Assassination of Qassem Soleimani (January 3, 2020)
With Iraq mired in widespread popular protests calling for the dissolution of Parliament, the dismantling of traditional power circles, the ousting of foreign influence, and a transitional government to lay the groundwork for free and fair elections, Iran and its allies in Iraq scrambled to preserve their grip on Baghdad. Washington however welcomed the protests as an opportunity to “restart” the Iraq project and unseat Iran’s allies and domination of the political institutions under the banner of a “popular revolution.”
In this tense environment, compounded by the geopolitical wrestling, an American contractor was killed by a pro-Iran militia. The US responded with air strikes on militia positions. Supporters of the militia subsequently retaliated by storming the US Embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad.
The significance of the storming of the US Embassy was two-fold. First, it was done publicly and broadcast around the world, essentially humiliating US authority in Iraq. Second, the embassy was assailed inside the Green Zone which is the most secure and fortified area in Iraq and is inaccessible to citizens without the permission of the authorities. In other words, for the US Embassy to be attacked, it would have required an implicit nod from the government. In this rapid escalation, Iran had delivered two public messages to Trump in Washington: “We can retaliate, and we control the government.”
Iran had delivered two public messages to Trump in Washington: “We can retaliate, and we control the government.”
The US president came under heavy pressure to respond. With elections set to take place at the end of the year, and him being mired at the time in an impeachment process, Trump decided to escalate tensions by assassinating Iran’s most prized general, Qassem Soleimani, as well as one of its most important operators in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Iran balked at what it saw as a disproportionate response and floundered over how to respond. It launched missiles in the vicinity of the US base in Ain al-Asad in Iraq but failed (perhaps intentionally) to cause any casualties. The tragedy however was that in the process of retaliation, an Iranian missile mistakenly brought down a Ukrainian commercial airliner which had taken off from Iran, killing all on board. Tensions swiftly de-escalated as Iran’s foreign minister subsequently declared that the missile strike on Ain al-Asad would suffice as a response while Trump was satisfied with the absence of any further US casualties.
Turkey’s Intervention in Libya (January 5, 2020)
Despite renegade commander Khalifa Haftar bombing the Libyan capital Tripoli for almost a year, his forces had struggled to make any breakthrough. However, the end of 2019 witnessed a more concerted effort by Russian mercenaries to force the tide in his favor while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ramped up its supply of weapons. With the silence and inaction of the international community suggesting a consideration of the “benefits” of a military victory that would end a civil war causing security headache and fueling a migrant crisis that had exacerbated far-right tendencies in Europe, Haftar pushed forward towards the vital airport road in Tripoli.
Turkey eyed the developments and silence of the international community with deep concern. Ankara was not necessarily interested in the future of the internationally-recognized government (GNA) nor its legitimacy – a legitimacy that is not entirely recognized even by the groups that are supposed to represent it nor by neighboring countries Tunisia and Algeria. Instead, Ankara perceived events in Libya as part of the wider situation unfolding in the East Mediterranean, with the emerging anti-Turkey bloc intent on containing its influence. If Haftar succeeded in taking Tripoli, the view in Ankara was that he would complete this by rapidly forming a maritime “chokehold” with Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece.
Ankara perceived events in Libya as part of the wider situation unfolding in the East Mediterranean, with the emerging anti-Turkey bloc intent on containing its influence.
A desperate Fayaz al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the GNA, and an agitated Turkey cemented an alliance through a controversial maritime agreement, creating a marine “border” between the countries and an effective “bridge” through which to facilitate an intervention. This was then followed by a GNA call for Turkish military assistance. The Turkish Parliament ratified the request and Turkey intervened, completely upending the military dynamics, and driving Haftar’s forces as far back as Sirte while seizing the vital military base of Al-Watiya. In a euphoria, Turkey rejected Egypt’s concession for a political process as it considered the viability of a campaign in the East. However, an entrenchment of Russian mercenaries and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s threat of direct intervention established the first military equilibrium since the start of the conflict. The stalemate eliminated the possibility of a military solution thereby inadvertently creating a conducive environment for the start of serious political talks.
