x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Five things that won’t happen in the Middle East this year

Predictions, like the careers of politicians, always end in failure, writes Faisal Al Yafai. But sometimes what doesn't happen is just as important as what does.

Love him or loathe him, there is no one to rival Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Adem Altan / AFP
Love him or loathe him, there is no one to rival Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Adem Altan / AFP

Predictions, like the careers of politicians, almost always end in failure, especially when those predictions are about things that should happen. In the messy, tangled, unpredictable world of Middle East politics, almost nothing happens as expected. But sometimes what is expected doesn’t happen. And that can be just as important.

Indeed, one of the least remarked aspects of the civil war in Syria has been quite how stable Lebanon has been, despite enormous strains.

Lebanon will not fragment

Dire predictions that Lebanon would fragment, made frequently in the years after Syrian troops were forced out of the country in 2005, have proven untrue. The small country has weathered wars with Israel, meddling by Iran and now an enormous influx of Syrians fleeing the conflict. Indeed Lebanon’s population has swollen by 25 per cent, the equivalent, in US terms, of adding nine cities the size of New York in just three years.

Still, the country is resilient. There will be no descent into civil war in Lebanon. At a time when every commentator appears to be predicting what will happen over the coming year, that would be my assessment of one of the things that will not happen in 2014. There are four others.

Assad will not leave office...

On the other side of the border, Bashar Al Assad is not going. As I’ve argued before, he has brutally fought himself back into contention and now the opposition and the outside world must reckon with what can be done with that reality. From this side of the spring, it looks like nothing can be done to stop him standing for election in 2014.

...and nor will Erdogan

The other politician who shows no sign of going is Mr Al Assad’s tormentor and neighbour Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey’s prime minister has had a tough year, the toughest since he took the job in 2003. His mishandling of protests in the summer and of a corruption investigation currently underway, as well as suspicions that, after a decade in power, he has few ideas and merely craves office for himself, have all leant weight to the perception that his time has run out. Turkey, say his critics, could do with a new leader.

But, love him or loathe him, there is no one to rival Mr Erdogan. He remains Turkey’s best-regarded leader since Ataturk. Even if he does not manage to change the constitution to empower the presidency, he is still likely, when Turks vote for a president for the first time in the autumn, to be the contender to watch. No one in Turkish political life commands such a following. He may appear to have run out of ideas, but he has not yet run out of road.

Yemen’s southern question will not be solved...

Which brings us to Yemen, the surprising bright spot of the Arab Spring, where at the end of December, the National Dialogue in the country agreed to a federal state, a solution that could resolve both the current impasse and the long-held grievances of southerners.

Yet the agreement, though widely welcomed, is short on details. And that’s the reason why the southern question won’t be resolved this year.

Chief among the details is how many regions there will be. The main southern bloc wants two, north and south. The north wants several. Already there is disagreement, not merely among the political parties, but among the people of the two regions.

In the south, the feeling for separation has exploded in the last seven years and will not be easy to contain. Many of the problems of the south are related to a chronic lack of investment in the region since unificiation, but they have been expressed by southerners as a desire for separation.

The agreement may, as the UN’s envoy to Yemen said, signal the end of the national dialogue, but it is merely the start of a long negotiation that will have to encompass political representation, control over parts of the military, reparations, the removal of some political appointees and many other difficult questions between the north and the south, any one of which could scupper the agreement. Expect progress over the southern question in 2014, but no resolution.

...nor will Iran’s nuclear programme be shelved

If Yemen’s southern question will not be solved, nor will 2014 be the year Iran’s nuclear programme is shelved. We are now six weeks into the six-month timeline that the deal has to run. If it was difficult enough to get to this position – where Iran has agreed to freeze work on its nuclear programme in return for relief on sanctions – it will be even harder to get to the next stage.

A big, comprehensive deal is what is needed, but that is impossible to imagine given the political will available. There are simply too many moving parts. Take just the nuclear deal: under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, a country has a right to enrich uranium. But the six world powers negotiating the deal have not accepted that Iran has any such right. For their part, it is impossible to imagine the Iranians, having absorbed so much pain over their programme, would be willing to back down on something that is in the NPT.

That is merely one aspect. Factor in others – that Iran sees its nuclear programme as essential to the survival of the revolutionary regime, that Iran is concerned by Israel’s nuclear weapons, that Iran is vying for regional power with Saudi Arabia – and the prediction that 2014 will not see a comprehensive Iranian nuclear deal becomes easy.

That is despite the fact that a deal with the US could bring about the biggest change in the region, touching on countries right across it. Iran is such an important player in the region that whatever happens will be felt in the Gulf, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. That’s the terrible thing about predictions: sometimes, there is no pleasure to be had in being proved right.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai