The past year was a watershed year for the Middle East and 2018 promises to continue on this path. Wars began to wind down across the region but challenges remain in managing conflict resolution. Next year will be defined by post-war transitions to peace talks, ballot boxes, and reconstruction. Two areas are the exception to this trend: Yemen is the only country that will start the new year without a roadmap to peace and territorial disputes along western Syria, from Idlib to Deraa, will continue next year.
Turmoil across the Middle East makes it harder to narrow down the main political issues that will dominate 2018. However, five of them should be watched in 2018 because of their regional and international impact.
1. Will Syrian refugees return home?
There are currently 5.4 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR, most notably in the neighbouring countries of Turkey (3.4 million), Lebanon (1.5 million) and Jordan (650,000). Syrian refugees began to return in small numbers in 2017, and that process might accelerate in 2018 as these countries are facing growing security and socioeconomic tensions. Jordan and Turkey have buffer zones on their border with Syria and will face fewer difficulties in enforcing this decision. However, in the case of Lebanon, the Syrian regime fully controls the border and the challenge is to overcome the Lebanese differences over engaging Damascus. The potential return of Syrian refugees could take precedence over the stalled Syrian peace talks and have a significant impact on reconstruction efforts and local governance.
2. Jerusalem and remaking regional alliances
Palestine is becoming once again a central issue in Arab politics as public pressure is compelling governments to take decisive actions and US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was the triggering point. As a result, Jerusalem will continue to play a key factor in reshaping Middle East politics in 2018. Ankara is drifting away further from Washington, Amman is taking distance from Riyadh, and Tehran is seizing the opportunity to rally allies. As no peace process is looming on the horizon, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be weakened further and will have to heighten his rhetoric to match Hamas’ reaction. The US strategy to rally Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran will also struggle, as Riyadh will be pressured to take the lead on the Palestinian issue if violence increased in the West Bank. Jerusalem will test old alliances and shape new ones as the Syrian war is winding down.
3. Shakeup in Riyadh: local politics drive foreign policy
The unpredictability of Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) in 2017 will most likely continue in 2018. Since ascending to power as deputy crown prince in 2015, MBS has been amassing powers. He pursued that objective with urgency this year, which had an effect across the Middle East. Saudi domestic politics have been guiding the country’s foreign policy and distracting from the turmoil at home. When former Crown Prince Mohamad bin Nayef was forced to resign in June, Saudi Arabia led the embargo against Qatar. When Saudi princes and businessmen were rounded up in the Ritz Carlton in November, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was forced to resign during a trip to Riyadh. If MBS is more secure in ascending to power, Saudi foreign policy could revert to a rather conventional approach. However, uncertainty could risk escalating Riyadh’s rhetoric abroad. Saudi Arabia, under MBS, is at a crossroads in 2018.
4. Going back to the ballot box: Iraq and Libya
The year 2018 will witness a return to the ballot box in key countries across the region. Egypt’s presidential elections next March and Lebanon parliamentary elections in May should have no surprises or major impact. However, Libya’s presidential and parliamentary elections (tentatively scheduled for mid-2018) and Iraq parliamentary elections in May are consequential.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who scored two recent political victories by defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and aborting the Kurdish independence referendum, should secure a majority along with his allies. He is leading an anti-corruption campaign in the period leading to the elections, as pro-Iranian factions are coalescing to endorse former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Abadi staying in power would be the best chance for the US to contain Iran. The question is whether Tehran will flex its political muscles during the elections and purposely make Abadi’s victory difficult.
Libya is the major electoral unknown of 2018, as elections are not fully confirmed yet. We might witness an interesting face-off in the presidential race between the old guard, General Khalifa Haftar who served in the Libyan army before defecting and Saif al-Islam, the son of the former ruler of Libya Muammar Gaddafi. Haftar is favourite to win with the current chairman of the UN-backed Government of National Accord and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj likely to keep his post. It remains to be seen whether the country is ready to secure and organise a nationwide election, and whether Libyan rivals can show restraint and overcome their distrust to work together.
5. Will ISIL make a comeback?
ISIL, as a central authority with geographical control, has been decimated but the threat it poses is far from being gone. The radical group is gradually converting into an underground operation that could continue launching attacks in Syria and Iraq or across the world. It remains to be seen whether the group will become an ally of al-Qaeda, or continue to act as a rival. If the lack of stability and reconciliation persists in Syria, Iraq or Libya, ISIL or other radical groups might once again exploit the political vacuum to gain strength.
While these five issues are expected to stand out in 2018, history has not always been kind to the Middle East nor to those who forecast politics. One thing is certain, unpredictability will mark political developments in 2018.