Perhaps the main headline in 2022 was the Russian forces’ entry to Ukraine. Few had imagined the war would come back knocking on Europe’s doors, several decades after the last bullet of WWII was fired in May 1945. Unless resolved, belligerently or peacefully, the war will be the compass this year (and in the coming ones, too). After driving Europeans back into America’s arms and drawing China closer to Russia, the war will shape what’s to come in this new year, and beyond, perhaps.
Signs of the Cold War are increasingly more visible, as states take sides in line with their major interests. Following WWII, the Europeans resolved their disputes either by mutual agreement or by disregard. Borders were drawn, agreements were signed, and soon the continent headed toward a common path of cooperation that culminated with the establishment of the European Union. But all these arrangements were suddenly on the line on that cold day in late February of last year when Russian tanks crossed the borders into Ukraine.
The Russians swept the country in the name of historical rights and supreme security requirements. The leaders of Western Europe believe the invasion is part of a bigger plan, whose next victim, they fear, will be none other than themselves. The crisis will likely mushroom to a point where its exorbitant costs will force the two parties to reconcile.
In parallel, the Chinese American disputes in waters and markets are still casting its shadows on international relations and deepening rifts across the globe.
The Ukraine conflict is fueling the Cold War, while China’s determined expansion of its international activities heralds a new world order. Here are the major states scrambling today to establish a foothold in the Middle East and Africa in a bid to secure resources and passages in this international race.
The Russians will dive deeper into Ukraine as they fight off the 30 states that make up the NATO. The war will probably continue until the last mile.
On the Beijing-Washington front, things don’t look promising either.
In any case, what matters to us is the impact on our region. We can only hope to see major states racing to join solutions instead of regional conflicts. For instance, Moscow is inching closer toward Tehran, which has become a key supplier of the former’s air forces in Ukraine with its Shahed drones. The route it is establishing to the Bandar Abbas port south of the Gulf will be a passage for all kinds of goods. But this development in the relation between the two countries does not make Russia an ally of the Iranian regime yet, as Moscow still maintains ties with Riyadh and the other Gulf capitals.
A striking political move was Saudi Arabia’s hosting of two separate regional summits with the world’s two greatest powers, one with the US President in Jeddah in July, and another with the Chinese President in Riyadh in December. The two summits reflected the intensity of the international race for oil, passages, markets, weapons, and alliances.
As for Iran, Biden may have announced that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran deal is formally known, is dead, but the negotiations will likely return. The Iranian regime is at its weakest on both the economic and political fronts. The protests have not stopped, and the leadership’s only way out of its trouble is concessions on the nuclear dossier, which happens to be the most important for major states. Who knows, this might be a different year for Iranians, with policy changes that reduce some of the heavy tensions they are languishing beneath.
Oil is back as a major player this year. With the Ukraine war, the sanctions on Russia, and the recovery of the Chinese market, every barrel will become more expensive and have more political impact. This will position the Gulf countries back at the center of the game after the region was marginalized as the focus became centered on China.
At the regional level, we will inherit quite a lot from the previous years, including the Yemen war and the situation in Libya and Syria. Lebanon will remain in the eye of the storm. The situation in Sudan will not resolve despite the army handing over most powers; the people in the streets will fail to reach the parliament and seek to upset the very democracy they call for. Amid the fast global developments, Syria remains in place, convinced that the world has done it wrong and must ask for pardon.
Meanwhile, the wave of Saudi economic change and development is pushing the region toward positive competition in terms of legislations, programs, projects, and production; and this should be the focus: positive economic competition. Happy new year.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.