West Asia and North Africa Review 2022
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF
Responses to the Russia-Ukraine War

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war drew mixed responses among the West Asian and North African states based on their national interests and strategic objectives. Most states in the region do not necessarily view Russia as a threat. Russia over the years has emerged as a normal extra-regional player enjoying security and tactical understanding with all the key powers. Moscow has benefitted from the missteps taken by the US and European states in the region to entrench its presence. Russia under Vladimir Putin has emerged as the new security provider in the Syrian conflict and engaged with all foreign participants i.e. Türkiye, Israel, Iran, Jordan, and the Gulf states. Russia has supplied a large number of arms; defence equipment and Private Military Contractors (PMC) are embedded in security forces in several West Asian and African states providing training and technical know-how. The Ukraine crisis forced these states to choose sides between their historic partnership with the U.S. and growing economic and political ties with Russia. In the Arab world, the states are broadly divided into three blocs on the subject of the Russia-Ukraine conflict; firstly, Syria favoured Russia’s actions; secondly, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Libya criticized the invasion and thirdly, most states opted for a neutral stance.[1] The Gulf States barring Kuwait attempted to pursue a neutral stance to preserve cooperation with Moscow on geopolitical and energy issues. The cracks in the ties with Washington DC by key Arab states over arms deals; Yemen conflict; JCPOA talks; human rights issues and the US repositioning to limit its regional involvement has facilitated strategic hedging. The regional players are expanding ties with extra-regional players such as China, Russia, and India in the wider competition.[2] Several Arab states such as Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon etc. depend on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are also the largest suppliers of fertilizers. Therefore, the neutral position by these states is a strategy to minimize the risks to food security. Egypt along with Gulf States attempted to diversify their sources of wheat and fertilizers in light of the crisis. The efforts by European states to diversify energy imports have benefitted few states in the region. Algerian energy firms signed energy agreements with Italy, France[3] and Slovenia. Qatar signed 15 year LNG deal with Germany.[4] The UAE signed energy cooperation agreements with France[5], Germany and Austria.[6]

Iran, without terming it as an invasion, suggested that war does not lead to solution and appealed for ceasefire and political and democratic resolution. Tehran blamed the US-led NATO’s presence for the pervasive crisis in the Eurasia region.[7] Iran’s tactical relations with Russia have expanded in the backdrop of the fight against the Islamic State (IS); support for Bashar Al Assad regime; US sanctions and hostilities with the west. Iran is dependent on Russian support in the JCPOA talks and regional influence.[8] Iran reportedly supplied drones to the Russian military during the conflict with Ukraine. Iran denied the charges and argued that the drone sales were halted post-February 2022. However, new evidences suggest deeper collusion in drone trade.[9] Iran’s engagement with Russia is likely to remain uninterrupted and steady in the coming year.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on 24 February condemned the invasion as a grave violation of the international order. However, President Issac Herzog and then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett avoided referring to Russia as responsible for the crisis.[10] Tel Aviv intended to maintain a low profile. Israel provided medical supplies, water purification systems, emergency water supply kits, and winter gear as a humanitarian gesture to Ukraine.[11] It however refused to supply weapons and missile defence systems in order to avoid antagonizing Moscow.[12] IDF’s cooperation and coordination with Russian forces in Syria is a strategic asset for Tel Aviv. Israel cannot afford to degrade engagement with Russia that allows it to target Iranian and Hezbollah targets in the Syrian territory.

Türkiye in the initial phase of the war announced support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and hosted negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian officials in Istanbul and Antalya.[13] Türkiye blocked Russian warships’ passage through Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to prevent it from reinforcing their fleet.[14] Ankara increased coordination with the US during the current crisis and supplied Ukraine with weapons including Bayraktar drones, Kirpi armoured troop carriers and body armor.[15] Türkiye is a maritime neighbour of Russia and Ukraine and enjoys warm ties with both states. Ankara while opposing Russia’s military advance, objected to sweeping sanctions. Ankara agreed to comply only with UN Security Council approved sanctions. Türkiye’s trade engagement with Russia remained stable and tourism from Russia has contributed in helping its economy. In Syria, Türkiye maintained its tactical understanding with Russia to prevent Syrian forces from advancing in Idlib and north-western areas controlled by Turkish forces.

