In 2018, the strategic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is likely to intensify, with inflammatory actions from both sides. Potential trigger-events are wide-ranging, but could include maritime incidents in the Arabian Sea or the Gulf, or missile strikes by Yemen’s Houthi rebel group (which Riyadh sees as an Iranian proxy) on targets in Saudi Arabia. The improvement of Houthi fire-control capability escalates this high-impact low-probability security threat.
A2 Global continues to assess that full-scale conflict is unlikely. Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with diversifying its economy to reduce its reliance on oil, and Iran is attempting to secure lucrative contracts with European and other powers in order to take advantage of the lifting of international sanctions by the global community. Economic concerns, in short, act as disincentives for overt militarism, and this calculation is likely to hold sway in both Tehran and Riyadh over 2018.
Economic concerns act as disincentives for overt militarism, and this calculation is likely to hold sway in both Tehran and Riyadh over 2018
The Qatar crisis appears intractable. In June 2017, a Saudi-led coalition of countries cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an economic embargo, claiming that Doha’s foreign policy funded terrorism and supported Iran. Qatar, refusing to comply with Saudi demands to bring its foreign policy into line with Riyadh’s, found support in Turkey and Iran, both of which provided emergency food relief and strong diplomatic support for the small emirate. Neither side is likely to back down in 2018, which could lead to the collapse of the pan-national Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are member-states. A further bolstering of ties between Qatar, Turkey and Iran is likely, which could lead to enhanced trade deals or diplomatic co-operation against Riyadh.
With the exception of Iraq, wars in the Middle East continue to grind on, with little end in sight. Although Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has managed to secure his own position, entrenched pockets of resistance remain. The Yemeni war continues to be a stalemate, despite the internationally recognised government being supported by substantial quantities of Saudi and Emirati firepower. The Afghan government, meanwhile, continues to lose territory to the Taliban, who will continue to secure and consolidate their hold over swathes of the country throughout 2018. It is unlikely that 2018 will see any resolution to these conflicts, and indeed in Yemen a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe is increasingly probable.
With the exception of Iraq, wars in the Middle East continue to grind on, with little end in sight
With respect to Turkey, increasing authoritarianism is being supported by a continuing mass purge of potential dissenters. Academic, military, law enforcement, governmental, business and journalist personnel have all been detained, with little recourse to any meaningful legal representation. A2 Global assesses this crackdown will continue apace throughout 2018, as the government attempts to fully consolidate its own position. Encroaching authoritarianism could trigger protests – particularly in more cosmopolitan urban centres – but the effectiveness of the security forces and widespread pro-government sentiment means that such demonstrations are unlikely to achieve any meaningful goals.
Meanwhile, in the Central Asian countries, 2018 will see only glacial change, if any. Uzbekistan, following the death of long-serving President Islam Karimov in September 2017, will continue to slowly reconfigure its economy to a more outward-focused, liberalised format. Turkmenistan, suffering huge economic damage from the global decline in gas prices, will continue to tighten restrictions on its repressed populace.
North African states, with the exception of Libya, will continue to function reasonably effectively. Morocco is likely to see some level of anti-corruption protests – predominantly in the northern Rif region – but these are unlikely to pose a systemic threat to the state. Similarly, labour disputes in Tunisia are likely, but will almost certainly be peaceful. Egypt will continue to suffer terrorist attacks, particularly from Islamic State affiliates active in the north-western Sinai region, but these will not fundamentally destabilise the country, which is a secure police state.