on other sectors for much-needed tax revenues. Shopping in the Middle East has moved online at a rapid pace, and both Lebanon and Israel legalized cannabis for export.
Amid the generalized economic malaise, unemployment has risen across the Middle-East. Some of the richest states in the region have seen a rise in xenophobia towards immigrants, eerily reminiscent of European xenophobic politics. While Qatar and Saudi Arabia have introduced reforms to their problematic “kafala” sponsorship system, Kuwait is increasingly lurching toward xenophobic policies.
The Middle East’s “cold-wars”
One of the most influential factors dominating geopolitics in the Middle East is the cold war between Israel and Iran. Both countries will host elections in 2021 and expectations are they will both elect more hard-line leadership that could lead to further confrontations. Meanwhile, Israel is dexterously using the Iran factor to establish more “normalization” agreements in the region.
Another story to watch is the unofficial trade war between Turkey and Saudi-Arabia, which started to emerge in the first half of 2020. Both nations compete over political and ideological (or religious) primacy in Middle Eastern geopolitics, yet their quiet feud appears to be easing. The two nations now appear ready for a rapprochement as other priorities now dominate their leaders’ strategic thinking.
Amid brewing tensions in the Middle East, Russia has benefited from four years of a relatively limited US focus on the region. The Russian federation has grown its influence by participating in conflicts in Syria and Libya. In addition, Russia is deploying a contingent of peacekeepers in Armenia, on the Middle East’s northern periphery.
Tensions in the Maghreb have meant that Russia’s influence in Algeria is set to grow, partly because of the US’ decision to back Morocco in the lingering Western Sahara showdown. Algeria and its proxy militias primarily use Russian military equipment and, despite its persistent economic woes, Algeria has ordered several high-tech Russian fighter jets.
On the Middle-East’s southern border in the Sahel, climate change and instability look set to dominate regional geopolitics. A sudden military coup in Mali has presented a threat to French and Algerian influence on the country. Meanwhile, Morocco’s continental diplomacy, based on reducing food insecurity and promoting development, has turned local opinions in its favor.
The reawakening of the Western Sahara conflict has further entrenched regional rivalries in the Sahel’s most-western regions. Meanwhile in the east, Sudan and South-Sudan have faced major floods and giant swarms of locusts. Geopolitics and climate change are becoming destabilizing factors that can make the Sahel a source of instability on the southern borders of the greater Middle East.
Sudan is also embroiled in a stand-off between Ethiopia and Egypt over the filling of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam which could endanger water flow into the Nile river. Egypt’s population has now exceeded 100 million, making water issues and agriculture even more important. From east to west, climate change is set to imbalance the Sahel region for decades to come.
Amid regional instability, Turkey has been gaining influence in North Africa. Turkish military support was a major factor that tipped the balance in Libya and is likely to be seen as a victory over the UAE, which supported Khalifa Haftar’s forces that suffered several losses before signing the latest ceasefire. Emboldened by its Libyan gambit, Turkey will likely aim to further expand its influence in the region.
While geopolitics continues to dominate decision-making in the Middle East, politicians, regional and multilateral organizations appear unable to resolve spiraling crises in the region. Lebanon has been on a downward trajectory for years and 2020 appears to have only heaped further misery onto its fate.
Syria and Iraq have suffered tremendously from the pandemic’s fallout while instability and sporadic violence continue to fuel insecurity in both countries. Syria is facing a surge in prices of bread after the US implemented new sanctions and Iraq remains the battleground on which Iran and the US, oblivious to the country’s socio-economic woes, continue to settle their differences.
Still, Yemen remains the most desperate case in the Middle East, a victim of regional geopolitics with few positives to look forward to in 2021. While local and international actors have pumped billions into propping up their own hotel and airline industries, Yemen is set to starve because the international community failed to raise the roughly $1.5 billion needed to stave off disaster.
Challenges and opportunities
Geopolitics in the Middle East are heading towards a confrontation with climate change, the aftermath of COVID-19, and unending regional rivalries. The coming decade will determine whether the global community is serious about addressing climate change, and Africa and the Middle East could become the victims if the current trends continue.
But not everything in the Middle East is about desperation, entrenched hopelessness, and a lack of vision and perspectives for the future.
For all the gloomy picture that Middle Eastern geopolitics can readily elicit, the region is home to a highly motivated, increasingly secular and better educated generation of young people. The internet has fueled young people’s interests in local and international politics, creating a generation that is hungry for political reforms. As the region diversifies away from its dependence on oil revenues, its youth could become the most valuable new resource.
Rapid technological advances similarly could provide many solutions to regional issues. Desalination plants and increased water efficiency can help combat drought and hunger, while green energy technology could create a new energy revolution. In the end, global trends determine the direction of geopolitics, both in the Middle East and globally.
The Middle East has much to lose if its geopolitics do not focus on the wellbeing of its younger generations. New opportunities, freedoms and quality education could create an economic boom in the region. Without these venues for change, an angry and desperate new young generation could reshape the region in ways local leaders cannot control.