Protests in Iran

Iran since September 2022 has been witnessing the largest ever protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Large and small protests have taken place in around 280 cities and towns in all 31 provinces. The demonstrations have been participated by both men and women including from traditional segments of Iranian society.[16] The protest triggered after the custodial death of a 22 year old Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini on 16 September following her arrest by the Guidance Patrol in Tehran. The demands of the present protest not only include specific political, economic and social rights for women but it encompasses a larger theme under “Zan, Zendegi and Azaadi” i.e. dignity for the woman and Life and Freedom from repression. The intrusive enforcement of Islamic morality is therefore, only one aspect within the ambit of demands by protestors. The protest has merged the question of women’s rights with the broader disaffection against the Islamic system. The protestors are demanding a change of the system rather than change in the system.[17]

The regime’s approach has been defensive that was taken by surprise at the intensity and spread of the protests. The level of repression during the current spate of protest has been harsh with official figures reporting around 300 deaths.[18] There have been two executions and around 10 more are awaiting trial on charges of Moharebah or “War against God”.[19] The government used the tactics of blaming it on foreign malfeasance and domestic collaborators to divert attention from the real causes of the crisis. Raisi government implemented total news blackout and restricted access to internet.

Türkiye’s Rapprochement in the Region

Türkiye since 2021 made efforts to re-engage with regional neighbours such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Ankara’s regional policies especially since 2011 Arab Spring led to strategic competition with Gulf States. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to evoke neo-Ottoman legacy by playing the Islamic trope and seizing a regional leadership role has backfired. Türkiye’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood; involvement in Libyan civil war; expansion of military activities in Syria and Iraq; criticisms of domestic policies of Gulf states and actions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea region isolated the state.[20] Türkiye’s economy is suffering from recession, declining currency value, high unemployment rate and surging inflation rate reaching nearly 70 percent. The economic situation has hampered Erdogan and his AKP party’s approval ratings especially before June 2023 parliamentary and presidential election. In order to overcome isolation and the deteriorating economic situation, it therefore attempted to reconcile. Erdogan is hoping that investments and financial packages from Gulf States could help in improving the economic situation.[21] Türkiye’s close ties with the UAE and Egypt could provide advantage in regional competition with Greece and Cyprus. The Gulf States and Egypt in the post-Arab spring period adopted a security oriented approach towards Türkiye. These states in light of US retreat have adopted a diplomatic approach towards Ankara. The threat perception towards Muslim Brotherhood has reduced as compared to the 2010s. For Gulf States, strategic cooperation with Ankara could be optimized to thwart Iran’s regional influence.[22]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Abu Dhabi and met with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on 14 February to re-energize their ties affected by Ankara’s support for Muslim Brotherhood; involvement in Libya; gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea etc. Both states signed 13 agreements in the sphere of trade, industry, health, medical sciences, land and sea transportation and climate action.[23] Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was invited as the guest of honour at the 16th UAE Ambassadors and Representatives of Diplomatic Missions Forum on 21 March 2022.

Saudi Arabia sought to utilize its economic reserves and oil production capacity to ease tensions with Türkiye and in fact offered financial aid to help its economy ahead of presidential and parliamentary election in 2023. On 7 April, a Turkish court ruled to suspend the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi nationals accused of killing Jamal Khashoggi. The court also decided to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia.[24] Crucially, on 28 April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman indicating willingness by both leaders to overcome the cold relationship that soured after the death of Jamal Khashoggi.[25] Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reciprocated by visiting Ankara on 22 June and met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aiming to fully normalize ties. Both states have lifted restrictions on trade, flight connectivity and TV screenings.[26] On the sidelines of Football World Cup in Doha, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 20 November indicating thaw in relations. The meeting has been called as a new beginning between Egypt and Türkiye. President Erdogan called the meeting with Al-Sisi as the first step to launch a new path in relations.[27]

Türkiye’s ties with Israel had suffered following raid by Israeli forces on a flotilla killing 10 Turkish nationals on 31 May 2010. President Erdogan downgraded the ties with Israel projecting himself as a critic of Israeli occupation in Palestine. Israel criticized Türkiye for supporting Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood. Ankara’sefforts to mend ties with Gulf States and Egypt have been complimented by growing diplomatic bonhomie with Israel. Israeli President Issac Herzog became the first head of state since 2007 to visit Türkiye in March 2022. During Herzog’s meeting with President Erdogan, both sides agreed to promote energy cooperation.[28] Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Jerusalem on 25 May and met with Israeli and the Palestinian leadership.[29] Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Türkiye on 23 June in an attempt to boost their bilateral relations. Ankara assured the safety of Israelis in its territory and stressed on its commitment to fight against terrorism.[30] Both states restored full diplomatic ties in August leading to re-appointment of respective ambassadors and consul general. Turkish President Erdogan met with then Prime Minister Yair Lapid on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on 21 September. Both leaders shared their views about energy cooperation, intelligence sharing and Russia-Ukraine war.[31] Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz visited Ankara on 27 October in efforts to revive defence and security cooperation.[32] In the context of Russia-Ukraine conflict, Türkiye is trying to reassess its strategic priority by moving closer to its NATO allies and nurturing warm ties with Israel. Ankara also hosted Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on 23 August and assured that restoring ties with Israel will not weaken Türkiye’s support for the Palestinian cause.[33]

