6 March 2020

Will the Middle East Explode in 2020?

While the Middle East is known for conflict and upheaval, the level of risk in that region appears to be rising even further in 2020. Much of this is the result of factors that led to, and emerged from, the Arab Spring that began almost a decade ago. Since then, the region has been beset by political instability and a growing sense of frustration among large segments of the Middle East’s population. Since oil prices fell in 2014, leading to a sharp decline in the overall level of economic growth and job creation in the region, these tensions have risen to even higher levels. Worse, it appears that the level of unrest in the Middle East could yet rise much further, meaning that the region could be on the brink of an unprecedented level of violence and unrest this year.

Recent Instability

The Middle East, in this case the region stretching from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, is currently experiencing a high degree of instability, with more than half of the countries that comprise this region currently experiencing some form of conflict or internal unrest. Some examples are:

  • Algeria: The ousting of long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019 and the election of a new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, late last year has done little or nothing to assuage popular anger against the continuing domination of the “pouvoir” in Algeria.
  • Libya: The ongoing civil war in Libya is dragging in more foreign powers, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates openly backing the forces of General Haftar Khalifa as they attempt to seize control of the country from its internationally-recognized government that is backed militarily by Turkey.
  • Syria: The civil war in Syria may be entering its final phase, but the Syrian government still does not exert much control over many areas of the country, with Kurdish militias, the remnants of the Islamic State, Turkish armed forces and others still controlling large areas of the country.
  • Israel-Palestinian Territories: The potential for yet another round of violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians remains very high as the economic situation in the Palestinian territories continues to worsen and as Israel’s political gridlock shows no signs of being resolved.
  • Yemen: The civil war in Yemen continues to rage, with Houthi rebels (backed by Iran) still in control of much of northern and central Yemen. In contrast, the withdrawal of the UAE from the Saudi-led coalition that backs the Yemeni government has further fragmented the forces battling the Houthis.
  • Iraq: The recent unrest in Iraq and the threat by the Iraqi government to expel all foreign forces from that country highlights just how fragile the security situation continues to be in Iraq, with rival powers such as the United States and Iran vying for influence there and with militants still active in some areas of the country.
  • Iran: The United States’ recent decision to increase the pressure on Iran by tightening economic sanctions and killing its most powerful military commander has raised the spectre of a potential conflict involving the US, Iran and potentially other countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia.

These are just some of the many flashpoints that currently exist in the Middle East and are threatening to destabilize the region in the coming months. Unfortunately, a resolution for any of these situations appears unlikely at present.

Outside Powers in the Middle East

As the Middle East descends into an even greater degree of instability and unrest, outside powers are becoming more active in the region, either as a means of securing their own interests there, or to prevent the unrest in the Middle East from spilling to adjacent regions. Some of these outside powers include:

  • The United States: The US currently has more than 50,000 troops stationed at bases across the Middle East (not including an additional 14,000 troops in Afghanistan) and is actively involved in efforts to destroy the remnants of the Islamic State and to weaken Iran’s growing influence in the region.
  • China: At the moment, China’s presence in the Middle East is extremely limited, but given its dependence upon oil imports from the region, it is likely that China will play an increasing role in the region in the years ahead. The growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean is likely a sign of things to come for China.
  • Russia: Russia returned to the Middle East in a big way in recent years, highlighted by its decisive role in enabling the Syrian government to hold on to power when it appeared that it was on the brink of losing Syria’s civil war. Now, Russia is increasingly involved in Libya’s civil war and may be eyeing other opportunities.
  • Europe: The migration crisis in previous years opened many European eyes to the dangers posed by the unrest and conflicts in the Middle East and since then, Europe’s focus has been on preventing more waves of migrants from departing the Middle East and Africa for Europe.
  • Turkey: In recent years, Turkey has moved decisively to regain some of its lost influence in the Middle East. Initially, these efforts were focused on securing Turkey’s dangerous southern border regions as conflicts raged in Syria and Iraq, but increasingly, Turkey is seeking to play a larger role further abroad.

It is clear that, given its strategic location and its vast energy resources, the Middle East continues to attract the attention of outside powers. As power vacuums have emerged in many areas of the Middle East, this situation is unlikely to change, and the Middle East could become the flashpoint that brings outside powers into conflict with one another.

