2020 has been a very eventful year for the countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The dramatic pace of events that occurred throughout the year has brought more uncertainty to the already volatile region. This year experienced the shocking assassination of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad in the early days of the year as well as the Libyan Crisis in which many regionals and international powers intervened. 2020 also saw Turkey’s assertive foreign policy and its growing military activism in the region. Furthermore, as the year progressed the Eastern Mediterranean Crisis took place alongside the normalization process of multiple Arab States with Israel in conjunction with the mounting isolation and de-legitimization of the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the political outlook in the MENA Region.

With Joe Biden taking office in January 2021, MENA politics draws extra attention in 2021. In this dossier, Al Sharq Strategic Research distinguished experts, depending on their areas of specialty, offer their insights on the probable trends and hot topics that are likely to influence the political atmosphere in the region throughout 2021. Bearing in mind the security situation and the political climate in the region, our experts shed light on the topics worth digging into and following closely over the course of 2021.

Basheer Nafi

Senior Associate Fellow at Al Sharq Strategic Research

In 2021, the political developments that need to be closely followed concerning the intra-regional rivalries include:

– The potential reconciliation in the Gulf and its scope;

– Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in light of increasing disagreements between Egypt, on one side, and the other two Gulf states, on the other;

– The likelihood of a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, especially if the Biden administration restores the US commitment to the nuclear deal with Iran and follows a less friendly approach to Saudi Arabia;

– Turkey’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean and the impact of the Turkish-Greek conflict on Turkey’s relations with Europe;

– and the way forward and the obstacles on the path towards a national solution for the Libyan Crisis.

Furthermore, with the new American administration, it is expected that US policies towards the region will change remarkably. The following issues are worth observing throughout the next year:

– The Iranian nuclear deal and the heavy sanctions imposed on Iran.

– USA’s relationship with Egypt and the Arab Gulf states.

– US policy on the Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict.

– USA’s relationship with Turkey and whether the deterioration in US-Russian relations will lead to accommodating Turkey. 

Mohammad Affan

Acting Research Director at Al Sharq Strategic Research

Out of many issues pertaining to MENA politics and worth observing in 2021, I will focus primarily on the unfulfilled regime change in a number of North African countries. On the one hand, a decade after the Arab Uprisings, the region seems far from stability. It is not only the countries of the 2019 protest wave, such as Algeria and Sudan, who are showing varying degrees of instability, but so is Tunisia – the country that is frequently described as the only surviving democracy of the first wave of 2011. On the other hand, the electoral loss of the US President Donald Trump to the democratic candidate Joe Biden seems to generate momentum for the cause of democracy worldwide. The extent of which this new dynamic will affect the status quo in the region, though, is still debatable.

The second topic worth following is the ongoing changes in the political Islam movements and the Islamist parties throughout the MENA region. Since the dramatic events of 2013, the Islamic social movements have been facing existential threats: a witch-hunt by most of the Arab regimes, a growing erosion in their popular base, and a severe setback in their ideological project. Being a major socio-political regional actor, it is much needed to examine the coping strategies adopted by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the re-positioning efforts made by the progressively destabilized Ennahda movement party, the pursuit of the Sudanese Islamist movement to find a foothold in the newly forming regime, and whether the Moroccan Justice and Development party will be able to survive the parliamentary and municipality elections of 2021.

Ömer Aslan

Senior Associate Fellow at Al Sharq Strategic Research

I have two research projects planned for 2021. First, I would like to explore the role of regional actors in military coups. Whether it is the emergence, spread and survival of authoritarianism in the region or military coups, students of the region have been too focused on domestic and global dynamics at the expense of the regional. This, however, is gradually changing. Scholars now realize among other things that as opposed to initial lofty expectations, regionalism in the Middle East and North Africa contribute to the survival of authoritarian regimes. Regional actors seem to play a similar role in the occurrence and success of military coups in the MENA region. Though the July 3, 2013 coup in Egypt and post-2019 transition period in Sudan provided a grim reminder of the role of such regional actors such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in instigating coups and swaying regional military actors, the nexus is not new. Both during the Cold War and after, regional actors helped both foment and foil military coup attempts as was observed in the role of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in the 1991/1992 Algeria coup. I seek to research what instruments regional actors use to those ends. Do they calculate how global actors will react to a possible coup? What negotiations take place between regional and global actors?

