2015, the year of damage control in the Mideast

There are no signs that 2015 will be a year of decisiveness or breakthroughs in our region

Jamal Khashoggi
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There are no signs that 2015 will be a year of decisiveness or breakthroughs in our region. The disasters of 2014 and of previous years will stay in 2015 and the most we can hope for is to “contain the damage” as much as possible.

Let's begin with the first Arab concern: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). No one has volunteered or promised to defeat the militant group this year. Therefore, it will stay and we hope it will not expand. Liberating Iraq's Mosul is not yet on anyone's agenda but what is important is for Baghdad or Erbil not to fall. Therefore, the struggle will go on in the miserable Sunni cities in central Iraq (Ramadi, Hit and Baiji) and its people will lack security and stability.

The war and the dispute will thus continue between ISIS and Baghdad's army and militias supported by their American allies and the Iranians. 2015 may witness both the United States and Iran coming out of the Iraq holding hands. This depends on the more important issue between them: the negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program which will be resumed in mid-2015. That really leaves only us with keeping an eye out for ISIS in Iraq. There are no anticipated structural reforms, no new projects and no change in the government. Perhaps, events will push toward constitutional reforms to satisfy the Sunnis of Iraq and gain them as allies.

Raging war

Although it’s unlikely for the map to change in Iraq, it will change in Syria this year as the war there is raging and there’s no secure or fortified zone even in Damascus. ISIS, which has become the second power after the regime, is well-armed and its members are many. So where will it strike again? Will it strike the Nusra Front and the rest of the rebels or will it head south toward regime strongholds? My guess is that their next battle will be against the Nusra Front as ISIS and its caliph are playing the roles of Saladin and Zangi and, therefore, their target will be “uniting ranks and getting rid of apostates and traitors before confronting the infidel enemy.” This latter phrase is not my own but what ISIS has previously said.

There are no signs that 2015 will be a year of decisiveness or breakthroughs in our region

Jamal Khashoggi

The world has gotten used to the deteriorating Syrian situation and lost interest in it. Therefore, there will be no great initiative to end the struggle – at least there will be no greater initiative than what the Russians are for example doing via the negotiations to be held in Moscow at the end of this month. These negotiations will be between an opposition and a government which no one chose and will most probably yield no results.

Saudi Arabia, the most influential country in the region, wishes it had stayed away from all this but it cannot. It tried to fix whatever could be fixed in the past years and failed. Therefore, there is nothing left but a policy of "damage control" by first protecting its security and then tending to its major issue – the economy, which is totally dependent on the price of the barrel of oil. I expect it will try to adjust the following formula: resuming government expenditure that drives the national economy and resuming massive projects that have distinguished the era of King Abdullah while providing guidance. If Saudi Arabia succeeds at that, it will limit the damage from the fall in oil prices and thus protect its reserves which it wants intact as it represents a reassurance to both officials and citizens.

Protecting the country

After achieving this formula, the kingdom will resume protecting the country from the repercussions of the collapse happening around it. The kingdom will also continue to improve the circumstances of resuming its regional role and restoring "joint Arab action" – a phrase whose meaning is beautiful but is in fact empty and means nothing when put to the test. Can joint Arab action topple ISIS or Bashar al-Assad or end Iran’s expansion in the region? Of course not. Arab countries involved in this joint Arab action are weak and can barely save themselves, let alone save others. Will the Saudi kingdom, therefore, look for another ally capable of acting?

What about the safe Bahrain, which will continue to be safe as its biggest neighbor is concerned it stays that way? International alliances have also ensured Bahrain remains safe but the latter, like others, does not expect a breakthrough this year. The government there is convinced that the opposition will not accept any concessions and middle-ground solutions because such decisions are made in Tehran. Therefore, I expect the government to continue to be strict until the opposition moderates and restores its decision-making capability. Meanwhile, Bahrain needs a policy of containing the damage of the situation which refuses to improve. Most of this damage is economic and containing it requires creative "marketing and administrative" ideas. The problem in Bahrain is no longer political but economic.

As for Kuwait, it’s the most worthy of the policy of "damage containment" as the disputes and controversy between the ruling power and the opposition have shaken Kuwaitis’ confidence in the future and of their government’s performance. However, no one is willing to take a brave decision. What matters now is for the situation not to get worse and to keep all disputes under control until the people get bored or until summer comes and everyone heads off for their vacations or until God "accomplishes a matter that had already been destined."

Qatar does not have domestic problems or economic challenges. Thanks to gas, which was not affected by the situation of oil, Qatar will continue to do what it does: holding a thousand sticks from its center and betting that its reading of history is the best.

Damage containment

Egypt is the country that needs the best "damage containment" experts as everything is possible in that country. The “ruling party” is hesitant and incapable of going to the past, which it knows it has ended, but it’s also afraid of moving toward the future where there’s democracy and the parliamentary elections, which it fears even though it holds all the cards. Elections were supposed to be held quickly after the ouster of President Mohammad Mursi in the summer of 2013. However, they were postponed several times. The current set time, until further notice, is March. What matters then is how will the ruling party ensure a parliament without real opposition and how will the economy improve without foreign support and how will it stop domestic squander? How will the economy be liberated? How will jobs be provided and how will the pace of production increase?

There are no real ideas to resolve problems. It’s just another year to be wasted. What matters is for the state to stay.

In Turkey, its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, continues to scold the world but does not do anything himself. All he cares about is for the economic growth there to continue after the glare of the miracle it achieved during the past decade decreased. What he also cares about is to protect Turkey from the struggles of his neighbors in the south- i.e. ISIS and the Kurds. There might be two surprises. The first one is an agreement with the United States regarding a no-fly zone in Turkey and which thus "involves" the Turks there and Erdogan would stop talking and start acting. The second is linked to the first one and it’s a Turkish initiative toward Saudi Arabia aimed at launching discussions for wider arrangements in the region in order to stop this situation of continuous decrepitude.

Jordan has enough as it is. It couldn't contain the million Syrian refugees like Turkey, with the massive economy of trillions, did. There's no fear the ISIS mentality will transfer to it and this was signified by the national unity which mobilized over the disaster of the F16 jet that was downed in Syria and whose pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh was captured by ISIS. Jordan and the remaining coalition countries who declared war on ISIS don’t want a repeat of these incidents, which will eventually drag them toward a bigger and more direct confrontation with ISIS.

Jordan, of course, hopes the war in Syria will end as the really negative repercussions of the latter have begun appearing. However, there's nothing Jordan can do and it all it has left is the policy of "damage containment” – a policy Jordan has been good at since day one.

Libya, whose wounds have exhausted it, needs to rest by officially announcing it’s in a state of civil war as perhaps this may push the world to intervene to end the war. Until now no one has agreed what the war there is and who is fighting who and why the Libyans are fighting.

In Yemen, the arguments will continue until all parties tire and until the Houthis realize they cannot rule Yemen alone. More national dialogue sessions and tribal reconciliation sessions will be witnessed this year. It’s the era of returning to traditions. Iran will continue to support the Houthis as they are the last of their successful investments in the region. Saudi Arabia will settle with issuing statements in support of the Gulf initiative and the fragile presidency after it lost its special role in Yemen following the Houthis’ victory and its decision to announce them and the Brotherhood as terrorist organizations. How can you be a mediator among terrorists?

Tunisia, Morocco and Oman are in good condition and I think these three countries don’t want to be part of this article.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on January 3, 2015.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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