Post-Abraham Accord Developments

In the aftermath of the 2020 Abraham Accords, diplomatic and economic ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have increased. During Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the UAE on 30 January 2022, he re-affirmed support for Emirates’ security needs and called for working together to find ways and means to bring full security to people in the region.[34] Notably, the Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit the UAE in 2021. Prime Minister Bennett made a surprise visit to Abu Dhabi on 9 June to discuss on regional issues including Iran’s nuclear programme and regional influence. Both states have widened the spheres of cooperation in defence tech; security and intelligence support since the Abraham Accords.[35]

On 28 March, the Negev Summit was attended by Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid during the press release called for erecting new architecture with shared capabilities that intimidates and deters common enemies i.e. Iran and its proxies. Lapid announced that following the meeting, it will be turned into a permanent forum.[36] With regard to Bahrain, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet visited Bahrain on 14 February to explore cooperation on security. President Issac Herzog visited Manama on 4 December and held talks with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa about regional issues, business and industrial collaboration.[37]

The officials from Sudan’s military government reportedly made a secret visit to Israel in February 2022. An Israeli delegation of security officials visited Khartoum in April 2022 to promote cooperation.[38] Sudan’s ruling military general, Abdel Fattah Burhan during an interview in September 2022 expressed his intention to visit Israel to hasten the normalization process.[39] For Sudan, normalization with Israel was a key criterion to re-integrate the state with the international community. Israel’s normalization with Sudan has been slow due to the government’s instability in Khartoum and anti-Israeli sentiments among the Sudanese public.

Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on 20 June,[40] Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar on 27 July[41] and Israeli Army Chief Aviv Kohavi visited Rabat on 18 July. Both states have expressed interest to promote defence cooperation.[42] Military officials from both states signed military cooperation agreement in March 2022.[43] In June 2022, Israeli military observers attended the annual “African Lion” military exercise co-organized by Morocco and the US. Morocco maintained low level relations with Israel which has been upgraded following the Abraham Accords.[44]

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi hosted Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on 21 March. The Egyptian and the Emirati leaders agreed to expand bilateral talks on multiple issues including economic investments, Gulf security etc. According to the Israeli media outlets, the three leaders shared concern about the possibility of revival of nuclear deal between Iran and the western states.[45] Egypt was the first Arab state to sign peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979 followed by Jordan in 1994.

In a path breaking moment for Israel, Tel Aviv signed agreement with Lebanon on 27 October to demarcate the maritime boundary opening the possibility for offshore energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. While Lebanon officially does not recognise Israel, the treaty indicates that convergence of interests could facilitate diplomatic rapprochement. More Arab states are shedding their hesitance to initiate dialogue with Israel post-Abraham Accords. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the deal as political achievement stating that “it is not every day that an enemy state recognizes the State of Israel, in a written agreement in front of the entire international community”. Lebanese President Aoun denied that the agreement is indication of normalization of ties with the Jewish state calling the demarcation of the southern maritime border as technical work and does not have any political implications.[46]

Israel also held direct talks with Qatar to coordinate the arrival of Israeli and Palestinian football fans during the FIFA World Cup. Qatar also allowed direct flights from Tel Aviv and temporary office to provide consular support for its citizens during the tournament. Doha maintained that the flight arrangement is strictly temporary and does not indicate any intention towards normalization.[47] Israeli fans and journalists have reported sporadic cases of unfriendly behaviour from Arab as well as non-Arab visitors. Israeli government had urged its citizens visiting Doha to maintain low profile, hide any Israeli symbols such as Israeli flags and Stars of David and refrain from speaking Hebrew in public for the sake of personal safety. The public support for Palestinian cause was widely visible during the tournament.[48] The support of Palestinian issue among the Arab governments has dwindled over the years; however, public solidarity has remained intact.

Trends in Regional Conflicts
Yemen

In Yemen, the Houthi fighters clashed with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and carried out ground offensive against the forces under internationally recognised government based in Aden. On 3 January, seven Indians were taken hostages after Houthi forces seized an Emirati vessel, Rwabee near the coast of Hodeidah.[49] On 17 January, two Indians and one Pakistani national were killed after missiles and drone attack at an oil refinery in Abu Dhabi’s Musaffah Industrial city.[50] Houthis on 25 March conducted 16 drone attacks including an Aramco oil facility in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia retaliated by carrying out air raids destroying energy, electricity infrastructure in Sana’a and port infrastructure in Salif port. Saudi air raids killed around seven people. The Houthis after the attack offered ceasefire to Saudi Arabia as well as suspension of ground offensive against government-backed forces.[51] Eventually on 1 April, the UN brokered a two month truce between Houthis and the internationally recognised government in which both sides accepted to halt all offensive operations; allowing entry to fuel ships in Hodeidah region and commercial flights from Sana’a. The truce was further extended by another two months in early August.[52]

Notably, the exiled President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi resigned in April under Saudi pressure and transferred his powers to a new Presidential Council assigned to carry out negotiations with the Houthis to reach permanent ceasefire. The truce led to sharp drop in fighting and casualties. International charity, Save the Children noted a 60 percent decrease in displacement and a 34 percent drop in child casualties during the ceasefire period. The access to fuel through Hodeidah port led to reduction in prices of essential commodities and slight improvement in daily lives in Sana’a and other Houthi controlled territories. The ceasefire however expired in October due to differences over payment of salaries to public employees and slow progress in lifting blockade on Taiz by Houthis.[53] The clashes between Houthis and government aligned forces have resurfaced after the expiry of the truce. The UN and the US are seeking to revive political negotiations, create an atmosphere of permanent ceasefire and improve the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.

Libya

Libya continues to remain divided between Tripoli and Tobruk based governments in 2022. The planned December 2021 election was cancelled due to dispute over constitutional framework extending the political impasse. Tobruk based House of Representatives appointed former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha as the Prime Minister in February 2022. Earlier on 21 September 2021, House of Representatives passed no confidence motion on the unity government led by Hamid Dbeibeh.[54] On 17 May 2022, clashes intensified in Tripoli due to the arrival of Bashagha and Khalifa Haftar.[55] In the year’s deadliest incident, 32 people were killed and more than 159 were injured during clashes between the two warring sides in Tripoli on 27 August.[56] The clashes reappeared again in early September. Hamid Dbeibeh accused Bashagha of backing out of talks to resolve the crisis. In terms of peace initiative, Egypt hosted representatives from the two rival governments. However, fundamental differences have remained impeding the peace process. The UN envoy on Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily warned that the state could face the risk of partition in case of delay in elections.[57] The rival governments however have kept the platform for dialogue open and agreed to meet in Cairo in January 2023 to develop a clear and specified roadmap to complete the electoral process as well as framing laws, unification of state institutions etc.[58]

Syria

In Syria, President Bashar Al Assad with military assistance from Russia and Iran managed to consolidate control over large parts of the state. The humanitarian situation in the Arab state however has remained dire. The UN has noted that around 14.6 million Syrians depend on humanitarian assistance out of which, 12 million are facing acute food insecurity.[59] Assad backed fighters have gained significant ground in recent years and ordinary Syrians have complained about arbitrary detentions, roadblocks and kidnappings for ransom by these fighters. In Idlib, a former Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has retained control. Washington DC supported the status quo allowing Türkiye to maintain broader control coupled with US counter-terrorism raids and airstrikes.[60] On 3 February, the ‘second caliph’ of the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi blew himself up at a hideout in Idlib after being cornered by US Special Operations Forces.[61] His predecessor, Abu Bakr Baghdadi also killed himself in similar situation in 2019 in Idlib. The presence of high-profile Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda Idlib region has emerged as safe haven for global terrorism. HTS has attempted to model itself as a nationalist Islamic anti-regime force and assured that it is taking measures to crackdown Islamic State and Al Qaeda cells. Islamic State’s ‘third Caliph”, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was killed in Daraa province in mid-October by US backed Free Syrian Army. Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi has been named as the new leader of the terrorist group.[62]

Syria’s northern neighbour, Türkiye continued to maintain control over northern Syria and shielded HTS controlled Idlib from actions by the Syrian government forces to recapture the territory. Türkiye’s key objectives in Syria are to maintain status quo, curb the flow of refugees; preserve a zone of influence and thwart the activities of Syrian Kurdish groups. Turkish President threatened about a new military operation in two Syrian cities and establishing a 30 km security zone along the southern border. Türkiye following Istanbul bomb blast on 13 November that killed six people blamed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) for the attack. As part of retaliatory response, Türkiye attacked Kurdish bases in northern Syria killing around 31 people.[63]