The second subject I endeavor to enquire is police-military relations in the MENA region. Armed forces among all security actors in the region have been given lopsided attention by scholars. Though this is understandable given the heavy role of armed forces in occurrence and success of coups and revolutions, we have also neglected the role of police and particularly police-army relations in authoritarian as well as quasi-democratic settings. Whether in Turkey, where suspicion between police and armed forces increased to new heights in the 1990s, or in Egypt, where a riot by police conscripts in 1986 could only be quelled by the army, relations between the police and civilians as well as police and armed forces are of importance for democratic and regime security as well as coups. It was in cognizance of the significance of police for regime security that then General Sisi, the leader of 2013 coup, would shower the police with praise and provide them with new privileges following the coup. However, we know very little about how national police organizations in the region conceive of their role. What shaped their understanding of national armed forces? How do they view the ‘Arab Spring’, civilian politicians, order, and stability in their country?

In 2021, it is important to observe the evolution of civil-military relations in Tunisia. As is well known, the role of the Tunisian army has been heaped with praise by observers because it sided with protestors by rejecting to use force against them. However, relations between civilians and police seems far from democratically settled. For instance, during a local protest in Tataouine in Southern Tunisia springing from economic motivations in May 2017, the Tunisian military had ignored direct orders from the Tunisian president to protect an oil pump station and let protestors shut it down. With the COVID-19 pandemic added to the civil war in Libya, bad economic conditions quickly became worse in Tataouine and protests exploded in July 2020. The military once again failed to stop the protestors from shutting down the main oil production site. Popular protests, even if localized, pose a major risk of confrontation with civilians; this causes the army to be drawn into politics, politicizing officer corps even further. As President Kais Saied warned, political factions may seek to use the military to further their own narrow interests.

A more worrisome development associated with the Tunisian military is its participation in national development projects by establishing housing units, opening wells for irrigation, and drinking water with outside funding for the last few years. Once the COVID-19 pandemic started, the government not only had to employ the military for enforcing lockdowns, establishing military virology labs testing soldiers and civilians alike, but also continued to employ the military in national development projects. A university hospital built with Chinese funding in Tunisia recently has been placed under the supervision of National Directorate of Military Health, under the Ministry of Defence. We should also watch for relations between regular armies and various militia groups in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Libya and whether and how militias will coexist with armed forces.

Mehmet Emin Cengiz

Research Fellow at Al Sharq Strategic Research

Over the past several years, the Syrian opposition has lost a sizable amount of territory to the Assad regime thanks to the help of Russia along with Iran to the Assad loyalists. The Idlib assault initiated by the regime and supported by Russian airpower specifically in 2020 caused the regime loyalists to gain a significant amount of territory in the province. The offensive displaced hundreds of thousands of people and drove the desperate Syrians to the Turkish border. Consequently, many Turkish observation posts, which were designed to monitor ceasefire violations within the Astana process framework, were encircled and lost their functions de facto. Following the Russian attack on the Turkish troops in Idlib, which claimed the lives of 36 Turkish soldiers, Ankara launched the Operation Spring Shield against the Assad forces and inflicted heavy casualties on the Syrian military and the allied militias. A substantial amount of Russian equipment in Idlib was also destroyed as a result of the operation. This gloomy atmosphere and delicate equilibrium in the province make Idlib a special place for Turkey.

In 2021 the developments that will unfold in Idlib province should be closely followed. It should also be kept in mind that Idlib is the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition and shelter to more than 3 million civilians. The area is of importance to Turkey as Turkey aspires to protect the status quo in the area and cannot bear the consequences of a new influx of desperate Syrian refugees towards its borders. That is to say, economically and socially, Turkey cannot bear the burden of a new refugee wave. In addition to these, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the de facto ruler of Idlib, has long been undergoing a transformation process. Through a double-faced strategy (localism and moderation), the organization attempts to gain the local population’s hearts and minds. Moreover, it also wants to appeal to the international actors so as to be removed from the international terrorist list and further entrench its ruling position in the province.  In 2021, I will continue to concentrate on the pragmatic transformation process that the organization has undertaken over the years.

Another important topic that should be closely followed in Syria in 2021 is the transformation struggle of the PYD/SDF. The USA has long been forcing the PYD/SDF to break its ties with the PKK, which is on the terrorist list of Turkey, the USA, and the EU. Following US pressure on the PYD, a crack is observed in the PYD’s relationship with the PKK. Additionally, the fate of the intra-Kurdish unity talks between the PYNK (a coalition of parties led by the PYD) and the Erbil-backed Kurdish National Council will be significant. The Syrian Kurdish parties’ unity talks are in jeopardy especially after the Sinjar agreement brokered between Erbil and Baghdad. Lately, the PKK has shown its discontent with the Sinjar agreement, aiming to uproot the PKK-affiliate YBS and Iran-backed Al Hashd al-Shaabi from the area.

