West Asia: Projections for 2022
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF

The regional actors in the West Asian region have taken measures towards reconciliation in light of US’ attempts to re-negotiate the 2015 JCPOA; Taliban rule in Afghanistan; economic crises; inequalities perpetuated by COVID-19 and limited success in confrontational approach to improve their security. The core issues sustaining the long drawn regional instability have persisted. There is no sincere attempt in creating a permanent resolution by state institutions to facilitate social and civil benefits and assure a secure environment for the people. Therefore, the structural problems have continued that would be reflected in the regional events in 2022.

West Asia in 2021 continued to remain mired in conflict trap in which civil wars stoked regional tensions and tensions among regional actors hindered problem solving and ending the civil wars. In 2022, the regional actors would continue with strategic hedging by engaging with key extra-regional actors such as Russia, China, European states, India etc. In the background of US’ repositioning, the key regional actors could pursue their interests more independently and assertively that could lead to unpredictable outcomes and conflict escalation the region.[1]

The nature of social contract in the region is undergoing change. Social contract can be defined as framework for state-society relations that allow the ruling elite to govern by providing economic and social goods including jobs, subsidised health care, free education and a range of consumer subsidies. It helps the ruling elites to maintain stability for decades which unravelled after the 2011 Arab Spring[2]. The deteriorating economic situation worsened by regional conflicts and COVID-19 has led to the collapse of the social contract model in several states.

The social contracts between the government and the citizens have been renegotiated constantly. The anger over economic woes has translated into call for regime change and political structuring in several states and despite efforts for these governments through economic incentives and repressive tactics, the challenges has only increased. In 2022, the challenges for governments are only likely to increase.[3] The oil rich Gulf monarchies have proved themselves to be more resilient than their republican counterparts. These states are trying to adapt and respond to changing concerns of the citizens and update their economic models by promising security and prosperity. However, political freedoms continue to remain highly restrictive and dissenting voices are brutally crushed. Therefore, in case of political crisis and public pressure, the pattern of state repression is not likely to change in the near future.[4]

Trends in Regional Conflicts

In Syria, President Bashar Al Assad’s forces have taken control over large stretches of the state with help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The acceptability of status quo under Assad regime has gradually increased due to fatigue; US disinterest in regime change; fear of conflict escalation and renewed refugee crisis etc.[5] It is likely that Syria would be further re-integrated into the Arab fold in 2022. At the same time, US, Russia, Iran and its allies, Turkey and its allies, Hay ‘at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and Kurdish forces have entrenched their spheres of influence throughout the state. The possibility of stable, inclusive state devoid of presence of external actors is unlikely in the near future.

In Libya, the proposed December election outlined in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) has already been postponed due to dispute between the Tripoli based government and Haftar’s forces over election procedures and post-poll power sharing. In 2022, there is need for direct pressure and deliberations to overcome differences on the core issues and reach political consensus.

The Yemen war has taken a new form after the UAE has renewed efforts by providing tactical and financial support to local allies fighting the Houthi forces. Houthis while improving its strike capacity against Saudi Arabia has suffered setbacks in ground offensive in Marib and Shabwa governorates since 2021. Houthis have retaliated by directly targeting Emirati assets including seizure of Emirati vessel and strikes at Abu Dhabi port.[6] Houthis in 2022 would try to increase drone and missile strikes against not only Saudi but also Emirati targets to jeopardise foreign investments, commercial interests and build pressure to reduce support towards allies.[7] Saudi and Emirati airstrikes have already increased and Houthi actions indicate that it is ready for another round of confrontation. In South Yemen, the uneasy power sharing is likely to be destabilised due to confrontation between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Abdrabbuh Hadi government.

Lebanon in the recent period has witnessed pressing economic instability, political turmoil, large scale protests, and clashes with security officials, fires and explosion exposing the gross mismanagement and the incapacity of the present political structure. The confessional democratic model has resulted in corrupt and self-serving ruling elite that is responsible for its economic downturn and political instability. The situation has been further complicated by the interference of regional powers especially Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as extra-regional powers i.e. France and the US. The appointment of Saad Harari as the compromise Prime Minister failed due to dispute by political groups over cabinet appointments. The appointment of former Prime Minister Najib Mikati inspires very little confidence about its smooth functioning. In 2022, if the political and economic situation continues on the similar lines, it could lead to state failure and civil violence.

In Iraq, the inter-Shiite factionalism has widened after October 2021 parliamentary election in which Iran-backed Shiite groups have suffered severe losses. In 2022, there is a risk of sectarian violence if political groups fail to reconcile their differences. At the same time, the civil military relations in Sudan will remain tense in 2022. In the current year, public pressure for limiting the military’s political and economic role is likely to grow. The military would focus its efforts on protecting its political and financial interests. There is a high possibility of security incidents and clashes in the coming months instigated by the military to project its necessity to control and manage political order. Therefore political uncertainty in Sudan is likely to remain in the near future that would affect its envisioned path to democracy. The conflict in Ethiopia between the government forces and Tigray rebels has direct repercussions on North African and West Asian states.[8] The protracted conflict could further destabilise the fragile political situation in Sudan.

Situation in Afghanistan

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and political dominance of Taliban has added another layer of complexity in the region. It is widely feared that extremist groups could re-establish Afghanistan as the base to launch strikes on West Asian and South Asian states. Taliban’s ill-treatment of religious, sectarian and ethnic minorities could aggravate the humanitarian costs and propel large scale outflow of refugees to West Asian states that are already combatting the economic effects of COVID-19.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

In terms of Israel-Palestine dynamics, the conflict has continued due to Israel’s objections over conceding East Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine; restricting construction of settlements in occupied West Bank and allowing Palestinian refugees to return. The current government under Naftali Bennet while avoiding direct confrontation will likely attempt to manage or shrink the conflict while preserving the occupation in 2022. Domestically, the eight parties’ coalition government has focussed on maintaining political stability and blocking Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power.

The legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas presidency will further weaken in Palestine which has been questioned over lack of accountability and harsh treatments against protestors, journalists etc. The succession crisis for Palestinian leadership is likely to intensify in 2022 within Fatah Party power blocs and greater penetration by Islamist groups.[9] Hamas through its military actions against Israel in May 2021 has proved itself to be resilient and managed to increase its popularity among Palestinians that could tilt the political balance in future election.

The conflict situation will continue to remain fragile in 2022 and another round of Israel-Hamas strikes cannot be ruled out. In Israel’s northern frontier, it is worried about Hezbollah’s improved strike capacity. Israel in order to preserve its strategic advantage could carry out cross border airstrikes in Lebanon and Syria.

US-Iran Dynamics

The US will would play a key role in determining the success of the JCPOA. The victory of conservative President, Ebrahim Raisi close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenai has reduced the political contradictions between the moderates and hardliners in terms of security, foreign and domestic policies. With regard to the JCPOA, Iran learning from Donald Trump’s actions is demanding the full lifting of the sanctions and guarantees that the US will not backtrack. Besides the nuclear programme, Iran’s regional role would remain under spotlight in 2022.

The failure to implement the nuclear deal could lead to escalation. While Iran favours the US-re-entry in JCPOA, it is highly sceptical about the intentions of Joe Biden administration. Besides the nuclear programme, Iran’s regional role would remain under spotlight in 2022. [10] In case of failure to implement JCPOA and Iran’s progress in developing nuclear weapons, Israel could play a more independent and assertive role in sabotaging Iran’s nuclear programme that could translate into a wider conflict. Besides, the fallout of the nuclear deal; security risks and humanitarian costs arising from the situation in Afghanistan; resurgence of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS); narco-terrorism; protests in Sudan; Saudi Arabia-Lebanon tensions and civil war in Yemen could contribute to conflict fault lines in 2022.

China’s Inroads beyond Economic Sphere

The West Asian region will continue to remain crucial for China to fulfill its growing energy needs and expand trade, investments, and infrastructure projects, defence industry etc. China is gradually stepping up its strategic footprints and in January 2022, it hosted the Foreign Ministers from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary General, Nayef Falah Al-Hajraf. For the Gulf States, China is crucial for diversifying the oil-dependent economies. GCC states and China are currently at the final stage to sign a free trade agreement.[11] China also hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in January 2022 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties. Both sides launched the implementation work of the comprehensive cooperation plan and agreed to strengthen cooperation and political mutual trust.[12] Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also visited China on 12 January 2022 to discuss about bilateral and regional issues. Turkey also expressed its concerns, expectations and sensitivities about the condition of Uyghur Turks.[13]

While the US and its allies have boycotted the event, several states including West Asian states are looking for an opportunity to intensify engagement with China. China has also utilised Beijing Winter Olympics to further its engagement and serve as diplomatic platform for West Asian leaders. Key figures from Egypt, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Saudi Arabia attended the Olympics opening ceremony. Egypt’s relation with Qatar has been tense due to latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). During the sideline of Olympics opening ceremony, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi met with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to resolve their differences. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces also visited Beijing and met with Chinese and West Asian leaders.[14] The discussions in Beijing among the West Asian leaders could shape the course of regional events with China playing a more prominent role in 2022.

Climate Action

Climate action by West Asian states is another crucial dimension to watch out in 2022. Dubai will host the UN supported Middle East and North Africa Climate Week in early 2022.[15] It would position the state as a regional leader in climate change debate. The summit would focus on regional level collaboration to explore solutions for present and future. Moreover, Egypt is hosting Conference of the Parties (COP27) in November focussing on the theme of climate adaptation.[16] Egypt as co-founder Adaptation Action Coalition could play key role in setting the discourse. Notably, the UAE is hosting COP28 in 2023 that could carry forward the agenda set in Dubai and Sharm Al-Sheikh.[17]

[1]P. Salem & B. Katulis, “A transition in America occurs as the landscape shifts in the Middle East,” Middle East Institute, December 20, 2021, at https://www.mei.edu/publications/10-key-events-and-trends-middle-east-and-north-africa-2021#harrison (Accessed January 20, 2022).
[2]A. El Haddad, “Redefining the social contract in the wake of the Arab Spring: The experiences of Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia,” Science Direct, March 2020, at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X19304231 (Accessed January 19, 2022).
[3]M. F. Mabrouk, “The MENA region’s myriad human security challenges,” Middle East Institute, January 18, 2022, at
[4]B. Katulis, “2022 trends and drivers to watch in the Middle East: Introduction,” Middle East Institute, January 18, 2022, at https://www.mei.edu/publications/2022-trends-and-drivers-watch-middle-east#elkurd (Accessed January 20, 2022).
[5]C. Lister, “The year of Assad’s normalization,” Middle East Institute, December 20, 2021, at https://www.mei.edu/publications/10-key-events-and-trends-middle-east-and-north-africa-2021#lister (Accessed January 23, 2022).
[6]S. Al-Batati, “Yemeni troops recapture district in Shabwa from Houthis,” Arab News, January 2, 2022, at https://www.arabnews.com/node/1996901/middle-east (Accessed January 19, 2022).
[7]A. Al-Shamahi, “What is behind the Houthi attacks in the UAE?,” Al Jazeera, January 17, 2022, at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/17/explainer-houthi-attacks-abu-dhabi-uae (Accessed January 18, 2022).
[8]R. Harrison, “The catch-22 of civil wars in the Middle East,” Middle East Institute, December 20, 2021, at https://www.mei.edu/publications/10-key-events-and-trends-middle-east-and-north-africa-2021#harrison (Accessed January 17, 2022).
[9]D. El Kurd, “The Palestinian Authority’s accelerating legitimacy crisis,” Middle East Institute, January 18, 2022, at https://www.mei.edu/publications/2022-trends-and-drivers-watch-middle-east#elkurd (Accessed January 19, 2022).
[10]A. Vatanka, “Iran’s hardliners consolidate their hold on power,” Middle East Institute, December 20, 2021, at https://www.mei.edu/publications/10-key-events-and-trends-middle-east-and-north-africa-2021#vatanka (Accessed January 21, 2022).
[11]C. Siqi& W. Hengyi, “China, Gulf countries pledge advancing partnership, FTA talks,” Global Times, January 12, 2022, at https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202201/1245800.shtml (Accessed January 23, 2022).
[12]Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Wang Yi Holds Talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, January 15, 2022, at https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/topics_665678/kjgzbdfyyq/202201/t20220115_10496094.html (Accessed January 26, 2022).
[13]Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, “Visit of Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to the People’s Republic of China, 12 January 2022, at https://www.mfa.gov.tr/sayin-bakanimizin-cin-halk-cumhuriyeti-ni-ziyareti--12-ocak-2022.en.mfa#:~:text=Foreign%20Minister%20Mevl%C3%BCt%20%C3%87avu%C5%9Fo%C4%9Flu%20paid,economic%20cooperation%20opportunities%20were%20evaluated (Accessed January 29, 2022).
[14]S. J. Frantzman, “Beijing Olympics serve as venue for Middle East leaders to meet,” The Jerusalem Post, February 5, 2022, at https://www.jpost.com/international/article-695591 (Accessed January 26, 2022).
[15]UNFCCC, “Middle East and North Africa Climate Week 2022,” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2022, at https://unfccc.int/MENA-CW2022 (Accessed January 27, 2022).
[16]Daily News Egypt, “COP27 in Sharm-El-Sheik will be crucial to Africa’s response to climate change,” Daily News Egypt, February 8, 2022, at https://dailynewsegypt.com/2022/02/08/cop-27-in-sharm-el-sheik-will-be-crucial-to-africas-response-to-climate-change/ (Accessed January 23, 2022).
[17]M. Mahmoud, “Climate action takes center stage, but water security issues may steal the spotlight,” Middle East Institute, January 18, 2022, at https://www.mei.edu/publications/2022-trends-and-drivers-watch-middle-east#mahmoud (Accessed January 31, 2022).

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