Sultan Qaboos’ Death (January 10, 2020)
While Kuwait is often hailed as a pro-active mediator in Gulf disputes, Oman’s late Sultan Qaboos established a formidable reputation as a neutral operator and succeeded in establishing and maintaining significant economic independence that enabled him to insulate Oman from being dragged into regional tensions. Sultan Qaboos was integral to talks between Washington and Tehran, and between Riyadh and the Houthis in Yemen, and facilitated tense discussions between Netanyahu and the Palestinians in his final years. Sultan Qaboos’ unique ability to reach out to all parties and facilitate dialogue was reflected in the way he was hailed, upon his death, by factions across the entire spectrum including the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Israel, and Iran. He was succeeded by Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq who has had to contend with the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and resist pressure from the UAE to align on policy relating to Yemen and the Qatar blockade.
Oil Price War (March 2020)
In February, Mike Pompeo made the first visit by a US Secretary of State to Belarus in 25 years. The visit would prove controversial as he declared from Minsk that the US was prepared to meet Belarus’ oil needs, essentially offering to supplant the country’s dependence on Russia. Moscow bristled at the direct affront by Pompeo amidst a stalling of bilateral talks between Belarus and Russia over renewing the agreement for the import of Russian energy to Belarus.
Russia’s anger was compounded by a proposal by Saudi Arabia to OPEC to cut production and raise oil prices to stem the discontent from oil producers.
Russia’s anger was compounded by a proposal a few weeks later by Saudi Arabia to OPEC to cut production and raise oil prices to stem the discontent from oil producers lamenting the impact of the low prices. Moscow interpreted this as an initiative by Trump to ease the pressure on US shale, which had taken advantage of OPEC oil cuts over the years, moving in to seize greater market share by requesting Saudi Arabia take steps to push OPEC to produce more favorable market conditions.
Russia outright rejected Riyadh’s proposal and proceeded to “flood” the market with oil, driving prices even lower. Saudi Arabia, fearing that it would again lose market share, responded by also flooding the market. Trump in Washington railed against both as US shale came under punishing pressure that only eased when the US president relented to Russia and OPEC by promising to cut US oil production if OPEC followed suit. In other words, Trump promised not to take advantage of OPEC production cuts to increase US market share and would take proactive steps to ensure US companies complied. A deal was subsequently struck.
Netanyahu Announces Plans to Annex the West Bank (May 28, 2020)
Emboldened by Trump’s unyielding support and willingness to deploy maximum pressure on the Palestinians, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he intended to proceed with plans to annex large parts of the West Bank. The decision sparked an international outcry from the European Union (EU) who declared that any such move would contravene international law. While talk of possible sanctions from the EU was suggested, few in Tel Aviv, Gaza, and Ramallah believed such a scenario would happen.
However, the debate in Israel had nothing to do with the possible reaction of the EU, but more to do with the demographic implications of annexing the West Bank. The question was not whether it was right or wrong, but the threat of Israelis becoming a minority by incorporating areas with significant numbers of Arabs. The absence of a “plan” for what to do with these Arabs and how to preserve the Israeli majority resulted in a delay in the actual implementation of the annexation.
While the UAE claimed their normalization had been secured on the promise from Netanyahu that he would not annex the West Bank, the latter swiftly denied such claims and asserted that the plans had merely been delayed.
UAE-Iran Foreign Ministers’ Phone Call (August 2, 2020)
In August, the foreign ministers of both the UAE and Iran engaged in what was described by Iranian minister Javad Zarif as a “substantive, frank, and friendly conversation.” The phone call was significant by virtue of the context in which it took place. It was the first indication that the UAE was no longer gambling on a Trump election victory, and that it was preparing for the prospect of new talks between Biden and Tehran. Additionally, it indicated that the UAE was seeking to position itself as a prospective mediator. Lastly, the phone call indicated that the UAE no longer viewed Iran as a “threat” the way it is perceived by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. This compounded the sense of divergence in the Saudi Arabia and UAE alliance in Yemen, where the former is centrally focused on containing Iran, while the latter appears to be more interested in a division between North and South that would lead to an entrenchment of Iranian influence on Saudi Arabia’s borders.
Beirut Port Explosion (August 4, 2020)
Lebanon had already been rocked by political turmoil. Mass protests had brought down multiple governments while COVID-19 had ravaged an already crippled economy. Protestors demanded an end to mismanagement and corruption, and a new political order not dominated by the regional proxy politics, but by real representation built solely on a popular mandate. In the midst of this chaos, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port in Beirut caught fire and exploded in an apocalypse. The explosion ripped through the port, the surrounding buildings, and damaged properties more than some kilometers away from the epicenter, claiming hundreds of lives and injuring thousands.
The explosion ripped through the port, the surrounding buildings, and damaged properties more than some kilometers away.
However, while the explosion was clearly caused by a dereliction of duty and neglect by the government which allowed such large quantities of ammonium nitrate to be stored at the metropolitan port, the protestors struggled to ride the popular anger to bring about deep-rooted change. French President Macron rushed to Beirut to present himself as an arbiter between the parties before being sidelined by Washington which categorically refused Paris’ inclusion of Hezbollah as part of the efforts. Whereas the port blast should have been interpreted as an example of the urgent need for reform, the matter instead had the opposite effect of re-internationalizing the situation and re-framing Lebanon once more as part of a wider geopolitical wrestling between the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
As Lebanon continues to spiral further into chaos, the political situation appears to have gone full circle, with former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri who had resigned during the initial protests now tasked once again with forming a government and getting embroiled in a familiar scene of contending with President Aoun and Hezbollah over who should have the key portfolios in the government.
Normalization of Israeli Ties – UAE, Bahrain, Sudan (August 13, 2020)
In a controversial move, the UAE announced normalization of ties with Israel. The deal was initially seen as a favor for US President Donald Trump. However, the subsequent efforts of the UAE in not only cementing bilateral ties, but also in strongarming Sudan into following suit revealed that the move was more than a temporary measure for Abu Dhabi. Instead, it was part of its long-term vision of becoming the most important regional power. Trump has since approved the sale of F-35s to Abu Dhabi, lifted Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror, and proceeded to pressure other states to follow the UAE’s “initiative.” Moreover, despite being condemned by the Palestinians as a betrayal of their cause and a “stab in the back,” UAE normalization received bi-partisan support as Joe Biden declared it a “historic step” and pledged to continue pushing other countries to do the same.
Death of the Emir of Kuwait (September 29, 2020)
Amidst an ongoing Gulf crisis in which he was a prime mediator, Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed died on September 29. Having established a reputation as a conciliator in Gulf disputes, his death in the same year as Sultan Qaboos of Oman raised questions over the future of mediation when tensions remain high and the stakes even higher between the competing regional factions. Moreover, the succession process that has seen another aged Emir take the throne has raised questions over the ability of Kuwait to resist external influences keen on pushing the state into easing its firmly neutral foreign policy and aligning more closely with its neighbors.
Algeria Constitution Referendum (November 1, 2020)
Algeria continued on its awkward democratic transition as the government embarked on a referendum over a controversial draft constitution. Only 23.7 percent of the population turned out to vote while just over half of those voted in favor. To put it into context, only 13.7 percent of 24 million Algerians eligible to vote affirmed their support for the constitution. The low turnout was more indicative of the current assessment of elected President Abdel Majid Tebboune’s first year in power as disillusion sets in over the trajectory of Algeria’s transition. Tebboune himself was flown to Germany after contracting COVID-19 and appeared via video two months later to confirm the controversial results of the referendum.
Resignation of Turkey’s Finance Minister Berat al Bayrak (November 10, 2020)
Amidst a plummeting currency, struggling economy, and deteriorating relations with Europe and the US, Turkey’s President Erdogan announced he would embark on widespread reform to tackle difficult economic challenges. Few expected these reforms to include the resignation of his powerful son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. While narratives differ over the circumstances, there is a general consensus that his resignation has more to do with strained relations with the president over the administration of the economy than a move to insulate him from widespread criticism.
There is a general consensus that Albayrak’s resignation has to do with strained relations with the president over the administration of the economy.
Moreover, given Albayrak’s significant influence over the state, there was initial optimism over the possible rehabilitation of Justice and Development Party (AKP) members known to hold dissenting views, and an expansion in the party of political space for alternative ideas. However, this optimism was swiftly quelled when former Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc came under pressure for criticizing the state of freedom of speech in Turkey, which drew the ire of the president himself. He subsequently “apologized” and resigned from his position on the party’s advisory board.
Normalization of Morocco-Israel Ties (December 10, 2020)
As part of the wider trend of normalizing ties with Israel in the Arab world, Morocco agreed to follow suit in exchange for US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty of the Western Sahara. The first commercial flight from Israel landed soon after in Rabat. While it is unclear to what extent Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty will be upheld by Joe Biden, the decision drew outrage from Algeria bolstered by Russian denouncement of the deal.
In a region where Russia asserts itself and Washington alienates Algeria by dismissing Algiers’ recommendations for the UN mission to Libya, the deal has the potential to destabilize an already tense environment. Morocco has sought to diffuse tensions with neighboring Algeria by offering talks over re-opening borders. Although Algerians have received the invitation as more of a political ruse to deflect from what has been portrayed as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.
The most important dynamic of Morocco’s normalization is that it was signed by Moroccan Islamist Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani, and it will be a government led by his Islamist party that will implement the agreement. This shatters the popular perceptions of the post-Arab Spring Muslim Brotherhood as flagbearers of Islamic causes enabling them to amass significant popular sympathy over the decades and later translate it into election victories.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar Confirm Reconciliation Talks
Following Joe Biden’s electoral victory, Gulf states have scrambled to adapt to what is anticipated to be a different approach to US foreign policy and a shift in priorities. It is in this context that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have confirmed that talks over a possible reconciliation were underway. Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner visited the region to accelerate discussions as Trump seeks another foreign policy “victory.” However, negotiations have been slow as the UAE has hesitated over Riyadh’s apparent unilateral pursuit of reconciliation. UAE commentators were forced to backtrack on defiant statements made by the UAE’s ambassador to the US that “reconciliation was not on any of the blockading countries’ priority list.” They also drew the ire of the Saudis after boasting that no reconciliation could take place without Abu Dhabi’s permission.
Negotiations have been slow as the UAE has hesitated over Riyadh’s apparent unilateral pursuit of reconciliation.
Qatar’s foreign minister did not attend the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting of foreign ministers on December 27, suggesting talks have not yet reached a breakthrough. Though some have highlighted that the Qatari foreign minister’s absence may be due to the recent escalation of tension with Bahrain after a border dispute. Given the meeting of foreign ministers was held in Manama, it is possible that this was the reason for the non-attendance and the preference instead to send a lower ranked minister of state.
Nevertheless, all eyes are on the main summit in Riyadh on January 5, 2021 and whether Qatar’s Emir Tamim will attend. For Saudi Arabia, this would be the satisfactory PR “victory” it has been seeking, to extricate itself from what has been a foreign policy failure.
Israel’s Courts Avoid Calls to Annul Nation Law (December 23, 2020)
In 2018, the Knesset passed a law asserting the exclusive supremacy of the Jewish population over all others. Critics lambasted the law declaring it was in essence enshrining apartheid into law. In December 2020, the Israeli High Court considered petitions calling for the law to be annulled. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin warned the court that it had no jurisdiction to hear the petitions as the law had been enshrined as a “Basic Law” and therefore is part of the supreme laws of the land over which the High Court has no authority to challenge. Benny Gantz criticized Netanyahu’s conduct, albeit more out of political expediency as he jostles for the premiership, than any serious opposition to the law itself.
The High Court avoided ruling on the hearings.