Russia pushed for progress in Turkish-Syrian bilateral relations which remains overshadowed by proxy warfare and deep mistrust. In a clear sign of normalization, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) Chief, Hakan Fidan, met Syrian defence minister Ali Mahmoud Abbas; intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk along with Russian Defence minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on 28 December. The three sides discussed about solutions to resolve the crisis; refugee issue and efforts to jointly combat all terror organizations.[64] Türkiye’s increased coordination with Syrian government could subdue the gains made by Kurdish groups. Israel in 2022 continued its air raids on Iranian and Hezbollah targets including warehouses, research centers for upgrading missiles and drones located within Syrian territory.

As part of President Assad’s efforts to re-integrate Syria into the region, he visited the UAE on 18 March and met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. It was Assad’s first visit abroad since the 2011 civil war. The discussion between Assad and the Dubai ruler focussed on expanding circle of bilateral cooperation in terms of economy, commerce and investments. Both leaders also shared their views on areas of mutual concern about Syria’s territorial integrity and withdrawal of foreign forces.[65]

Israel-Palestine Conflict

The year 2022 has been one of the deadliest for Palestinians. Israeli forces killed at least 171 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2022 including more than 30 children.[66] In the same year, 27 Israelis have been killed in West Bank and Israel.[67] In early August, Israeli air raids in Gaza on Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) targets killed 49 Palestinians including 17 children. The conflict de-escalated due to truce mediated by Egypt. The crisis was short-listed because of Hamas’ non-involvement.[68] In the West Bank, the approval rating of the Fatah dominated Palestinian Authority is at an all-time low. The dissatisfaction with the PA has led to Palestinians opting for alternate groups that are willing to challenge Israel through violent means. In West Bank, a number of small armed resistance groups such as Jenin Brigades; Lions’ Den; Balata Brigades; Tubas Brigades and Yabad Brigades centered around Jenin and Nablus have appeared in 2022. These groups do not align themselves with any specific party or movement. They possess limited capabilities and combat activities involve clashes with Israeli forces and settlers.[69]

In 2022, Palestinians carried out several individual attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israeli forces responded by launching military campaign called “Break the Wave’ that involves frequent raids, mass arrests, killings etc.[70] The Israeli forces facing altercations during raids have killed several Palestinian civilians including teenagers and children. The number of attacks by Israeli settlers living in illegal settlements in the Occupied West Bank has increased, leading to deaths and destruction of agriculture and property. The Israeli forces on number of occasions supported and participated in the settler attacks on Palestinians.

China’s Inroads in 2022

China’s political and economic engagement in 2022 has been affected by slowdown in Chinese economy. The recurrent COVID-19 outbreaks, mobility restrictions, stress in real estate sector, regulatory crackdowns of Big Tech and other private entities etc. led to volatility and uneven growth across various sectors. According to the World Bank, the real GDP growth is expected to slow down to 2.7 percent in 2022 as compared to 8.1 percent in 2021.[71] The economy is expected to recover to 4.3 percent in 2023.[72] China also suffered economic effects of extreme weather events including floods, hailstorms, earthquakes, droughts, forest and grassland fires etc. amounting to loss worth US$ 13.13 billion.[73]

In the West Asian region, China’s engagement has been mixed in terms of diplomatic interactions, energy relations with oil producers and BRI partnerships. In January, China hosted the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and GCC Secretary General Nayef Falah M, Al-Hajraf.[74] Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also visited in January to launch the 25-year bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Agreement (CSA) signed in 2021.[75] The visits by high-ranking officials and delegations to and from the region depleted due to the multiple outbreaks of the Omicron variant. PRC Special Envoy to the Middle East Zhai Jun visited several Wet Asian states in 2022. Most ministerial and sub ministerial level meetings were conducted virtually due to the COVID-19 outbreaks.[76]

China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Saudi Aramco on 3 August to build long term relationships between both states and their existing joint ventures.[77] China signed agreement with Morocco on Joint Implementation Plan for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on 5 January to promote access to Chinese financing to build large scale projects, develop trade and joint ventures in industry, energy, R&D; vocational training and technological and technical cooperation. China is keen to leverage from Morocco’s geographical location, transform it into a trading hub and provide access for Chinese firms in Sub-Saharan African states and Northern Africa. [78] Syria signed an MOU on BRI on 11 January to open up the state to Chinese infrastructure projects and promote cooperation in exchange of goods, technology and capital.[79] In Egypt, China announced efforts to harmonize the BRI initiative with the Arab Republic’s 2030 Vision.[80] In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) foreign ministers meeting in Islamabad. He announced China’s plans to invest US$ 400 billion in over 600 BRI projects in the Muslim world.[81] However, the break-up of Chinese investments in the Muslim world was not released. It is likely that the amount has been exaggerated. China had promised similar investment commitment in Iran in 2021 which remains nowhere in sight. In first half of 2022, West Asian states who are part of the BRI project received the largest share of Chinese BRI engagement at around 33 percent. In total, the BRI and non-BRI states in the region, received 57 percent of China’s BRI investments in first half of 2022. Among the West Asian states, Iraq received third highest financing in terms of construction engagement with around US$ 1.5 billion in first half of 2022. During the same period, Saudi Arabia was the largest recipient with around US$ 5.5 billion in investment from China.[82]

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia between 6 and 8 December. Saudi Arabia is keen to expand its global alliances beyond its strategic partnership with the US. Xi Jinping’s last visit to Saudi Arabia was in 2016. Both states signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement and 20 bilateral deals worth US$ 29.26 billion. China and Saudi Arabia also signed 34 investment agreements in sectors such as green hydrogen, IT, transport and construction. Riyadh signed deal involving tech giant, Huawei Technologies to develop cloud computing, data centers and high tech complexes in Saudi cities. Jinping also attended the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh. The US warned that China’s attempts to expand its global influence are not conducive to the international order. The US security officials cautioned that equipment from Huawei could be used to interfere with fifth generation (5G) wireless networks and collect sensitive information.[83]

Elections and Appointments:
Return of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister

In Israel’s latest election held on 1 November, the right-wing parties i.e. Likud with 32 seats; Religious Zionist party with 14 seats; Shas with 11 seats; United Torah Judaism with 7 seats secured a majority of 64 seats in the 120 seat Knesset.[84] The election was held after Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid’s eight parties coalition government collapsed and it lost majority in Knesset. The coalition government also failed to pass crucial legislations indicating political paralysis.

The new grouping following the November 2022 election has been called as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history that could further worsen the status of Palestinians living in the occupied territories. The new Netanyahu government has announced that expansion of settlements and legalization of number of illegal settler outposts in Occupied West Bank as a top priority. Among the new cabinet members, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich from Religious Zionism Party has opposed Palestinian statehood, criticized LGBTQ activists and questioned the judiciary. The new National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir for far right Jewish Power Party was convicted of incitement to racism, destroying property, possessing propaganda material and supporting outlawed Kach group in 2007. He continued to indulge in provocations and stirring clashes with Palestinians.[85] The critics of the new government are worried that Netanyahu and his new cabinet could weaken Israel’s democratic tenets. The key agendas of the new government include priority to pass legislation allowing Knesset to override the Supreme Court decisions; amending an anti-discrimination law to allow doctors and other providers to refuse service to LGBTQ+ patients, Arabs and others if it violates their beliefs; amending the law to allow politicians to serve as minister in case of tax fraud convictions[86].

New Government in Iraq

Iraqi parliament dominated by Iran-backed Coordination Framework alliance after one year since national election in October 2021 approved a new President, Prime Minister and cabinet. On 13 October, the Coordination Framework led parliament elected Abdul Latif Rashid as the new President who appointed Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. On 27 October, the government of Prime Minister Al-Sudani received the confidence of the parliament with a majority of 253 MPs voted to appoint 21 ministers.[87] The political situation in Iraq remained in a state of flux due to the inability of the political parties to resolve their differences and approve a new government. The Sadrist bloc led by Muqtada Al-Sadr emerged as winner securing 73 seats in the 329 seat parliament.[88] The Sadrist bloc attempted to deviate from the traditional norm of forming national consensus government with Shiite parties to appoint the Prime Minister, reserved for members of the Shiite community. The attempts by the Sadrists; Kurdish Democratic Party and Sunni parties was repeatedly thwarted by Iran backed Coordination Framework composed of the Shiite parties including Fatah Alliance; Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and their Kurdish and Sunni allies. The political future of the oil rich Arab state continues to remain precarious further complicated by the influence of external actors especially Iran and the US.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appointed as Prime Minister

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) in September 2022 was appointed as the new Prime Minister after cabinet reshuffle ordered by King Salman. The Crown Prince is already the de-facto leader of the state who earlier held portfolios such as Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister. In terms of the current cabinet reshuffle, MBS’ younger brother, Khalid bin Salman was named as Defence Minister. Moreover, according to royal decree, the positions of Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan and Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih were reaffirmed[89]. The appointment of MBS as Prime Minister indicates the slow transition of power in the kingdom.

Parliamentary Election in Kuwait

On 20 September, election for the National Assembly was held in Kuwait. Earlier, on 2 August 2022, Kuwaiti Crown Prince Meshal al-Ahmad dissolved the parliament after months of in-fighting between the National Assembly and the government under Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al Sabah. The parliament also passed non-confidence votes on Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministers.[90] The fresh election led to defeat of several “pro-government” politicians. The Islamic Constitutional Movement affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Shiite bloc managed to increase its share in the 50 seat assembly. [91] Notably, 305 candidates participated in election as independents since political parties are banned from contesting polls. In terms of female participation, 22 women participated in the election and only two secured victory.[92]

Kuwait’s democratic institutions are fairly active as compared to other Gulf States. The political stability in the country is dependent on cooperation between the government and parliament. In case of stalemate, the Emir often resorts to cabinet reshuffles and dissolution of the parliament.

Presidential Council in Yemen

Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi on 7 April transferred his powers to an eight member Presidential Leadership Council that swore in on 17 April in Aden. The council is headed by Rashad al-Alimi and included head of Southern Transitional Council (STC), Aidarous al-Zubaidi and the governor of the Hadramout governorate, Faraj al-Bahsani. Hadi was criticized for his passive role in leading the government forces in fight against the Houthis. Al-Alimi assured that the council’s top priorities would be economic stability and alleviating the humanitarian situation.[93]

Prospects for 2023

In 2023, the GCC states and Iraq are likely to benefit from high prices in international energy market. The GCC states could optimize the high energy prices to carry out the economic diversification process towards non-energy sector. In Lebanon, Syria, Türkiye, Iran, Egypt, the high price pressures could affect economic growth and stability.[94] In Syria, the conflict is likely to remain frozen with Syrian government controlling large parts of the state. Türkiye will continue to maintain its dominant position in northern Syria for two reasons. Firstly, Türkiye by protecting HTS controlled Idlib could leverage its tactical understanding with both Russia and the US. Türkiye is also worried that any escalation between government forces and HTS could lead to another flow of refugees inside Turkish territory. Secondly, Türkiye through its presence could militarily dominate the Syrian Kurdish militias. It is likely that prior to the upcoming presidential and parliamentary election, the frequency of air raids over Kurdish targets could increase to instill nationalist sentiments that could benefit the incumbent leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Syria continues to remain crucial for Iran’s regional policy and its strategic presence is likely to remain constant. Syria could continue to serve as a proxy battleground for Iran and Israel. Israel’s new right-wing hawkish government could increase air strikes on Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian government targets.

In Libya, the fundamental differences between Tripoli and Tobruk based government have continued to remain unresolved. The new round of talks to develop a constitutional framework is encouraging. However, the likelihood of success of the new round of talks remains bleak. In case of a stalemate, clashes could resume further perpetuating the civil war for another year.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have failed to achieve its stated objective i.e. uprooting of the Houthis. Both states have suffered destruction of oil assets as well as attacks on airports and seaports since the war convened in 2015. Saudi Arabia in 2022 retaliated against Houthi offensive that only intensified the conflict and worsened the humanitarian crisis. The efforts by the UN have paid dividends after Aden based government and Houthis observed truce between April and October 2022. In 2023, the UN and the international community could ensure truce by allowing safe access to Houthi controlled Hodeidah port and civil aviation through Sana’a airport. The confidence building measures could elevate the sufferings of ordinary Yemenis living under a shadow of conflict for several years. However, all sides could utilize the new truce to consolidate its political and economic gains. In worst case scenario, Houthis could use the truce to re-arm itself for another round of fighting further extending the humanitarian crisis.

