Top 5 Middle East Issues to Follow in 2019

Top 5 Middle East Issues to Follow in 2019
1.33 11

Published January 2nd, 2019 - 08:00 GMT via

Rate Article:

PRINT Send Mail
comment (0)
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)


The Middle East saw the Syrian war winding down and war in Yemen gearing up, geopolitical axes tilting, shifting and hardening, and a slow-burning crisis of U.S. soft power in 2018. Here’s a breakdown of the major issues to watch out for in 2019 that are likely to generate waves of headlines.

Many of the trends in the Middle East are interlinked with one another, so we’ll try to isolate them as much as possible for the sake of understanding their individual mechanics.

As the new year begins, here’s a primer for the issues that could dominate the Middle East, in no particular order.


1. Syria’s Stabilization and Bashar al-Assad’s governance

A propaganda poster for Assad lies among ruins in Syria (AFP/FILE)

In 2018, Assad and his allies/auxiliary paramilitary forces retook some of the last bastions of armed opposition, all but secuting not only his regime’s survival but doing so without making any discernible concessions to the opposition. The war, in other words, is turning into a decisive victory for Assad.

In 2019, eyes will turn to his strategy for governing those territories, which were once strongholds of anti-Assad sentiment. With the short time his regime has had control of these territories, it appears he will rule with as iron-fisted a grip as the one he held to inspire the revolt in the first place.

Reporters have found that he has already begun quietly disappearing NGO workers, former rebels and political activists, forcing many to live and work in secret. As his hold expands and the government cements its hold, it is likely he will institute policies and practices to punish those who dared to initially speak against him and similar policies to intimidate anyone from thinking becoming a critic now.

Beyond governance, it will be important to keep an eye on the money. Specifically, where the money goes for reconstruction and where it doesn’t. It will doubtless take hundreds of billions to rebuild the infrastructure, cities and economies that were obliterated from the eight-year-old war, which is ongoing. An ever-more-empowered Assad may condition and restrict aid shipments as he has done during sieges on opposition-held territory.

His regime may also take money from grants and loans to enrich themselves. China has pledged billions in loans to help rebuild Syria, and other countries are likely to follow. As this money flows in, it will be crucial to note where it goes and whether it will disproportionately be used to rebuild regime-aligned cities while opposition-aligned cities are abandoned. This could exacerbate political, social and ethnic divides for decades to come.

In short, the contours of New Syria will be drawn in 2019, and all signs point to it as brutal and even more divided than before the war.


2. The Siege of Yemen

Saida Ahmad Baghili, an 18-year-old Yemeni from a coastal village near Hodeidah (AFP/FILE)

The details that have emerged from the Saudi-led coalition’s siege on Yemen has been harrowing.

Al Bawaba first reported in 2018 that the death toll likely passed 100,000 in that year, making it one of the most deadly conflicts in the world today, in addition to being the worst ongoing humanitarian catastrophe according to the U.N.

While some prospects for peace has emerged thanks to pressure from the international community and a few key concessions from the coalition, it is likely to continue well into 2019 and may become a full-lown famine.

Already, in late 2018, Yemen analysts and aid workers have begun assessing whether the level of starvation reaches the level of famine, and many predict it will be declared in the near future.

One thing reportedly holding them back is local governments refusing aid workers access, meaning there very well be a famine already in Yemen, but it cannot be formally declared as access to the necessary data is denied.

If a famine is declared in 2019, Yemen will likely be one of the biggest news items of the year, and aid organizations will rush into the conflict zone to alleviate the deprivation.

Whether or not is is declared however, the systematic, man-made crisis is likely to keep killing people by the thousands.

Geopolitically, one thing to watch out for is the steady divergence of interests among those that formally make up the coalition. Saudi appears more concerned with combatting Iranian influence in Yemen, while the U.A.E. appears more dedicated to dominating Yemen’s market and becoming an influencer in its local politics.

A flashpoint issue will be the country’s southern question: a separatist movement has been fomenting in Aden for years and is backed by the U.A.E. but staunchly opposed by Saudi. In 2019, as the economic situation deterotires and separatist sentiment grows, the coalition’s cohesiveness may be stretched to its limits.

