What do you predict for the Middle East during the year that has just begun? What do you think will be the major currents that will govern this year and that will continue to flow into the next? Are there certain countries that offer the hope we seek?
Often scholars seeking answers to questions of this sort have homed in on Iraq. The reason is that, despite all the upheavals, violence and bloodshed, that country managed to hold national elections twice and it now stands at a crossroads.
Will it continue the state-building process, mend ethnic and sectarian rifts and gulfs, and build a state of all its citizens? The challenges are many, from the continued existence of the Islamic State (IS) group, even if it has lost its territorial base, to pressures from the overbearing influence of Iran.
But by preserving unity and drawing on the heritage and capacities of the state, Iraq can recover from being the “sick man” of the Middle East and become one of the most active and effective players in the region and in the Levant in particular.
We have frequently, in this column, indicated that the national state in the Middle East is recuperating to varying degrees. Although still weak and feeble and dependant on foreign powers, the hard times in which the very survival of the state was in question are over.
We are now in the process of reconstruction and gluing things back together. Much has changed in the “game of nations” which, during this decade, was based on confrontations between ideologies and sects, and on the clash between the beleaguered nation state and transnational extremist organisations operating regionally and, sometimes, globally.
Now, as we approach the threshold of the third decade of this century, such face-offs have begun to fade. They may not have ceased entirely, but the rules of political geography have taken a lead and made it possible to translate national boundaries into behaviours governed by new options that have roots in the past but that must take the costs paid into account.
For example, the actions and behaviours of Iran, Turkey and Russia, especially in light of the apparent withdrawal of the US, are governed by the “opportunity” to invest in their already existing military presence in Syria and to translate it into geographic assets.
Iran wants as broad a corridor as possible from Iraq to the Mediterranean via Lebanon. Turkey wants to establish a permanent presence in northern Syria that will put an end to its Kurdish problem once and for all, not just in Syria and Iraq, but inside Turkey as well.
Russia sees the story of victory over IS and its sisters as a Russian narrative that began with its direct military intervention and ended with the US departure.
Translated geographically, Russian presence on Mediterranean shores heralds the revival of the global status and influence the Soviet Union had in this region, including in Libya, Yemen and Palestine.
But opportunity generally does not come without risks. The three abovementioned countries have entered the new year politically and economically fatigued at home, burdened by long and heavy military expenditures and many casualties.
Their regional and international roles have become part of their domestic politics, a way of offsetting mounting anger at leaders who have lost their way, spent exorbitantly with no tangible returns for the people, and ultimately wreaked boundless attrition on their countries.
Under such conditions, how much help can these three countries give to Iraq and Syria for the processes of reconstruction or the return of refugees? Not all that much, it would appear.
Moreover, further expenditures abroad might exacerbate the anger and dangers at home, especially as long as oil prices remain low for Russia and Iran and there are alternatives to Russian gas and its Turkish pipelines to Europe.
The signs and manifestations of all the foregoing will not be limited to a year, but they are worth keeping track of during 2019, especially if forecasts are correct and Saudi modernisation and Egyptian economic reform processes sustain their dynamism as the two countries grow closer together through their overlapping interests from the Red Sea to Sinai, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Suez Canal and the eastern Mediterranean.
As this vitality burgeons, it will yield new equations in the Middle East. These will initially manifest themselves domestically, but their results will be seen in foreign policy, signalled in particular by a way out of the Yemeni crisis, an opportunity for Iraq and Syria to return to the Arab fold, and a concrete Arab role in the management of the Lebanese and Palestinian crises.
It is clear that the modernisation process in Saudi Arabia is moving forward by the day. This is as evident ideologically through the rediscovery of the history of Saudi state as it is in the progress being made in the development of the national economy between the Red Sea and the Arab Gulf.
It is equally clear that the economic reform process in Egypt is proceeding on the course charted by international financial agencies. Economic growth is expected to reach six per cent in 2019 and increased flows of investment into modern infrastructure will attract even more.
The modernisation and economic reform of the Arab order, beginning with Cairo and Riyadh, offers the Middle East a new promise for development, stability and peace.
However, the “game of nations” in the Middle East is also shaped by human thought and the decisions of political leaders. We can see these factors at play in the return of Arab embassies to Damascus, the natural outcome of which will be Syria’s return to the Arab League in the next few months.
We can also expect a more active Iraqi role in the League. Although both Syria and Iraq are encumbered by the heavy toll exacted by the decade that is due to expire in a year, the forthcoming decade will offer them greater room for choice and more alternatives to choose from.
Let’s recall that Egypt too returned to the Arab fold and the Arab league after a hiatus following the peace agreement with Israel. It then played important roles in the war to liberate Kuwait, in the Madrid peace process and other steps towards a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Neither Syria or Iraq need a whole decade to recover their regional status and influence. 2019 may be the year of preparation and discovery so that they can turn the page on the second decade of the 21st century, with all its pains and sorrows, and open new pages to a more promising and brighter future.
What we must continue to bear in our minds and hearts is that the region has changed a lot and it is both impossible and folly to turn back the clock and try to make things as they were before.
Ultimately, where the region heads will depend not only on actual capacities and realities on the ground, but also on imagination, the power to seize the initiative, the ability to keep options open and the power of faith to believe that as we enter the heart of the 21st century, we should not do so as aliens from bygone centuries or from extinct planets.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Prospects for 2019