What is more, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), the PKK clashed with the Peshmerga forces. The mentioned clashes resulted in casualties from both sides. The KRG leadership also accused the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, of attacking the KRI soil. The possibility of an intra-Kurdish war between the PKK and Kurdistan Democratic Party will directly affect the intra-Kurdish talks in Syria. The issue should be read through the lens of Regional Kurdish politics. What is happening in Syria reverberates in Iraq and vice versa. Thus, it is important to follow how the developments in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the PYD/SDF controlled areas will unfold in 2021.

Tamer Badawi

Associate Fellow at Al Sharq Strategic Research

In 2021, I intend to focus my research on three areas.

My first focus will centre around how the rivalry between several of Iraq’s neighbours (i.e., Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan) may shape Iraq’s domestic politics and security situation in 2021. The reason for this is that under the US Presidency of Joe Biden, two key events are anticipated by many Middle East observers to take place: the resolving of the 2017 Gulf crisis and the start of some sort of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers. Both events can impact Iraq given that the country will also have parliamentary elections in 2021 where foreign influence has a great role in shaping electoral coalition-building.

The second is how the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq and the Iran-led axis-of-resistance groups’ relations with the state are changing as they institutionally entrench themselves as more than just paramilitary actors to include an increasingly visible role in public service provision.

The third is bilateral relations between Iran and Turkey and their impact in the region, particularly Iraq. Both countries are often viewed as frenemies; they cooperate whenever possible on compartmentalizing issues. Turkey’s increasing regional rising and the ‘maximum pressure’ that Iran endured over the past years is destabilizing their relationship and serving as a test for its resilience.

Lastly, I have a growing interest in the Syrian conflict and the east of the Euphrates region, so this may become part of my research plans for 2021.

Having said that, shifting further from Iraq to Iran, I think it is important to look at how much Iran is advancing in its decades-old endeavours to reconnect itself with its immediate neighbourhood via an extensive network of roads and railways. This helps Iran economically to neutralize sanctions and to project military power. If US sanctions are practically eased in 2021, then Iran will be able to push further in the direction of regional connectivity.

Osama El-Mourabit

Research Assistant at Al Sharq Strategic Research

If 2020 was marked by the emergence of a pandemic that many consider as the 21st century’s third massive shock,[1] the deep transformations that are ongoing on a global scale shape the features of today’s world, despite the ongoing controversial debates about whether it represents a historical rupture or if it is simply speeding up the course of history. When it comes to the Middle East, this region is specifically facing unexperienced shifts and mutations, which threaten to provoke new trajectories of change and reshape the regional geopolitical balances. The recent normalization process between Israel and a number of Arab states can be considered a paradigm shift that needs special attention during the upcoming months.

Tackling this question of normalization requires specific attention to whether or not it will lead to a new security structure in the region, and how it will affect the regional rivalries between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. If a once common threat perception led to the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council during the Iraq-Iran war, the shared common threat perception between Israel and the regional allies poses the possibility of an intensification of the regional conflicts taking place, mainly on the already existing hotspots of Libya, Yemen, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The region of North Africa, on the other hand, is facing considerable transformations, which should be carefully analysed during the upcoming year. A change in the status quo of the situation of the Sahara—following the US official recognition of Moroccan sovereignty— creates a considerable geopolitical shift and raises the question about the horizons of this decision and its repercussions on the North African security environment. First, the focus in the upcoming months should be paid to investigate the effects of this geopolitical rebalancing on the international positions vis-à-vis this long-lasting conflict. Furthermore, the future of the diplomatic process between Morocco and the Polisario front may also be a subject of change as well as the future of the UN-MINURSO mission and responsibilities.

Second, the US while feeling threatened by the Chinese strategic expansion in the regions of Africa and Southern Mediterranean may be reconsidering Morocco’s geopolitical importance in the region. As many have argued, the American decision can be considered as being part of America’s new Africa strategy[2] to contain China’s quest to attain political and economic power in the African Continent and the Mediterranean may reconfigure the regional alliances and increase a Moroccan role within the African continent.

[1] Similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as the 2008 global financial crisis.

[2] Launched in December 2018 and delivered by the former US National Security Advisor John R. Bolton.