Overall, the war in Yemen looks to worsen and complicate in 2019.


3. The Saudi/Iran Geopolitical Axis

Saudi soldiers marching past images of the monarchy (AFP/FILE)

Saudi and Iran is the rivalry that has shaped much of the region’s political landscape, and it will undoubtedly evolve and morph in 2019. If anything, the events from 2018 has set the stage for more standoffs between both countries.

While the war in Yemen is one of the larger satellite wars between Iran and Saudi, both countries’ enmity toward each other and drive to regional hegemony is responsible for a number of other developments that will evolve in 2019.

The GCC diplomatic and economic isolation of Qatar was primarily due to the country’s friendly dealings with Iran. Arab countries such as Saudi, the U.A.E., Oman and Egypt have gone public with their alliance with Israeli due to mutual security concerns about growing Iranian influence. Saudi’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman essentially kidnapped Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and forced him to resign for being too cooperative with the Iranian-linked Hezbollah. Rumors swirled that Saudi helped to orchestrate an attack in Ahvaz, Iran in an attempt to destabilize the regime.

Iran, for their part, has slowly gained influence over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and has begun developing a counter-Saudi bloc.

In 2018, this rivalry hardened, its respective blocs began to coalesce publicly, and bin Salman hinted at a direct military confrontation.

For 2019, the blocs may act more cohesively to counter one another, and this could mean heightened conflicts, hired non-state actors used as tools to destabilize one another, and a global hearts-and-minds campaign to convince the rest of the world to take one side or the other.


4. The Ongoing Crisis of U.S. Soft Power


U.S. President Donald Trump dominated headlines in 2018 by constantly lying, bullying and generally acting like a mafioso. But a slow-burning crisis was buried under the cacophony of coverage on his daily morning and late-night tweet rants and strange behavior. 

Trump has overseen a rapid deterioration of the U.S.’ soft power, or diplomatic sway in the Middle East. This has already had profound implications.

For example, Trump’s abject loyalty to Israel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also come with defunding aid and U.N. organizations dedicated to servicing Palestinians. This not only denies millions of Palestinians crucial services like education and stops construction projects dead in their tracks, but it also signifies the U.S.’ departure from diplomatically engaging with Palestinians at all.

Trump has hollowed out the U.S.’ diplomatic capacities throughout the region.

He has failed to name an ambassador to Jordan, Saudi, Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Sudan, showing a disregard for the traditional means to go about negotiating with each country’s government.

In all their stead, he has appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has no background in the region, to represent the U.S.’ interests in each country.

In about two years, Trump undid any soft powers gains the U.S. had made in Iraq for two decades, and ceded massive amounts of political influence to Iran.

In 2019, it will be worth watching how the U.S.’ waning of soft power impacts where countries places themselves in regards to the U.S., especially those outside or on the fringes of the Saudi bloc like Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Turkey.

There are already signs they are shifting away from the U.S. and towards other regional powers: Somalia’s most crucial security partner is now Turkey, while Turkey’s Erdogan is distancing his country from the West in favor of a neo-Ottoman agenda that emphasizes Turkish regional dominance and closer relations with Russia.

5. Israel’s Position and the Palestinian Question

(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba/SPA)

Many of these developments already listed has served to benefit Israel’s position in the region. It is now more publicly partnered with its neighbors and Trump has gone all-in on defending the country’s interests.

In late 2017, Trump did what many warned against, and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, effectively killing any hope of a two-state solution. In 2018, it became clear that decision would stand, and that Arab countries would back it.

2019 then, may see heightened Palestinian outctries and protests at their abandonment. Already in Gaza, hundreds have been killed and thousands more injured in the Great March of Return. We have yet to see protests on that scale in the West Bank, but that simply may be the calm before the storm.

As Al Bawaba reported in 2018, Palestinians inside the West Bank live in an untenable political and economic situation: something must eventually give. In the absence of mass demonstrations or a populist revolt against Israel and/or the brutish Palestinian Authority (PA), 2019 may be a year where the prospects of Palestinians quietly decline even further, sinking to new lows that were predicted but never prevented.

© 2000 - 2019 Al Bawaba (

Add a new comment