A man carries a wounded child in the town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Jan. 6, 2018. (Reuters File Photo)

The Middle East in 2022: A fly in amber

With the world's attention diverted by the Russia-Ukraine war throughout the year, the Middle East was not at the top of the international political agenda in 2022

Although the Middle East is the most geopolitical, geostrategic, geoeconomic and geo-cultural region in the world, it was not at the top of the agenda of international politics in 2022.

The world focused on the Russia-Ukraine war, which began in February 2022, throughout the year. The ongoing war in Ukraine has influenced not only the warring sides but also the whole world. Especially due to its direct and indirect impact on the export of grain and wheat, as well as gas from Russia, the war has caused global crises, namely food and energy crises.

When looking at the developments in the Middle East, we can analyze the events under the following three titles: two significant regional developments, the continuation of regional normalization and the stalemate in regional crises.

World Cup and the Iranian protests

Two major developments in the region were the FIFA World Cup organization held in Qatar’s Doha and the anti-regime protests in Iran in the second half of the year. Probably, the most visible and wide-ranging development in the Middle East was the World Cup 2022. Last year’s World Cup was an organization with many firsts. First of all, this was for the first time that a Muslim, Arab and Middle Eastern country hosted the World Cup. Second, this was the first time that the matches were played in November and December, not in the summer months. Third, this was the costliest organization ever. This was the first time that such an amount of money, an estimated $230 billion, was spent on an organization. Fourth, despite many Orientalist attacks from Western countries, the organization overall was a great success. The Qatari state has shown the world that a Muslim and Arab state can handle such a large organization. Thus, Qatar’s success countered the critics.

The second most visible and politically significant regional development was the protests in Iran, which lasted for months during the second half of the year. The wave of protests that started after Mahsa Amini, a young Iranian woman who was detained by the morality police on the grounds that she did not cover her head in accordance with the law and died while in custody, lasted much longer than expected. Maybe it did not reach the level that would bring down the regime, but it was a process that shook the regime deeply and its effects still continue. More than 1,000 people have lost their lives due to the harsh intervention of the security forces. Thousands of people were put in prisons and some of them were executed by the government. The protests have caused global-scale protests against the Iranian regime for violations of basic human rights. For the first time, Iran’s diaspora living in the West gathered huge crowds to criticize the Iranian government in Western capitals.

Normalization steps

The normalization process in the Middle East, which started at the beginning of 2021, continued in 2022 with different and widening dimensions. The normalization process between Arab countries has deepened in 2022. In particular, the picture taken at the opening ceremony of the World Cup has consolidated Arab solidarity. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi were next to the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and his father. This was an important political message to the world.

In this organization, which was crowned with great diplomatic success by Sheikh Tamim, psychological barriers were broken in the eyes of both politicians and the public, and it was a kind of return to the old friendly days.

The normalization process between Türkiye and the regional countries continued. The normalization process that Türkiye started with the Gulf states has also deepened. High-level important visits were made between the Türkiye and the Gulf states. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made two visits to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2022. While the first was a planned visit, for the second one, he visited the country to attend the funeral of the deceased UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. President Erdoğan also paid visits to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

On the other hand, during the World Cup Opening Ceremony, he surprisingly met with el-Sissi, through the mediation of Sheikh Tamim. This meeting marked an important turning point in the normalization process between Türkiye and Egypt.

Mutual high-level visits were held in the context of the normalization process between Türkiye and Israel. Israeli President Isaac Herzog paid an official visit to Ankara in March. In addition, the Israeli foreign and defense ministers held meetings in Türkiye. In response to this, two different visits were made by the Turkish side. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and critical senior bureaucrats visited Israel. The normalization of diplomatic relations was completed after the exchange of ambassadors between the two countries.

Similarly, Türkiye has taken important steps to normalize diplomatic relations with other regional countries, including Syria. Particularly in the last month of the year, the first ministerial talks between Türkiye and Syria, with the mediation of Russia, have initiated a new process in bilateral relations. It seems that additional meetings will be held between the two sides in the coming weeks and months.

Regional crises

It is quite easy to claim that the regional crises and problem areas in the Middle East have generally been frozen and there has been a year without much change. First of all, the situation in Yemen, which is one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world today, has not changed. In Yemen, which the international community has largely forgotten, millions of people are facing a serious disaster due to the ongoing civil war on the one hand, and environmental problems, famine and diseases on the other.

There is also a standstill in the Syrian crisis. The country has been fragmented between the Bashar Assad regime, the opposition and the PKK’s Syrian branch, the YPG, since the civil war erupted over a decade ago and this status quo is still in place. Since the regional and global states involved in the crisis such as Russia and the United States turned their attention to other regions such as Eastern Europe, there was no significant change in the Syrian crisis. Similarly, political, economic and social problems in Iraq have continued.

The government in Iraq remained stagnant, and hence political instability has continued. The Iraqi state has remained divided between Iran and its U.S. and regional partners. Although Abdul Latif Rashid was elected as the president and a new government was formed, political and economic fragility in the country has continued.

Unfortunately, the Libyan civil war is getting deeper and more complex. Some important steps were taken in 2022, but they did not lead to a serious change in the general situation. The elections planned for December 2021 could not be held. Therefore, the de facto territorial and political division and deadlock in the country have continued. Alongside the legitimate prime minister, Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, opposition figures such as putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar, House Speaker Aguila Saleh and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha maintained their dominance in the country.

[Daily Sabah, January 1 2023]

In this article