Good, bad and the ugly

The possible resolution of Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, or otherwise, will determine future relations between the GCC countries and Iran.

The hazardous journey of hundreds of thousands of Syrians to Europe epitomised the desperate state of affairs in West Asia in 2015.

At the other end of the spectrum, a coalition of Tunisian unionists, employers, lawyers and human rights activists won the 2015 Nobel peace prize for preventing the Jasmine revolution from sliding into chaos like the other Arab uprising countries. Between these extremes lay a multitude of gains and losses.

The economies weathered the first full year of declining oil prices, which slipped from $115 a barrel in June 2014 to an 11-year low of $36 a barrel in December 2015. This has left, for example, Saudi Arabia searching for economic reforms much earlier than it would have liked to and forced Oman to hike corporate taxes and consider removing fuel subsidies.

Positively, however, forward-planning economic diversification during the last 15 years held other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, in better stead. 

Politically, the region witnessed several elections with Turkey voting twice to break a political logjam and Egypt, too, voted to choose its parliamentarians. In the GCC countries, the UAE and Oman carried forward their political participation experiments.

Saudi Arabia allowed women to vote and contest for the first time in the municipal polls, which ensured the election of 20 women. Providing further evidence of women’s empowerment, Qatari women made history by winning two seats in the municipal election.

Another significant development was the generational leadership reshuffle in Saudi Arabia, following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. With King Salman naming Mohammed bin Nayef as the next in command in the hierarchy, a grandson (not son) of the founder of the Kingdom is now the crown prince for the first time in the country’s history.

In terms of the wider regional and international political developments, the century-old Palestine-Israel conflict remained resistant to any attempt towards resolution. A French initiative to revive the “dead” peace process through a UN Security Council resolution was dismissed as a “dictate” by Israel.

The scourge of the Islamic State (IS) not only hogged regional headlines, but attracted international attention too. Its deviant ideology, radical propaganda and bloodthirsty actions deepened sectarian wounds in the region. How the regional–especially Turkey, which has half-heartedly dealt with IS because of the Kurdish issue–and international coalitions deal with this menace will determine the road ahead for the region.

Both IS and a lack of political will to implement a raft of political and economic reforms unleashed by Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi meant Iraq faced problems across all realms, including the possibility of disintegration. Iraqi forces claiming Ramadi back from IS a few days ago is perhaps the only cheer-worthy development.

The year, however, ended on an optimistic note with regard to Syria. A conference meant to unite Syrian rebel factions fighting against President Bashar al-Assad ended in an agreement in Riyadh, despite some groups pulling out and several disputes along the way.

This became possible following a meeting in Vienna in November, when 17 countries decided that a unified and internationally backed rebel coalition was the best way to ensure a diplomatic solution to the war. While it has been largely agreed that Bashar will be part of the negotiations that are expected to start in early 2016, it is inconclusive if he will still be there by the end of it.

This development was partly conditioned by Russia’s sudden return to the “big game,” with President Vladimir Putin launching a military and diplomatic offensive in Syria. While being pro-Bashar, Russia’s intervention in the four-year war has been masked as “anti-terrorist” or anti-IS. Irrespective of Moscow’s real agenda, there is no doubt that Russia’s entry served as a fresh impetus to finding a way out of the diplomatic and military impasse in Syria.

Road to recovery
Egypt, however, continued on its tentative road to recovery. Economic and political stakes of several GCC countries are high in this populous and strategically important nation.

According to a recent Standard & Poor’s Rating Services report, Egypt will “largely remain politically stable and its economy will continue to progressively grow in the face of important macroeconomic headwinds.”

The effort to resolve Yemen’s quagmire continues with the help of an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Warring parties wrapped up peace talks in Switzerland in December without a major breakthrough, but are expected to meet again in January.

The possible resolution of both Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, or otherwise, will determine the future relations between the GCC countries and Iran.

This assumes importance after the United States and five other world powers signed a nuclear deal with Iran to end “decades of animosity” with and international isolation of the Islamic republic. It also pushes to the margins the spectre of war with Iran, which reared its ugly head umpteen times during the last 15 years.

Even if these two different, but inter-related, relationships improve marginally, there would be room in the long run to recalibrate the region’s security architecture — from being US-centric to evolving a collective security mechanism. Herein lies the possibility of greater peace and stability in the region not just in 2016 but for much longer.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst, author and honorary fellow of the University of Exeter)

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