Worldwide, and certainly for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, 2018 was a tumultuous year. The year comes to a close with many open endings, newly-formed political alliances, powerful social movements, and, unfortunately, many tragic and still unresolved conflicts in the Arab world. This year has also marked some new beginnings, most notably our own.
In March 2018, Inside Arabia was born with the mission of building bridges and cultivating understanding and peace between the U.S. and the Arab world. Since launching our website in July, 2018, we have published hundreds of stories—news, analysis, and opinion—from across the MENA region, from Mauritania to Iraq, and even beyond. Today at the turn of the year, we take a moment to look at Inside Arabia’s archives and highlight some of the most consequential happenings, developments, and trends of 2018.
Murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi
For many, the brutal murder of Saudi journalist, Washington Post columnist, and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was one of the most shocking and disturbing events of the year, not only for the event itself but for the reactions to it across the globe. Although the Saudi kingdom initially denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s death, global pressure forced Saudi Arabia to “admit” that Saudi agents had planned the assassination and murder of Khashoggi, claiming they were somehow “rogue” agents.
Contrary to reliable U.S. intelligence reports and the widespread belief of leaders worldwide, Riyadh continues to deny that the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS), was involved in or aware of the plan. While leaks continue, compounding the atrocity—the latest being footage of “body bags” being taken into the Ambassador’s residence—the Saudis have not even produced Khashoggi’s body so that his family can bury their loved one.
The circumstances of Khashoggi’s brutal murder turned a glaring spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, unabashed repression of free speech, and the “complicated” relationship that Washington has had with Riyadh for decades. Moreover, the Saudi journalist’s death also put U.S. President Donald Trump under the spotlight. The president’s seemingly unwavering support of MbS, even after the CIA report concluded with “high confidence” that MbS had directed the murder himself, undermined any notion of President Trump having a commitment to international human rights or, more importantly, to traditional American values of liberty, freedom of expression and press, or respect for the rule of law.
With the global condemnation and intense scrutiny that the kingdom has faced this year, Saudi Arabia, and its leadership, are likely to have a rocky 2019.
Despite the millions of dollars that Saudi Arabia has spent lobbying for its interests in Washington, the U.S. Congress voted to end support for the Saudi-United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition war in Yemen on December 13, 2018—a move that was partly driven by American lawmakers’ outrage over Khashoggi’s murder. With the global condemnation and intense scrutiny that the kingdom has faced this year, Saudi Arabia, and its leadership, are likely to have a rocky 2019.
Yemen’s Ongoing Civil War
The devastating civil war in Yemen has dragged on for four years, leaving not only thousands of combatants but also thousands of civilians dead and millions now facing starvation. Having created the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and the worst famine in over 100 years, the U.S.-supported, Saudi-UAE-led coalition, which has been fighting Houthi rebel forces in Yemen since its military intervention in 2015, has caused an estimated 80,000 deaths, untold destruction, and has committed countless war crimes according to the United Nations and human rights organizations.
Many view the conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival, Iran. While it is alleged that Riyadh and its allies are supporting Yemen’s government and Tehran is backing Houthi rebels, both governments are pursuing their own interests in the country. Even though Saudi Arabia and the UAE claim that they intervened in the Yemeni conflict to reinstate the legitimate government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the coalition’s presence in Yemen is increasingly being described as colonialism.
The Saudi-UAE-led coalition’s blockade on Yemeni ports and humanitarian aid has played a central role in the breakdown of the Yemeni healthcare system and resulted in the widespread famine that is currently threatening the lives millions of Yemeni civilians. Despite damning international news coverage and human rights reports, the global community has remained silent about the suffering of the Yemeni people.
Inside Arabia’s campaign featured the tragic but beautiful image of a Yemeni child with a teardrop in her green eye, reflecting the Saudi and Emirati flags.
In September, Inside Arabia launched a self-funded, public awareness campaign called #SaveYemen, which coincided with the 73rd session of the U.N. General Assembly convened at the U.N. headquarters in New York City. Inside Arabia’s campaign featured the tragic but beautiful image of a Yemeni child with a teardrop in her green eye, reflecting the Saudi and Emirati flags. Six creatives showing the statistics of the atrocities in Yemen were plastered on mobile billboard trucks, tour buses, electronic billboards, and posters throughout the city. The stark image boldly asserted, “The U.N. Must Act.”
The UN has now rekindled negotiations and establish a precarious cease-fire, the first step in ending the humanitarian crisis in the country that is disproportionately affecting women and children.
Iran’s Growing Influence in the MENA Region
The U.S., China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K., the European Union, and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iranian nuclear agreement, on July 14, 2015. Under the deal, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities and submit to international inspections in exchange for sanctions being lifted off of Tehran.
In May 2018, President Trump pulled out of the deal and imposed a new host of sanctions on Iran to undermine its economy and strong-arm the government in Tehran into making more concessions on its nuclear policy. The new U.S. sanctions also threatened companies and countries that buy Iranian oil, one of the country’s main exports.
Far from for pressuring Tehran into submit to Washington’s will, these new sanctions are only likely to increase Iran’s antagonism towards the U.S. and cause it to shift its focus to expanding its sphere of influence in the MENA region, especially through use of energy. Iran may also choose to turn to its regional allies, such as the Houthis, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiites, to wage more proxy wars against the U.S., and its allies, in 2019.
Soon after withdrawing from the nuclear agreement, Iran threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping lane for many U.S.-allied oil exporters. To respond to this threat, and other threats like it, Washington has been trying to persuade the countries of the Arabian Gulf to form the Middle East Strategic Alliance, also known as “Arab NATO,” to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region.
