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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Much remains unresolved in the Middle East as we bid farewell to 2017

Perhaps the most iconic image of the year was that of young Palestinian Ahed Al Tamimi protecting her West Bank village

Ahed Al Tamimi, centre, protested against Israeli forces in her West Bank village of Nabi Saleh / AFP
Ahed Al Tamimi, centre, protested against Israeli forces in her West Bank village of Nabi Saleh / AFP

As we prepare to bid 2017 farewell and herald in a new year, much remains unresolved in the Middle East. Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya suffer from acute crises, while regional challenges such as unemployment and water scarcity await much-needed collective action. Marking anniversaries like seven years since uprisings kicked off in Tunisia and three years since the Houthi coup in Yemen, it is difficult to imagine a path forward to steer much of the Arab world out of turmoil. And while some of these issues feel age-old, this year did witness developments that will impact the trajectory of events in 2018 – both in the region and beyond.

Perhaps the most iconic image of the year has been that of young Palestinian Ahed Al Tamimi standing up to Israeli soldiers to protect her West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. While 70 years of occupation have meant that civilian Palestinians confronting military might is not a new phenomenon, it is a reminder that a century after the Balfour Declaration, Palestinian statehood remains at the heart of the region’s aspirations. Al Tamimi is still detained, despite being a child, yet her actions have gone beyond boundaries and captured the support of millions around the world. Her arrest comes at a time when the majority of UN member countries have condemned American president Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to name Jerusalem Israel’s capital, prompting renewed calls for a peaceful end to the occupation of Palestine. Mr Trump's decision will continue to cast its shadow on the region in the coming year, while the pressing need to restart a peace process is once again at the fore.

A second development that was of major significance this year was the defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. While some terrorist fighters remain in both countries, ensuring that ISIL does not control significant territory in either should be lauded. However, political and security challenges in both countries mean that a resurgence of extremist groups is not far from the horizon. For 2018 to mark real progress in terms of defeating extremism, strengthening Iraq’s security forces and political process is key. The situation is more complex in Syria. With a regime that is deemed illegitimate, and an array of armed groups on the ground, the failure of the new round of UN talks on Syria to bring about a tangible progress means that the coming year will not witness an end to the war there.

Despite the failure of the UN’s mediation at bringing a solution to the Syrian crisis and to the Yemen war, there were more significant UN moves when it came to Libya. This year witnessed the appointment of Ghassan Salame to the role of UN envoy to Libya. Salame’s ability to meet warring groups and lay down a road map for Libya has been one of the few successes of international efforts in 2017. While many challenges remain, this is a significant development and if successful, could bring much-needed stabilisation to Libya and its neighbours.

Unlike the first four developments mentioned, perhaps the most important one in the region was entirely domestic – and came from Saudi Arabia. As the largest economy in the Arab world and home to the two holiest sites for Muslims, any changes in Saudi Arabia have a lasting impact on the region. And 2017 was a year of change par excellence for the Kingdom. With the promotion of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the next in line to rule Saudi Arabia last June, economic and social reforms have meant an unprecedented transformation. In the coming weeks and months, how Riyadh steers its domestic reforms and regional aspirations will impact its neighbours and beyond.

Saudi Arabia is being watched wearily by Iran. Furthermore, the arrival of Mr Trump in the White House and his administration’s rejection of Iran’s expansionist policies has also caused concern in Tehran. Understanding that its actions in the Arab world, including its support for the Houthis in Yemen and Hizbollah in Lebanon, will not go unaccounted for, Iran has ramped up its military efforts in the region. June this year witnessed Iran launching its first ballistic missile at Syria, while the US has produced evidence of Iranian-made missiles targeting Saudi Arabia. Iran's missile activity in 2017 could either lead to further escalation in 2018 or could be the catalyst for international moves to curb it.

Predictions would be foolish in a fast-moving region but what is certain is that 2017 has set the stage for a challenging year ahead.