Skip to main content

2019 Middle East: The key issues to watch

MEE writers give their take on the themes likely to dominate Middle East politics in 2019

David Hearst| All the President's despots

"Trump's decline will leave each and every despot vulnerable to a palace coup back home."
In 2019, much will depend on the fate of US President Donald Trump himself. He and his circle of Middle East despots are now tethered together. Loosen the bonds and it is every despot for himself. If Jamal Khashoggi’s murder sent shock waves through Sisi's Egypt - and it did - Trump's decline will leave each and every despot vulnerable to a palace coup back home.

I would like to think that Jim Mattis's departure is the beginning of the end of Trump, and that Khashoggi's brutal murder will spell the end of Mohammad bin Salman, but I'm not here to indulge in wishful thinking. 

What really needs to change is the policy itself. It has become more of a default position. When push comes to shove, all the Arab world's former colonial masters and Israel will back the despot. We cannot keep shrugging our shoulders and turn the other way, as Barack Obama did after the massacre of Rabaa Square in Cairo. Human Rights Watch called it the worst massacre of unarmed civilians since Tiananmen Square. Obama returned to his game of golf.

Europe has to understand that Sisi, Mohammad bin Salman, and Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika are eminently capable of sending millions of impoverished and desperate Arabs northwards. Is it ready for that? The Islamic State is just a symptom of the disease of the failure of the Arab state. The cause is all around us. Until the West learns that this disease can be cured only by political reform, transparency and democracy, it is doomed to await the next explosion. And this time, it could be a big one.

Abu Dhabi crown prince, Trump, Saudi King Salman, Jordan's king and Egypt's president on 21 May, 2017 (AFP)

Richard Falk| Profound uncertainties

"It remains possible to be guardedly hopeful that moderating forces may be more capable of bringing peace to the region."
The future for the Middle East in 2019 is beset by profound uncertainties. Aside from Donald Trump giving in to the military establishment's counter-pressures, there is the possibility that he has - at last - crossed the red line of tolerance of the Republican Party. 

This could mean forcing him from power one way or another, and replacing him with Vice President, Mike Pence, who shares Trump's ideological vision on the home front, but not ready to buck the national security establishment on its core global posture, namely, an unshakable belief in the benevolence and efficacy of American military power.

Other possible discrediting sequels would be Islamic State (IS) terrorist attacks in Europe and North America, a bloodbath in Syria as Damascus consolidates its victory, and a major Turkish offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. None of these developments can be ruled out, and if occurring, would alter - for the worse - what we can reasonably hope for in the region while 2019 unfolds.

Yet, as 2019 commences in an atmosphere of tension and controversy, it remains possible to be guardedly hopeful that moderating and stabilising forces may be more capable of bringing peace and some stability to the region than at any time in the 21st century.

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at the frontline in Raqa on 16 October, 2017 (AFP)

Lina Khatib| Old actors, new actors

"Old actors have significantly lost power while smaller ones attempt to carve a larger role for themselves"
In 2018, the international relations of the Middle East have gone beyond unilateralism or bilateralism. They are instead characterised by pragmatism that is seeing countries ally on certain issues while clashing on others, and transactional relations overtaking firm coalitions. This is likely to continue into 2019.

Old actors have significantly lost power while smaller ones attempt to carve a larger role for themselves. In this big picture, European countries, like the United Kingdom and France as well as the European Union, are no longer the agenda setters in their relationships with countries in the Middle East.

Their reliance on economic contracts with countries in the Gulf is deterring them from intervening in Gulf affairs, while their involvement in the Syrian conflict has mainly followed the direction of Washington rather than a distinct European path. With Brexit looming, power shifts away from the centrality of the West are likely to continue.

Democrats sit on the carpeted floor to demand votes on gun control legislation (AFP)
Richard Silverstein| 2019: A year of transition

"Everyone knows whoever is elected will find the Israel-Palestine issue is high on the foreign policy agenda"
In many ways, 2019 will be a year of transition: the US will be preparing for the presidential election the following year. Democratic candidates will be scouring the country for primary votes. The Middle East will probably not be a major campaign issue. 

But everyone knows that whoever is elected will find the Israel-Palestine issue is high on the foreign policy agenda. Candidates will be pressured to express their views on the Israel-Palestine issue. Most will offer the typical, pallid response of conventional Democratic campaigns.

But given the upheaval of last November's Congressional election, a few candidates like Sanders or Warren may surprise in their boldness.

The key question remains: who will win in 2020? It seems unlikely that Trump will win. At this rate, he may even be impeached in the coming year (though that's by no means assured). If a progressive Democrat wins the presidency along with a new Democratic Senate majority, Israel would be in for some rough sledding.

Though Democratic presidents and Congresses have traditionally offered little resistance to Israel as it pursued its interests here and abroad, we stand on the cusp of major change.

A young Palestinian protester waves a national flag in the occupied West Bank 14 September, 2018 (AFP)

Ben White| Israeli occupation: More of the same

"The status quo is likely to prevail."
Looking ahead to 2019, the next year promises more of the same. Israel will go to the polls in April, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not want to be outflanked to his right by Jewish Home; the settlers urging a crackdown on Palestinians may be granted their wish.

On the other hand, keen to avoid an election season dominated by a wave of Israeli casualties in the West Bank, Netanyahu will also be inclined to heed the warnings from army and intelligence officials regarding fuelling a wider revolt.

The status quo is thus likely to prevail – barring of course an unexpected development – which means more occupation and periodic, but limited, escalations. And all the while the Israeli government will assure us that there is no partner for peace, the Palestinians teach their children to hate, and that to even dare breath the word "apartheid" is nothing but an antisemitic lie.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (AFP)

Mark Curtis| A Labour government and the Middle East

"If elected, Jeremy Corbyn would be the first anti-imperialist to win power in a major Western country"
If Jeremy Corbyn took power after a possible British general election in 2019, would his government challenge the London establishment and transform British foreign policy in the Middle East away from supporting repressive regimes?

There are four areas where Labour’s declared foreign policy is seriously worrying the British elite: enabling the Chagossians to return to their islands in the Indian ocean, recognising Palestine, opposing regime change wars and the possibility of holding Tony Blair to account for war crimes in Iraq. 

But as things stand, few of the party’s other declared foreign policies are likely to represent a strong break with the current government. Labour remains committed to arms exports, military industry and high military spending and has promised only to “review” UK training and equipment contracts with repressive regimes.

If elected, Jeremy Corbyn would be the first anti-imperialist ever to win power in a major Western country. But his genuine personal commitment to internationalism and human rights may be worn down by a British establishment determined to stop him, by the "mainstream" media bent on continuing to smear him and by his own party, lined with Blairites who supported the Iraq and Libya wars.

Only an extensive public movement of grassroots support, making full use of alternative media and international solidarity, and challenging the British establishment more effectively, will be able to bring about a UK foreign policy genuinely promoting human rights. 

Vladimir Putin at a ceremony at the Kremlin in December 2017 (AFP)

Adlene Mohammedi| 2019: A decisive year for Russia

"For Russia, it will be a year of mediation."
Russia appears to be in a particularly comfortable position. Its victory in Syria makes it both an indispensable power and a reliable partner. Moreover - and this was far from the case at the start of the Syrian conflict - it maintains cordial relations with almost everyone in the region (with the exception of the rebel groups still active in Syria).

Fresh off their diplomatic and military successes, the Russians want to present themselves as the great protectors of the nation-state and its territorial logic against interventions and transnational networks (with the exception of their own).

In these conditions, 2019 will be a decisive year. For Russia, it will be time to test its skills at tightrope walking, while working to avoid any new spillovers. Its role as the guardian, heeded by all, depends on its capacity to bring peace to northern Syria, to avoid war in southern Lebanon, and to prevent further clashes between the Iranians and Israelis.

It will also be the year of mediation. Russia is positioning itself on the Palestinian question, which is likely to resurface, and wants to contribute to resolving a number of conflicts in the region: in Yemen, between Qatar and its neighbours, between the Lebanese and Syrians, and among the Syrians themselves. Already primed this year, the question of Syria’s political reconstruction will arise again next year rather acutely.

Trump posing for a picture with Egypt's Sisi (L) and Saudi king in Riyadh on 21 May, 2017 (AFP

Belen Fernandez| Trump's message to the Middle East

"Welcome to the era of unabashed enthusiasm for authoritarian repression."
During a press briefing on Thanksgiving Day, Donald Trump was asked whether he was “concerned that by not punishing Saudi Arabia more” for the October murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, “it could send a message to other world leaders that they can do as they please, and America could be weak in their eyes”.

Trump’s response - “not at all” - was followed by a rambling list of all the wondrous functions of the Saudi kingdom, from keeping oil prices low to buying US “equipment”, to being good for Israel. To be sure, US allies, not to mention the US itself, have long gotten away with murder - and on a much larger scale; see for example America’s bloody destruction of Iraq under the pretence of saving the country.

The August massacre of 40 Yemeni children on a school bus by the US-backed Saudi-led coalition also comes to mind, as does the fact that the Israeli tradition of “do[ing] as they please” by obliterating Palestinians left and right is met with ever-increasing US solidarity and funds.

Now, as we enter 2019, the Trumpian “message” to the Middle East might be summed up as follows: For US buddies and clients of the US arms industry, brutality is no longer a cause for shame - or even pretend shame. Impunity is in infinite supply, journalists are legitimate targets, and human rights and freedoms are things to be brought up only when America’s favourite Iranian nemesis can be cast as violating them. In other words, welcome to the era of unabashed enthusiasm for authoritarian repression.

A Palestinian child plays in an impoverished area of the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza Strip on 29 July 2018 (AFP)

Tarek Hamoud| What is the Palestinian strategy?

"2018 was a year of increased attacks on the Palestinian cause."
2018 was a year of increased attacks on the Palestinian cause, in particular on Palestinian refugees. Donald Trump made a series of decisions that further demonstrate that Palestinians cannot count on the US to be a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In 2019 the Palestinian Authority (PA) will face one of the most significant challenges since its inception as all routes to strike a viable deal have been blocked by the far-right camp in Israel and the US, who are committed to enforcing a deal rather than negotiating it. 

This begs the crucial question: What is the Palestinian strategy in such a case? Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator, was unable to answer this question at a recent forum in Doha demonstrating that the real challenge for Palestinians in 2019 looks to be the limitations of the PA to generate an alternative approach for the struggle. 

New threats to Palestinian refugees will continue to emerge from the US administration and the Israeli government, which seek to permanently remove the right to return from negotiations. The Palestinian people must not lose sight of what’s at stake and they will not stop fighting for their right of return.

An Egyptian protester during a demonstration against a deal to hand two Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia on 15 April 2016 (AFP)
Alain Gabon| The Arab Spring is far from over

"Despite the grim regional landscape, the Arab Spring remains an active source of inspiration."
When one remembers the exhilarating hope for democratisation and a better Middle East order elicited by the 2011 uprisings, the current political landscape of that region is a truly disheartening one, and the new lexicon of the “post-Arab Spring” or even the "Arab Winter" seems fully justified.

Eight years on, however, and despite the grim regional landscape, the Arab Spring remains an active source of inspiration and a powerful driver for more protests.

The Arab Spring cannot be over for the simple reason that everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa, the conditions that created the revolutionary terrain and generated the 2011 uprisings - autocratic and repressive exclusionary regimes, economic hardship, injustice, corruption etc - still largely exist sometimes in even worse forms, as in Egypt and Syria.

And if since 2011 those abominable regimes have been able to stay in place or reassert themselves, it is only through increased brutality, repression of dissent, state terrorism, and support from Western and other states (eg Russia with Assad). This status quo however is clearly unsustainable and for that reason, the Arab Spring or whatever else we choose to call it is destined to continue.

It may not take the form of such spectacular, massive and sudden popular uprisings that in 2011 took the world - including the protestors themselves - by surprise. It may be more reformist, gradual, incremental, cyclical, intermittent, and localised but it will continue, and in fact does so.

A Palestinian protestor holds his national flag as he walks near a section of Israel's separation Wall in the Occupied West Bank on 13 June 2014

Nada Elia| BDS: It's been a long struggle

"2018 saw many forms of solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle throughout the globe."
Israel’s veneer, its once impervious non-stick coating, is cracked beyond repair. Most people are seeing the ugliness behind the mask, the spewing lava of human rights abuses that can no longer be crusted over. The growing awareness of Israel’s reality is a global phenomenon, as any look back at the year’s BDS activism and victories reveal.

Indeed, as highlighted on the BDS website, 2018 saw many forms of solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle throughout the globe, from New Zealand to India to Nigeria and Argentina, in sports, music, the arts, faith communities, as well as in the realm of governmental politics.   

The disenchantment with Israel and the growing rejection of its apartheid policies, has blown wind into the BDS sails, with activists organizing globally, and winning. Despite attempts at criminalizing boycotts, the coalitions are getting stronger, and the movement is fighting back.

It’s been a long struggle, it is not over, but Palestinians have taught the world about resistance to injustice no matter the might of the oppressor. And we have taught the world about sumoud, persistence. We have not given up, and we shall overcome.

A handcuffed Moroccan protester raises his fists during a demonstration in front the parliament in the capital Rabat on 25 May, 2014 (AFP)

Brahim Oumansour|The Maghreb: A fragile stability

"The Maghreb’s apparent stability is threatened by internal and regional crises."
In the context of today’s boiling geopolitics, the Maghreb (narrowly defined as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) is considered a pole of stability, given the Algerian experience in the fight against terrorism along with Algiers and Rabat’s resistance to the winds of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Only Tunisia emerged with a democratic transition, avoiding the wider trend of the Arab Spring. Yet the Maghreb’s apparent stability is threatened by internal and regional crises that raise concerns.

All the Maghreb countries are undergoing a serious political crisis, with no prospects for succession of the Algerian, Tunisian, and Mauritanian presidents on the eve of elections in 2019, weakening of the Moroccan king by illness and political and social tensions, and the partitioning of Libya between two political forces who each claim central authority against a backdrop of civil war.

Along with these political crises comes great economic fragility, which risks accentuating social tensions and encouraging the resurgence of violent extremism, particularly as the Sahel’s security situation also threatens the stability of the Maghreb.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: An Iraqi graffiti artist sprays a cement wall with anti-US President Donald Trump slogans in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on 2 February, 2017 (AFP)

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.