As the curtains are drawn on 2013, the region can look back on the year with some degree of ambivalence. While no new large-scale regional conflicts erupted, there was the continuing bloodshed in some of the countries where internal conflicts continue to rage.
In Egypt, the largest Arab country, masses took to the streets to demonstrate against the newly elected government of Mohammad Mursi. They were alarmed at some of the constitutional amendments that appeared to be giving the Muslim Brotherhood far more leverage than bargained for. Liberal and secular groups joined hands against a government they believed was heading Egypt towards Islamic fundamentalism, who many viewed as an extremist interpretation of Islam. The rising protests culminated into a final showdown that began towards the end of June and ended a few days later with the removal of Mursi, the elected president, by popular support with the Army stepping in to ensure that Egypt did not slip into further chaos.
The move was welcomed by much of the Gulf countries who, alarmed by the potential rise and spread of the Brotherhood in the region, rushed in to provide material and financial support to Egypt when western nations balked. Egypt today is trying to wrest back its identity from the recent past. It has declared the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation and has incarcerated Mursi for crimes against the state.
In Syria, the raging civil war that began with peaceful street protests back in 2011, continued. Government forces continued their assault on the loosely-knit Free Syria Movement with both sides claiming some success. The fighting took on an ominous tone when chemical warfare was claimed to have been used by the government against the rebels.
Suddenly the conflict took on a more urgent tone at the United Nations as many countries charged that Bashar Al Assad had crossed the ‘red line’. Calls for an aerial attack against Syrian government strongholds were mounting, while political manoeuvring continued for a calculated response. The Chinese and the Russians managed to deflect any military response by their repeated vetoes, and while Al Assad repeatedly denied that his forces had used chemical weapons, he agreed to dispose of his lethal arsenal. A major warfare was thus averted, much to the chagrin of the rebels and their supporters who lost the chance to get Al Assad out through a decisive military victory.
Iran, a major player in the region and against whom military strikes had been mounting for more than 20 successive months elected a new president. Hassan Rouhani, in a departure from his belligerent predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came across as a conciliatory figure on the world stage. Speaking before the UN General Assembly, the Iranian president thrust forward an offer of negotiations with the US and other world powers over its nuclear programme. “Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme,” he emphasised adding that Iran “is prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and the removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency.”
Shortly afterwards, at high level talks, a deal was struck between Iran and other world powers. Sanctions would be eased conditionally. Iran was to suspend enriching uranium at 20 per cent, suspend the installation of new centrifuges, suspend two thirds of the centrifuges at the major reactors and allow international atomic inspectors full access to all its power stations and reactors for monitoring purposes. The Geneva accords provide a determined period to ensure Iran’s complicity to the agreements. The fact that the new deal allows Iran the right to enrich uranium and does not require it to suspend uranium enrichment entirely focuses on decreasing the enrichment process regarding capacity and depth.
The Saudis, who had been disappointed with the UN failure to reach consensus on a credible response on Syria, displayed their public displeasure by first refusing a seat on the UN Security Council. They accused the UN Security Council of “double standards” which “prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace.” They brought up the UN’s continued failure to find a solution for both the Palestinian cause and the civil war in Syria.
Their frustrations were further enhanced by the apparent warming of relations by western nations towards Iran, a country whose intentions they had reasons to doubt. In unprecedented moves, key figures in the Saudi government publicly displayed their displeasure and specifically with the US. They felt betrayed by their allies. Iran countered with visits by key government figures to GCC countries to allay their fears and with promises of being good neighbours. How far do such visits go to soothe frayed nerves remains to be seen.
The region as the year ends is far from settled. The Israeli-Palestinian conundrum continues the festering of hostile feelings among all parties. Al Assad shows no signs of releasing his hold, and the civil war in Syria will continue to rage on. The Iranian motives will become apparent in the next few months. Will they become responsible neighbours? For the Saudis, that question has redrawn regional geopolitics. It has indeed been an eventful year.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena