Middle East 2008: The Year in Review

For internal circulation

19 December 2008

By Susan Macdougall

Summary of 2008

Attempting to summarize the entire year of 2008 over the span of the entire Middle East is no small task. That said, the Middle East boasts some perennially confounding and attention-grabbing conflicts, and those issues have been the reason for enough spilled ink this year to fill this section easily.

The peace process in Israel and Palestine continues to confound. The Annapolis conference, held in late November of 2007, provided a framework for the Bush administration’s efforts in the region throughout 2008, but the intractable divisions between Hamas and Fatah, Israel’s consistent expansion of settlements in the West Bank, the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the struggle to resolve questions like the right of return, Arab Israelis, and Jerusalem mean that Barack Obama will begin his presidency with a peace process further along that it was last year at this time, but not by a lot.

Libya is officially, fully back in the good graces of the United States government after normalizing ties with the United States government in 2006: the first US Ambassador to Libya in 36 years, Gene Cretz, was confirmed last month.

Syria’s government, along with Iran’s, took on a sort of litmus quality during the presidential election debates on whether to engage Bashar al Asad (and more importantly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) by way of diplomatic channels. The blustering seems a bit silly given that Israel and Syria have been engaged in indirect talks over the Golan Heights throughout the latter half of 2008 (although as of now the talks have been suspended pending the results of Israel’s upcoming elections in February).

Saudi Arabia continues to suppress human rights; a Saudi-style public demonstration (a hunger strike that took place in the protestors’ homes) this fall prompted further crackdowns on the part of the state. The Saudi’s counterterrorism efforts, however, received some positive attention from the New York Times and TIME magazine. The preference to rehabilitate jihadis, rather than simply let them rot in jail until they are released even angrier after several years, has at least not offended other governments; there are no longer any Saudi prisoners in Guantanamo.

This makes a sharp contrast with Yemen, whose management of those imprisoned for terrorism is sufficiently poor to justify keeping most of the Yemenis in Cuba for the time being. (Salim Ahmed Hamdan is not one of them – he was returned this November). The United States Embassy in Yemen was also attacked, or in the vicinity of attacks, twice this spring.

Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon each have their own blogs under FPA; detailed summaries of the events in those countries are better found there.

A favorite topic for human interest journalism this fall was soliciting Arab and Middle Eastern opinions on the American presidential election and president-elect, Barack Obama. Obama enjoys popularity everywhere at the point, largely because he isn’t George Bush, but the Middle Eastern voices that join the global welcoming chorus express a little more cynicism with respect to his ability – or will – to make any meaningful changes in policy, particularly with respect to the Palestinian cause. His selection of Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff raised eyebrows across the region because of Emmanuel’s Israeli origins. Silly? If Obama manages to solve the puzzle that is Palestine, then it will certainly be considered so. As long as that wound remains open and festering, things of this seemingly trivial nature will continue to ruffle feathers.

Impact of the Global Recession

Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how broadly or how deeply the global recession will impact the entire Middle East. It does not take a psychic to project that it will impact the poor across the region in an ugly way and the rich in a less painful fashion. The dramatic rise in oil prices midyear saw soaring revenues going to work in the Gulf countries, where new universities, cultural centers, hotels, and god knows what else seemed to be growing from the desert like rice from irrigated fields. Now, investors for those properties and initiatives are nervous about the anticipated demand drying up and leaving their investments worthless. Construction in the Emirates will certainly slow down; it remains to be seen how this will impact those projects, like Qatar’s Education City and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Riyadh, that are designed with a long-term presence in mind. (Which is not to say that hotels can be easily dissembled, but education and health are generally considered more recession-resistant than luxury commodities like hotels).

Beyond the wealthy areas of the Gulf, though, the drop in oil prices will hurt the Middle East. Many Arabs from less wealthy countries work in the Gulf doing menial tasks such as construction or working on oil rigs, and their salaries return to their home economies in the form of remittances and keep their families in bread and chickens. As oil revenues drop and production falls, which it certainly will, especially given the massive cut in production – OPEC’s largest ever – announced this week, families across the region will feel the impact of the global recession.

There is a trend among some pundits writing on the Middle East to see the global recession as an opportunity to break the cycle of rentierism in the Gulf and inspire creativity and opportunism in other, smaller and more protected economies like Egypt’s – I blogged about this trend here and here. I said in those two posts and will reiterate here that I think that “thinking positively” and “seeing this as an opportunity” is a little naive, and more than a little insensitive to the reality of poverty levels in many Middle Eastern countries. If the wealthy Emirati sheikhs have to forego building new hotels, then the Shia in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia will also suffer, and in a manner that could hardly be called “creative”. That said, to refuse to laud or recognize creative developments in this period would be equally counterproductive, and I hope that as the global economy scrambles to recover that Middle Eastern triumphs will occur frequently and be covered extensively in the news media. I’ll certainly do my part here.

Which event in the Middle East in 2008 deserved more coverage than it got?

I have always imagined that trying to report on the Middle East is a little like choosing volunteers from an auditorium full of kindegarteners. There are substantially more volunteers than are needed to fill whatever space is available onstage, and the best way to manage that fact is to simply choose the pushiest ones day after day. These are typically anything Palestine/Israel, anything about Iraq, anything about al Qaeda, and on Fridays, anything about women and the veil – these issues dominate front pages everywhere. Those events typically given short shrift are human rights issues, like the treatment of domestic workers from South Asia across the Middle East, or the lifestyles of minority communities like Copts in Egypt, Chaldean Christians in Iraq, or Shia in Saudi Arabia.  All of these issues are important, and deserve more coverage.

Commonly held misconceptions about the Middle East include …

… the tendency to see all the Arab countries as a unit, with the same culture and the same political environment and the same history. All of the Arab countries do have Islam in common, and many of them are arid … and they all have governments that are at least some degree of authoritarian, but that is where the blanket similarities stop. Therefore, when writing about trends in the Middle East, such as the Islamic revival or the rise of fundamentalism, or the impact of rising oil prices, one certainly runs the risk of attributing qualities to some countries that are not necessarily true or of failing to identify the source of the changes appropriately and mistakenly calling something a Middle Eastern trend when it is more accurately termed either a global trend or an Islamic trend. For example, Morocco and Yemen will not benefit – nor will the suffer – from oil price fluctuations in nearly the same way as will the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And Europe’s problem with Islamic fundamentalism is similar to Pakistan’s problem with it as is Egypt’s problem with it. So, concisely, be skeptical of any analysis that uses ‘the Middle East’ as its unit. (Including this blog!)

Forecast for 2009

If I had the power to make predictions for 2009 in the Middle East with any certainty, then I would not be writing here for free and giving them away! This is a region that perpetually shocks and surprises. However, there are certain trends that we can anticipate continuing: as the global economic crisis continues, there will be destabilization in those countries where the government maintains its legitimacy through giving handouts to its citizens. (Ahem, Saudi Arabia/UAE, followed by the GCC). Those countries that are too poor to maintain their legitimacy by giving handouts to their citizens and who also have credible Islamist oppositions, Egypt being a prime example, Morocco, and perhaps Jordan (although Jordan’s economy is probably secure as long as the United States remains in Iraq) will probably also experience destabilization as a result of the economic turmoil as the opposition groups consolidate their dominance in the social services arena.

I would also anticipate a very un-radical approach by Barack Obama to Middle East diplomacy at the outset of his administration, and moderation – and its necessary maintenance of the status quo with respect to Israel and Palestine as well as a host of other issues, will lead to rapid disillusionment, if that has not taken place already.

Foreign Policy Association, New York – 18 Dec 08

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