Throughout 2019, West Asia and North Africa continued to experience the competition and conflicts that have blighted this region of 400 million people and 22 states for the last few decades. Wars continued in Syria, Yemen and Libya, with rival external players intervening with arms and funding to sustain the violence and bloodletting. The United States heightened its anti-Iran posture by reviving the pre-nuclear agreement sanctions, crippling the country’s economy and fomenting widespread rioting.
Israel saw two general elections; as they yielded no government, it prepared for one more round at the ballot box in March next year. But this political uncertainty only fuelled more aggressive rhetoric from its dominant right-wing politicians and threats of war. Turkey too continued to assert its regional interests through military force: It mounted its third military foray into Syria against the Kurds and created a safe zone to accommodate Syrian refugees.
Donald Trump’s pronouncements continued to project a dysfunctional White House, with policy statements emerging through late-night tweets, while senior officials continued to be shuffled out, adding to all-round confusion and disarray.
Russia remained the voice of sanity and good sense. Promoting the Astana peace process in Syria with Turkey and Iran, it brought ceasefire arrangements to large parts of the country.
Moscow also remained the go-to capital for all of the region’s leaders who sought from President Vladimir Putin his understanding, counsel and an effective Russian security-promotion role. Not surprisingly, US leaders have expressed concerns about Russia’s increasing influence in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other regional capitals.
And yet, amidst the carnage, there was much that has changed in the region — for the better.
Transnational jihad, represented by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, is no longer the lodestone for the region’s disgruntled and marginalised youth; though extremist violence by lone wolves will continue, its territorial bases have largely been eliminated.
Again, the prospect of a region-wide conflict due to the alignment against Iran of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and the US, seems to be splintering. In response to US sanctions, Iran displayed its own capacity for retaliatory action: oil tankers were attacked in the waters of the Gulf and an American drone was brought down by an Iranian missile.
More significantly, Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by a combination of missiles and drones in September, attributed by the US to Iran, without conclusive evidence. The US assessment is that the sanctions regime has crippled Iran economically, but has not inflicted any damage to its strategic capacities or its ability to defend itself from external attack.
These factors have provided openings to hesitant and tentative engagements between foes — the UAE sent two delegations to Tehran in June to discuss regional security issues, which included a decision not to attack shipping. Through December, there were reports of Saudi-Iranian interactions to discuss a possible accommodation of their competing interests.
US President Donald Trump too remains anxious for an engagement with the Iranians. While Iranian leaders have rejected pointless photo-opportunities, media reports suggest that behind-the-scenes interactions could be in the offing, perhaps facilitated by Oman which had played a similar role in the run-up to the nuclear agreement five years ago.
Both Russia and Iran have also placed proposals for regional peace and security before world chancelleries: the Iranian proposal is titled Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE) which calls for an “intra-regional dialogue” to obtain a regional security arrangement without great power participation.
However, the most significant development in West Asia and North Africa has been the surge of popular anger in four Arab states — Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon. This upsurge, already being described as “Arab Spring II”, is taking place in states that had not joined the earlier Spring agitations nine years ago. While some of the wellsprings of these agitations are the same as before — poor governance, economic malaise and rampant corruption — there are important differences in terms of agenda and tactics.
This time the demonstrations are calling not just for democratic elections, but for fundamental changes in the political order: this means the rejection of the military-controlled political order in Sudan and Algeria and of the sect-based systems in Iraq and Lebanon. The agitators have displayed unity, staying power and commitment to peaceful expressions of dissent.
In all the four states, incumbent leaders have stepped down, but the demonstrations have continued since their replacements have emerged from within the existing order. In Sudan there is an uneasy calm as the joint civil-military authority takes office and promises to rule on democratic lines.
The outcome of these agitations will define West Asian politics in coming years — and will determine whether the region joins the mainstream of democratic and participatory politics or remains mired in the violence and corruption of its authoritarian rulers.
Through the year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained a steady tempo of engagements with West Asian leaders, at home and in their capitals. Soon after his re-election, he visited the UAE and Bahrain and then was in Riyadh in October.
In all joint statements, as before, energy and economic ties have been boosted, amidst affirmations that “strategic partnerships” will be enhanced and imparted substantive content. These partnerships remain unclear as there is no evidence of any initiatives to address regional challenges, despite an understanding of India’s abiding interest in West Asian peace and stability.
The conclusion is unavoidable that India’s diplomatic engagements remain bilateral and transactional and that these interactions largely serve the domestic agenda and interests of the Narendra Modi government rather than the strategic interests of the nation. For, by any reckoning, India has the history, the civilisational capacity and the regionwide acceptance to be a lead role player in promoting regional security, a role that these diplomatic forays should have logically led to.
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar, in his Ramnath Goenka lecture in November, said that as India shapes its new foreign policy, it is “really seeking strategic convergence rather than tactical convenience”. This points to a new role for India in West Asia.
And a new dawn for the region....