Gold of sheikhs and ambitions of Morocco. What to expect in 2023 in the Middle East and North Africa

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The gold of the sheikhs and the ambitions of Morocco. What to expect in 2023 in the Middle East and North Africa

Western countries are trying to resist rising energy prices, but hydrocarbon monarchies it is no longer enough to be simply fantastically rich – sheikhs want to play big politics. Algorithms are changing against the backdrop of numerous military conflicts and the nuclear threat. And after the triumphant World Cup, the Arab world is getting even more attention.

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Focus figured out: what will North Africa and the Middle East present us in 2023, a big bang or an impressive breakthrough?

Does the Arab world even exist?

In fact, the very concept of the “Arab world” is in many ways wishful thinking. The Arab countries are far from unity and are not even always able to independently resolve regional conflicts, some of which have been “smoldering” for years in the territory between the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Western Sahara, Lebanon, Yemen are locations where there are no outside forces directly influencing the course of hostilities, but no institutions, no Arab integration association can form an effective peace plan. What can we say about the situation in Syria and Libya, where there is a direct external (non-Arab) invasion.

The latest and 31st Arab League summit held in early November, the first since the Covid-19 pandemic, vividly demonstrated the differences among the countries of the Arab world. During this time, in addition to the pandemic, the Abraham agreements were concluded and the Russian-Ukrainian war began, which affected the Arab states with a food crisis. Moroccan observer Safaa Kasrauvi notes that although several declarations were adopted at the summit, it still did not demonstrate a truly effective unity of the participating countries.

Aldo Liga, a researcher at the Institute for International Political Studies (Italy), identified key issues driving a wedge into Arab unity:

  • conflict between Morocco and summit host Algeria;
  • ambiguous attitude towards further support for the Palestinians;
  • disagreements between Algeria and Egypt on the settlement of the Libyan crisis;
  • issues of recognition of the Assad regime.

Interestingly, the Syrian researcher Suhail al-Ghazi believes that the rejection of the Assad regime is dictated not so much by the position of the United States, but by the negative attitude towards Iran of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other members of the association. That is, this indicates the independence of the Arab states, but they should demonstrate the ability to independently put up, and not just quarrel.

Professor of the University of Navarra Michael Tanchum notes that Morocco is much better able to establish relations with African countries on its southern borders (the so-called “Black Africa”), in particular, in the production of fertilizers. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are actively investing in agricultural enterprises abroad – in Latin America, Europe and Asia. Morocco and Egypt are doing the same. Michael Tanczum sees excellent prerequisites for cooperation in this area and in the development of green energy. However, so far, the Arab countries have only managed to “clump” in small groups, and more global cooperation does not give them the opportunity to adjust their quick-tempered mentality and significant geographical extent (from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf almost 10 thousand kilometers), which eventually led to the disintegration of the once unified Arab state more than a thousand years ago.

Let's take a closer look at what individual Arab regions expect from 2023 – from the Atlantic coast to the Indian Ocean coast.

Marrakesh-style party and the stormy Southern Mediterranean

Morocco has its own party. This kingdom, even in the conditions of the Cold War, kept apart from other Arab states, choosing the side of the United States, with which they have been friends from the very beginning of the history of the States (it was Morocco that became the first state to recognize the independence of the united former British colonies in America 250 years ago). Perhaps this was a factor in the fact that in 2011 the king of Morocco voluntarily went to soften the regime, introduced a certain democratization, which let off steam and allowed him to maintain power in the state. The Moroccans rely on their overseas friends more than on fellow believers even now. It was with the moral support of the United States that the Moroccans ventured to practically annex the territory of Western Sahara they control in 2020. In exchange, Rabat established diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, when it was not yet comme il faut for most Arabs and someone needed to set a “good example”.

Relations with Algeria (which supports the Sahrawis) were rejected in view of the possibility of a more valuable alliance. Morocco played its part in establishing the Abraham Accords and can now hope for support, including armed support, in the confrontation with Algeria.

Algeria (the unrest in which gave impetus to the “Arab Spring” in 2011, but the regime there just survived) hopes to advance the interests of Syria to enter into cooperation with Russia and Iran. In light of the prospects for a Russian-Ukrainian war (which would at least weaken the Russian Federation and definitely make the Western bloc more consolidated), it looks like Rabat has put his eggs in the right basket again.

At the same time, Algeria managed to aggravate relations also in the east with Egypt due to differences in positions on the Libyan issue. A civil war has been going on in the country between Egypt and Algeria for more than 10 years. In the first decades of the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya claimed leadership in Africa, and after his removal in 2011, it itself became an object of interest to other states, in particular, Egypt, Turkey, the Russian Federation, France and other powerful players. The situation has stabilized in recent years. Elections await the country, which, perhaps, in the end, will bring relative calm. Libya is currently divided into two camps – the UN-recognized government and the rebels under the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar. The country actually has two governments, two parliaments and two security structures.

In the north, Tunisia is one of the first Arab countries where the Arab Spring seems to have worked. Recently, however, it seems that the leadership has decided to roll back all the democratic achievements of the last decade. Hayzam Amira-Fernandez, a senior analyst at the Royal Elkano Institute, believes that the goal of President Qais Said is to form a state system where one person, himself, will have all the power. In 2021, the constitution was changed in Tunisia – since then, only advisory functions have been left to the parliament. However, even under such conditions, the president decided to block the election of a new convocation of the representative body. In fact, Tunisia now has direct presidential rule.

Egypt itself, where the military has been in power for ten years, is increasingly entering into a coalition with Saudi Arabia and is trying to influence the situation in the south. In this context, Cairo is moving closer to Jerusalem (that's right – not to Tel Aviv), respectively, aggravates relations with Syria and puts the Palestinian issue aside.

Gold of sheikhs and ambitions of Morocco. What to expect in 2023 in the Middle East and North Africa

Gold of the sheikhs and the ambitions of Morocco. What to expect in 2023 in the Middle East and North Africa

Forecast for North Africa

  • Morocco, with the support of the West, will continue to build up its military and political potential. By extending its influence to “black Africa”, Rabat will increasingly oppose itself to Algeria.
  • It is not clear how the West will react to the curtailment of democracy in Tunisia. After all, the states immediately surrounding it, as well as China, will gladly embrace the country with its favorable geographical position and infrastructure if the West continues to impose its values ​​south of the Mediterranean. On the other hand, there is Egypt, which has been cooperating with European countries for ten years, despite its authoritarianism.
  • In Libya, even if elections are held, this is unlikely to establish strong peace in the country, because the problem is not so much in Libyan warlords, how many in the redistribution of spheres of influence between the strongest players. And until a new consensus is established, it will be hot in Libya.

Middle East: sheikhs' gold, the Iranian crisis and world-class political ambitions

We move further east. Difficult situation on the Arabian Peninsula itself and around it. At a time when Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are enriching themselves thanks to rising hydrocarbon prices, the situation around them is becoming less encouraging. Largely due to the fact that as the revenues of the budget grow, the ruling dynasties (and all these states are despots in terms of the form of government) are getting closer and closer within their own borders. And they compete so far on the territory of their neighbors. Yemen is in its seventh year of civil war. Iraq is torn apart by internal instability. For twelve years now, Syria has been on fire, where the situation is extremely complicated, and solutions are not visible in the short term. Gradually, it involves Lebanon, which has traditionally been in the geopolitical wake of Damascus.

Syria, due to the reduction of the Russian contingent due to defeats in Ukraine, is increasingly coming under the control of Iran. In Tehran itself, the struggle for power is escalating, which is concentrated in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – religious fanatics striving for a holy war. So we can only expect an aggravation of the situation in the region, and Syria will be the object of politics here. So is Lebanon, which its former allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia now see as a pro-Iranian element, for which it has been stripped of financial support. In a state that has been living in default mode since 2020, in order to preserve the prospect of further existence for ordinary citizens, the choice often comes down to two options – joining pro-Iranian military formations or emigrating to Europe (often on rafts across the Mediterranean Sea).

The monarchies themselves strive to reach the world level of politics. Each of them is trying to demonstrate that it is no longer a former colony and raw materials appendage of the West, but in itself is the center of the world and will quickly make the West its technological appendage. Each of the monarchies does this in its own way. Qatar is hosting the most expensive World Cup in history, the United Arab Emirates is transforming its desert into futuristic locations of the future, and the biggest of them all, Saudi Arabia, is doing it all together. It also hosts sporting events such as elite Formula 1 races, plans to build a city of the future in the desert and is trying to take on the role of regional leader.

Gold of sheikhs and Moroccan ambitions. What to expect in 2023 in the Middle East and North Africa

Gold of the sheikhs and the ambitions of Morocco. What to expect in 2023 in the Middle East and North Africa

Will the Saudis make friends with Xi Jinping?

In this context, the visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping was very important for Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed. For the Saudi prince, it is a question of his international role amid criticism in the West over the likely murder of an Arabian journalist. Local observer Abdulrahman Al-Rashed noted in the context of the visit that “Beijing does not burden its partners with demands or political expectations and refrains from interfering in their internal affairs.” But China consumes oil in significant volumes and is interested in stable, reliable supplies at affordable prices.

Gold of sheikhs and ambitions of Morocco. What to expect in 2023 in the Middle East and North Africa

The gold of the sheikhs and the ambitions of Morocco. What to expect in 2023 in the Middle East and North Africa

Here, the Celestial Empire has trump cards of influence on Riyadh. Several decades ago, the United States positioned itself as the main force in the region (at the time when the well-known Henry Kissinger was the Secretary of State), when they were the only ones able to influence the position of Israel, now China is conducting diplomacy in the same vein. Only now the enemy of the Sunni monarchies is different – Iran, and only Beijing, not Washington, can influence it.

If Xi's diplomacy works, it will be another upheaval in geopolitics. There are prerequisites for thinking so, because the Saudis, who control the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have already stepped towards Beijing, smoothing out the negative from the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China. China is also invited to take part in investing in Prince Mohammed's personal project – the futuristic city of Neom. Beijing is expected to invest $500 billion there in the coming years. How will the US respond? Riyadh complains about restrictions on arms supplies from Washington. Will the Americans cajole the Saudis with a “carrot” or will their impudence force the United States to take up the “stick” and what can it be? This we can find out already in 2023.

The Arabian monarchy is trying to take a very advantageous position, balancing between Beijing and Washington, gaining preferences from both sides. True, it should be remembered that such a policy did not always bring the desired results.

The union of the UAE and Saudi Arabia may affect the war in Yemen, which could move from the status of “all against all” to the confrontation between the pro-Iranian Houthis and everyone else. Although a direct war between Arabia and Iran is not so impossible, and it can finally destroy the remnants of the world security system. Time will tell whether this will be beneficial for China.

Forecast for the Middle East

  • This region is on the verge of tectonic changes. In recent decades, the entire policy of the region has been based on the confrontation between Muslim Arabs and Israel and its allies. Now, an alliance between Israel and the Middle Eastern monarchies against Iran is quite possible. What position the US and China will take in this conflict may become the main intrigue of 2023. However, all other conflicts in the region are tied around this confrontation, and until this denouement they will continue to smolder. Will everything be decided next year? Not a fact, but there are strong prerequisites for this, and the result of the Russian-Ukrainian war can become a catalyst for these processes.
  • Only Morocco, on the shores of the Atlantic, can hope to continue sustainable development. The Moroccans have been pursuing a consistent foreign policy for decades and are getting substantial results from it. The further east, the more instability and potential conflict situations.
  • In general, the Arab world is still united only by a long common history and its projections in the form of religion, language and culture, but politically it is a lot of different states located on a vast territory. And if the coasts of the Atlantic are distinguished by a certain stability and forecasts here are mostly optimistic, then clouds are gathering over the Persian Gulf.

A mixture of militarization, Islamic fundamentalism, cosmic income from the sale of energy into a grandiose pathos of planetary proportions, multiplied by the absolute power of monarchs, can provoke an explosion that will tremble the entire planet.

Can the West and East really change places?

The Arab world is entering the new year 2023 in an unusual role. It so happened that when the world of the “golden billion” began to take shape, the territory of the Arab states became a zone of instability. It was after the end of World War II that the Arab-Israeli wars began, and in the newly proclaimed states, either military or absolute monarchies took power. Finally, North Africa and the Middle East have become associated with wars, military dictatorships and terrorism.

Together with the theses promoted by Islamist fundamentalists, this gave rise to a stereotype among the layman that the Arab world is the embodiment of eternal wars and conflicts, while Europe and the North Atlantic are the personification of peace, stability and development.

However, in fact, this is just a period of the life of one generation. Let's not dive into the thousand-year history of Europe and the Arab world, when enough blood has been shed on both sides. It is worth noting that the main fronts of the two world wars took place precisely in Europe and affected the Arab world only minimally.

Of course, the objective fact is that in recent decades it was the Euro-Atlantic world that was the territory of the world and the generator of ideas and image peacetime life. However, the last two years, if not turned everything upside down, then marked significant steps in this direction. Over the past two years, the Abraham Accords were signed, which should put an end to the long Arab-Israeli confrontation, a celebration of life and peace was held in Qatar – the World Cup, which became a symbolic reflection of the region's economic recovery and at that time, the economic crisis is seething and a big war has broken out in general.

So is Europe and the Arab countries really changing places, or behind the magnificent facade of the Arab world there is a terrible skeleton in the closet, from whose hands it is about to fall Pandora's box?