In a part of the world where stability and predictability are elusive, 2021 ended much the way it started: with surprise reconciliations among regional rivals and the prospect of more.
In January 2021, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman invited Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Qatari emir, to a Gulf summit, where they signed an agreement ending the three-year-plus boycott of Qatar that the kingdom had led.
Ten months later, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met in Syria with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was until recently a pariah in most of the Arab world. Syria had been suspended from the Arab League in 2011 because of the Assad regime's violent crackdown on a popular uprising, a conflict that later escalated into a civil war. The UAE-Syria meeting in November signaled the possibility of a normalization of Syria's regional ties at the upcoming Arab League summit, to take place in Algeria in March.
Also in November the UAE's de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, paid a visit to Turkey, launching a $10 billion fund to invest in the country and ending a decade of strained relations.
A similar thaw between Turkey and Egypt—which had scaled back their ties about nine years ago—could happen in 2022. And there are signs of a rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set to visit the kingdom in February, although differences remain.
Sanctions on Iran may lift if nuclear talks progress, though they remain in a constant state of near collapse. Iran has had rounds of talks with Saudi Arabia in Iraq, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has been invited to the UAE, a visit that's expected to mark a turning point in relations between the countries. Any tightening of links between mostly Shiite Iran and the Sunni-majority Gulf states, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, could ease regional sectarian conflicts.
Two main factors appear to be influencing the change in the landscape. The first is that the US has been gradually disengaging from the Middle East for more than a decade. That's left more room for regional leaders to maneuver and look for other ways to ensure their security. However, with freer rein also comes more risk: "If the Americans withdraw further, then that's a further vacuum, and those leaders may not be so sure what fills that void," says H.A. Hellyer, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Cambridge University fellow.
Another factor is the end of the Arab Spring era, which strained relations as countries took different sides in the conflicts between governments and demonstrators. The next stage "will be moving from decreasing tensions to building bridges, focused on common interests," according to Ayham Kamel, head of the Middle East and North Africa at political risk consultant Eurasia Group.
Regional leaders still remain fearful of another wave of popular unrest, Kamel says, and that has led to rising repression. Egypt is experiencing its worst human-rights crisis in many decades, according to Human Rights Watch, and there are fears that Tunisia, which had managed to establish a functioning democracy, is regressing into authoritarianism after the president in July seized additional powers and shuttered parliament.
Karen Young, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., says the winners from the shift are mainly Gulf countries. "There's more of a potential now for a whole lot of bilateral moves and dealmaking," she says, "but a lot of the leverage is in the hands of a few."
A look at the map confirms that. There are no signs of an end to the almost eight-year-long war in Yemen. In Syria, fighting has subsided, and Assad has recovered large portions of the country, but the road map to peace remains in question. And Lebanon enters another year on the brink, with no recovery in sight from its economic collapse and the crash of its currency.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement