The outgoing year brought numerous developments in major international and regional questions, from the fights against Covid-19 and climate change, to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the region as a whole and renewed attention to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Iranian dimensions of this question.
What all these things have in common is their crucial impact on the security and well-being of all countries and the fact that no one country can handle them alone. The centrality of such issues to international relations brings us to another major development, namely China’s rise as a superpower. The following are general trends in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
COVID-19: In its rampage across all the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of dead behind it, while its repercussions have rocked global economic, political and social stability.
All held their breath out of fears that the virus would reach the developing nations in Africa that are not equipped for this type of crisis. Ultimately, the pandemic proved to be a test for the nation-state in both the developed and the developing countries, as well as a test of the efficacy of international cooperation in containing its spread in our closely interconnected world.
When the pandemic hit, people talked about the revolution in their lives, but without defining it and its impacts very clearly. But major crises do more to expose existing conditions than to generate new ones. The world is constantly changing in many ways. When the pandemic hit, it had an exponential effect on both the size and rate of such changes. This has generated qualitatively different circumstances that in turn have become the “new normal.”
Another new normal descended on the region with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan after its 20-year war in the country.
In September 2021, Mark Milley, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared “a logistical success but a strategic failure” in Afghanistan. What he meant was that Washington had managed to withdraw its troops and evacuate its supporters in Kabul, but that it had failed to uproot terrorism.
Some two decades ago, the US and its allies sent their troops, drones and other hardware into Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world to hunt down and defeat terrorists. As the battles dragged on, the fight against terrorism began to appear more and more like a forever war, however.
The conclusion that the international community drew was that we simply had to get on with our lives as normally as possible while treating terrorism much the same as organised crime. Of course, this did not mean relaxing intelligence activities, security precautions and the technological development efforts needed to protect airports, airplanes and other vital targets, and to improve security in general.
A third new normal is China as a superpower. It is no longer on its way; it has arrived.
China no longer needs the US to fight terrorism in Afghanistan. It is in the process of forging collaborations or alliances towards this end with Pakistan, Russia and Iran, in order to keep Afghanistan from becoming a sponsor of terrorism. Unlike the US, Beijing is not interested in the spread of democracy in Kabul. It is still focused on building itself up as a superpower that leads the world in everything on earth and in the race into space.
If the US once believed that China could not produce another Apple, Amazon or Tesla, it now needs only to look at China’s Ali Baba, electric cars, satellites, transnationals and Belt and Road Initiative.
What makes the great rise of China so exciting is that it has occurred in tandem with a US exit. One is reminded of a previous era, when the arms race and the US Star Wars Programme wore out the former Soviet Union. But this development has brought something new and different in form and substance. This is not history repeating itself, and there are new phenomena at play and new rules of engagement.
THE MIDDLE EAST
The Middle East began to change in many ways in 2021. Borders did not shift, but patterns of political interests and strategic calculations did.
Perhaps the most salient change was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan along with its agreement with Baghdad to withdraw from Iraq before the end of the year. There was also talk of withdrawing the remainder of US forces from Syria.
The US departure from a region it has grown accustomed to staying in since 11 September 2001 has thrown power balances in the region and the world off kilter. More importantly, the role this superpower played in the region has receded after decades of its being a dominant presence in all the major issues from the Arab-Israeli conflict to nuclear proliferation.
The most recent chapter in the latter issue is the Iranian bid to acquire a nuclear weapon, which led to the Iranian nuclear deal between Tehran and the P5+1 group (China, France, Russia, the UK and the United States, plus Germany) in 2015. Although the former US Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from this agreement in 2018, the Biden administration has entered negotiations in order to revive it.
The details and fate of these negotiations aside, what matters in this context is that the US return to the agreement will round out the image of a US that avoids military confrontations and approaches international politics from the perspective of diplomacy and economic capacity. Countries in this region have been taking measures to accommodate this.
The Arab states that withstood the storms of the 2011 Arab Spring have launched sweeping reform processes with their targets set for 2030.
In so doing, they have set themselves on the beginning of the road to the 21st century, and while their reforms differ markedly in approach, philosophy and methodology, each case is informed by the particular history and circumstances of the country in question, whether we are speaking of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, or of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia.
Regardless of the many differences, they all share a central trait – namely, they have all taken radical economic reforms as their starting point in emulating models set by the emergent economies in Asia that have achieved such amazing progress over the past four decades. In order to stimulate their economies, they have invested heavily in infrastructure and urban development and upgraded their manufacturing and technological sectors.
If the “comprehensiveness” of these reform processes did not take on board certain concepts pushed by Western powers and institutions, they were nevertheless inclusive, embracing all the ethnic, religious and other social components of society and all parts of the country.
The Saudi Arabian experience featured an overall westward thrust towards the Red Sea. This has gone beyond the ambitious Neom City project to extend all the way down the Red Sea coast. In like manner, Egypt has embarked on the geographical expansion of its development efforts under the slogan “from the Nile Valley to the Sea.”
The reaction in the region to the US withdrawal from it has taken the form of an overall trend to restore calm, resolve conflicts and promote reconciliation with an eye to creating the foundations for a regional political and security order able to avert the resurgence of major conflicts and explore solutions to chronic problems.
The Al-Ula Declaration adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit meeting in January 2021 laid the basis for the restoration of relations between the Arab Quartet of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain and Qatar. A similar process occurred later in the year at the Baghdad Summit on Iraqi security that paved the way for talks and potential reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Egypt and Turkey, Egypt and Qatar, and the UAE and Qatar and Turkey.
With regard to Egypt, landmarks in the reconciliation process included the meeting between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani and the exchange of high-level diplomatic visits between Cairo and Ankara.
In the context of the regional trend towards the restoration of calm and the search for regional solutions to regional problems, the course of peace with Israel has taken two directions, both of an economic nature. One is the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which includes seven countries, including Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. The other is the Abraham Accords that the UAE and Bahrain have signed with Israel. These developments support the impression that the Middle East has set in motion arrangements for the post-US withdrawal era.
Many of these trends will carry over into 2022. As far as this region is concerned, I believe the new year will bring stronger momentum towards regional reconciliation and towards resolutions to the Libyan and Syrian crises. The Abraham Accords will most likely gain in impetus, as will strategic moves to further regional collaboration on security, technology and energy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.