Gulf Diplomatic Crisis
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a land, sea, and air blockade. The four boycotting countries have accused the small, oil-rich nation of interfering in their internal affairs and supporting “terrorism” across the Arab world—allegations that Doha still denies.
In the past 19 months, relations between Qatar and the blockading quartet have only continued to deteriorate. The diplomatic spat has been exacerbated further by various events, including Qatar taking the UAE to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice and Riyadh’s alleged attempt to prevent Qatar’s citizens and residents from performing the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken by millions of Muslims every year.
The absence of the Qatari Emir from the annual summit hosted in Riyadh is likely to drive an even deeper wedge between the Arabian Gulf’s feuding states.
While Kuwait has tried to act as a mediator between Qatar and the boycotting states, its attempts have not been successful. In fact, some have even questioned the utility of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is supposed to provide a platform for collaboration, after the disappointing outcomes of the 39th GCC Summit in December. The absence of the Qatari Emir from the annual summit hosted in Riyadh is likely to drive an even deeper wedge between the Arabian Gulf’s feuding states.
In 2017, the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, breaking with decades of American and international policy. This year, on May 14, the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking protests across the globe and moving the Palestinian Authority to cut ties with Washington. Several nations have followed the U.S.’s lead, to varying degrees, most recently Australia. On December 15, Canberra recognized West Jerusalem (as distinguished from East Jerusalem) as the capital of Israel.
While the Trump administration has asserted that it is trying to move the Palestinian-Israeli peace process forward, its seemingly exclusive support of Israel indicates otherwise. In 2018, the U.S. cut millions of dollars from its funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees—the U.N. body responsible for providing support to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and the Palestinian diaspora in the Middle East—thus leaving millions of Palestinian refugees in precarious economic situations in their host countries.
Israel’s government, marred by scandals, corruption, and party infighting, is becoming increasingly hardline and aggressive, clearly emboldened by U.S. support. Waves of deadly protests by Palestinians and attacks on Gaza by the Israeli military have accompanied destruction of Palestinian homes and an aggressive encroachment by right-wing Israelis on the important Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
In July, Israel signed a bill into law that, in effect, cemented the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state, politically and culturally, thereby marginalizing non-Jewish Israelis, namely Arabs and the Druze minority, leading to a reevaluation of the one-state/two-state solution dichotomy. In the same month, Ahed Tamimi, teenage icon of the Palestinian resistance, was released from prison after being incarcerated for eight months. For many people, the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People is a painful reminder of all of the ways that the international community has failed the Palestinian people for the past 70 years.
Migration in Europe and the MENA Region
Since January 2018, at least 119,336 people have migrated by land or sea to Europe from Turkey or North Africa. Of these, around 12,745 were Moroccan, 9,635 Syrian, 7,333 Iraqi and 6,154 Algerian. An estimated 2,216 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and untold numbers of people have died trying to cross the Sahara. Over the past year, many have emigrated from Africa and the Middle East for various reasons: the wars in Syria and Yemen, political and social repression, poverty, unemployment, poor leadership, climate change, and personal ambition.
Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya have unwittingly become a battleground for migrants seeking better lives in North Africa and Europe and the European states who are trying to keep them out. In June, Italy, which has long received sea-going immigrants, elected an anti-immigrant leadership, which has endorsed the rejection of boatloads of rescued migrants and funded the Libyan coastguard to keep boats from crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
Not only has the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe added to the plight of immigrants in North Africa, it has also exacerbated other problems such as the enslavement of migrants in Libya.
Not only has the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe added to the plight of immigrants in North Africa, it has also exacerbated other problems such as the enslavement of migrants in Libya. In the Maghreb, Algeria and Morocco have both welcomed and suppressed migrants, partly to win favor with Europe. The U.N., with opposition from some major states, met in Marrakech in December to sign the Global Compact for Migration, which seeks universal governance of migration. However, the agreement has major flaws and there is little to suggest that it will be put into practice.
Climate Change in the Arab World
Climate change continues to wreak havoc on the MENA region in many ways and shows no sign of relenting. The largely hot and arid region is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially countries that rely heavily on food imports. In 2018, the disastrous effect of droughts, dams, and poor agricultural policy in Iraq only demonstrated how poor governance can magnify the impact of climate change.
Jordan still imports close to 96 percent of its energy needs, mostly fossil fuels, from its Middle Eastern neighbors, according to the World Bank. Not only has this energy dependence triggered widespread protests in the country, it even resulted in the appointment of a new prime minister this past summer. To overcome this issue, Jordan has made significant strides to be ranked first in the MENA region for the growth of its renewable energy sector.
Other Arab countries, such as Bahrain and Mauritania, are also trying to plan for the future. In addition to meeting their own energy needs, these countries are trying to protect the environment while also boosting their economies by becoming net energy exporters. However, this is an ambitious goal for many countries, as the MENA region still lacks the infrastructure and human capital required to support the growth of “green economies.”
Our Commitment To The Truth
In just the last six months, Inside Arabia has also written about corruption in Iraq, continued violence in Syria, Libya’s ongoing political turmoil, Egypt’s government crackdowns, Morocco’s discontent over new reforms, and many other pressing issues in the MENA region that have ramifications both there and far beyond.
Our readers can continue to expect accurate, insightful, and passionate writing about the region, which is as beautiful as it is complex.
In 2019, as we grow our capabilities and staffing, our readers can continue to expect accurate, insightful, and passionate writing about the region, which is as beautiful as it is complex. We will continue to bring voices from the region to dispel the myths, counteract the stereotypes, and build bridges of understanding and tolerance. And not only will we continue to provide quality, in-depth news and analysis of the MENA region, but, honoring Khashoggi’s legacy, we will work to promote freedom of expression for individuals and freedom of the press throughout the Arab world.