The arrival of the right wing government in Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu backed by controversial far right figures could add another layer of complexity in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The government’s policy to dilute the prospect of two state solution; entry of Israeli leaders and Jewish pilgrims to Al Aqsa compound; curbs on display of Palestinian flags; expansion of illegal settlements and legalization of illegal outposts; asymmetrical response to Palestinian agitation etc. could lead to increased tension. The prospect of political settlement and ending the occupation has become weaker. Moreover on the regional level, the gradual acceptance of Israel as a normal actor indicates a growing decline of the Palestinian agenda in national politics in most states. In Gaza, another round of rocket attacks and retaliatory strikes cannot be ruled out. As mentioned earlier, the dissatisfaction with the PA and the stalled peace process has led to mushrooming of small armed resistance groups that could increase its coordinated attacks on Israeli military and civilian assets. The hawkish policies by Israeli government could lead to explosion of violent acts in 2023.

Iran’s economy facing US sanctions has continued to destabilize leading to high unemployment, widespread inflation and growing national grievances despite reasonably high energy prices in the international market. The protest against the regime that began in September 2022 has continued unabated in January 2023. Ebrahim Raisi government in 2023 will face serious challenge from the nation-wide protests. In case the protest continues, the cracks within the institutions of the Islamic Republic are likely to widen, destabilizing the regime. The regime leadership and the security forces could apply harsher tactics including shootings, illegal arrests; unfair trail and mass executions to suppress the demonstrations and maintain the political status quo. The regime fearing destabilization could instigate a regional flare up to divert the attention of Iranian public. The prospect for revival of the JCPOA has been further weakened due to disagreements over the terms; continued sanctions; deterioration of ties with the US and the European states due to criticism over Iranian arms sales to Russia; harsh treatment to protestors, human rights abuses etc. Iran in this context could further deepen economic and strategic ties with Russia and China in 2023.

The US’ repositioning from the West Asian region to Asia-Pacific region; growing China’s inroads in the region and Russia’s position as a normal extra regional player could serve as a conduit for further strategic hedging by major powers in the region. The US is likely to remain the sole security guarantor in the region in the near future; however Gulf States will likely pursue a more independent foreign policy approach based on their self-interests.

Endnotes :

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[2]M. N. Katz, “Why America’s Middle Eastern allies haven’t condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine”,The Hill, February 28, 2022, at https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/596064-why-americas-middle-eastern-allies-havent-condemned-russias-war-in?rl=1 (Accessed December 29, 2022).

[3]Al Jazeera, “Italy signs energy deals with Algeria in bid to sidestep Russia”,Al Jazeera, July 19, 2022, at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/7/19/italy-signs-energy-deals-with-algeria-in-bid-to-sidestep-russia (Accessed December 30, 2022).

[4]J. Benny, “Slovenia to sign three-year gas contract with Algeria’s Sonatrach”, The National, November 15, 2022, at https://www.thenationalnews.com/business/energy/2022/11/15/slovenia-to-sign-three-year-gas-contract-with-algerias-sonatrach/ (Accessed December 30, 2022).

[5]P. Wintour, “Germany agrees 15-year liquid gas supply deal with Qatar”, The Guardian, November 29, 2022, at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/29/germany-agrees-15-year-liquid-gas-supply-deal-with-qatar(Accessed December 30, 2022).

[6]France 24, “France, UAE sign strategic deal to partner on energy projects”, France 24, July 18, 2022, at https://www.france24.com/en/france/20220718-energy-deals-top-agenda-as-uae-president-meets-macron-in-paris (Accessed December 30, 2022)

[7]O. Noyan, “Austria snags UAE gas deal, matching Germany’s”, Euractiv, October 28, 2022, at https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/news/austria-snags-uae-gas-deal-matching-germanys/ (Accessed December 30, 2022).

[8]M. Motamedi, “Rooted in NATO: Iran responds to Russia’s Ukraine attack”,Al Jazeera, February 24, 2022, at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/24/rooted-in-nato-inside-irans-response-to-the-ukraine-crisis-2 (Accessed December 30, 2022).

[9]A. Vatanka, “Iran’s response to the Ukraine crisis highlights internal divides”,Middle East Institute, February 28, 2022, at https://www.mei.edu/blog/special-briefing-middle-east-and-russian-invasion-ukraine (Accessed December 31, 2022).

[10]I. Koshiw, “Drone analysis in Ukraine suggests Iran has supplied Russia since war began”,The Guardian, November 10, 2022, at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/10/iranian-made-drones-supplied-to-russia-after-february-invasion-says-ukraine (Accessed January 1, 2023).

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[12]The Times of Israel, “100-ton Israeli shipment of humanitarian aid for Ukrainians arrives in Poland”,The Times of Israel, March 4, 2022, at https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/100-ton-israeli-shipment-of-humanitarian-aid-for-ukrainians-arrives-in-poland/ (Accessed January 2, 2023).

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(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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