Factors for this Unrest

There are a number of factors that have been behind the recent unrest and violence in the Middle East, some of which have been in place for a long time, but others that have come to the fore only recently. These include:

  • Internal divisions: Too many countries in the Middle East have borders that were drawn by outside colonial powers and that left a legacy of countries that struggle to overcome deep internal religious or ethnic divisions. As these divisions have hardened, many states have descended into open conflict or harsh repression.
  • Regional rivalries: While open alliance systems generally do not exist in the Middle East, it is clear that some countries and entities have aligned themselves with like-minded partners. A good example of this is the hardening divisions between a Saudi-led bloc, on one side, and an Iranian-led bloc on the other.
  • Demographics: While birth rates in most areas of the Middle East have fallen dramatically in recent decades, the populations of most countries in this region continue to rise, despite a lack of resources and jobs. Worse, population growth in the poorest areas of the region, such as Yemen, remains quite high. 
  • Resources: The Middle East’s rising population means that the competition for the region’s relatively scarce land and water resources is intensifying and this has proven to be a key factor in many of the conflicts that have taken place in the region in recent decades.
  • Economic slowdown: Since 2014, the total economy of the Middle East has grown by a yearly average of just 2.4%, a rate of growth barely above the region’s rate of population growth. In fact, over the past three years, this average rate of economic growth has fallen to just 1.5%, fueling discontent across the region.

These factors and others would be difficult for any region to overcome. However, given the fragile state of stability and security in the Middle East, it is clear to see that the fact that these factors have all come together at the same time could be too much to bear for the region.

Flashpoints to Watch in 2020

As we look towards the remainder of 2020, we can see a large number of flashpoints that could spark wider conflict and unrest in the region. These include:

  • Iraq: The recent escalation in tensions between the United States and Iran, and the Iraqi parliament’s call for foreign troops to leave Iraq, could result in an eruption of sectarian violence in Iraq, or even a revival of the Islamic State militant group that once controlled a wide swathe of Iraqi territory.
  • Syria: While the Syrian government hopes that it can soon retake the Idlib province from rebel forces, many areas of the country remain outside of its control. The fact that US, Russian and Turkish armed forces remain on Syrian territory also means that they could come into contact with one another at some point.
  • Yemen: As Yemen’s civil war shows no signs of coming to an end, there is a possibility that Saudi forces will be withdrawn from the country, even if Houthi rebels remain in control of Sana’a and other areas of the country. This could lead to the permanent division of Yemen into rival states.
  • Libya: Turkey’s recent deployment of troops to Libya to defend that country’s internationally-recognized government could bring them into conflict with rebel forces that are backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (and to a lesser degree, Russia). 
  • Israel-Palestinians: Israel’s internal political problems could be overshadowed by a new outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. Meanwhile, if Israel moves to annex more areas of the West Bank, including the Jordan River Valley, a major conflict could erupt.
  • Egypt: Political tensions inside Egypt remain dangerously high, as anger towards the President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi mounts. Given Egypt’s large population (98 million) and its strategic location, a collapse of order in Egypt would have profound implications for the rest of the Middle East.
  • Gulf oil: The recent clashes between the United States and Iran, and the high level of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, highlight the vulnerability of oil and gas supplies from the Gulf region. Should a full-scale conflict erupt, oil and gas exports from the Gulf would be disrupted, causing major economic problems.

This large number of flashpoints is an indicator of just how dangerous the Middle East is for global security. With so many potential conflicts in the region, it is difficult to see how the Middle East can achieve the longer-term stability it needs to improve its economic and security situation.

A Dangerous Year

Overall, the chances for 2020 to be a more stable and secure year for the Middle East are slim at best. Once again, the economic outlook for the region is poor and this will fuel popular anger and frustration in many countries, as we have already seen in Iran, Iraq and other places in recent months. As too few jobs are created, and as the region’s meagre land and water resources are stretched ever more thinly, competition for jobs and resources will intensify. Likewise, too many countries in the region currently have little or no central authority due to years of conflict and unrest and it is easy to see how the conflicts inside these failed states could spread to other areas of the Middle East in 2020. Add to this the fact that 2020 could be the year in which the United States dramatically scales back its presence in the region, and the possibilities for more conflicts erupting are quite significant. As a result, the Middle East will remain a region located in an incredibly strategic location, but one that is cursed by conflict, unrest and popular anger. In fact, 2020 could prove to be a breaking point for this most vital region.