For a region with a reputation for being so volatile, remarkably little changes when it comes to the bigger picture. War continues in Syria and in parts of Iraq, Israel and the Palestinians seem as far away from a peaceful resolution as ever, while Iran continues to be everyone's favourite bogeyman. Turkey has experienced more turmoil than it has become used to, but remains essentially stable, as does Jordan, while Egypt and Lebanon are at peace, if only just.
Turkey in Turmoil
Few leaders in the Middle East have quite the same power to influence events as Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Close to the summit of Turkish politics since 2003, he has struck a difficult balance between Islamic principles and Turkey's secular democratic system. However, his largely unassailable popularity has taken a battering in recent times. Large-scale protests in 2013 and a failed coup attempt in July 2016 have prompted media crackdowns and, in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt, widespread arrests and targeting of political opponents. Added to these domestic difficulties are the spillover consequences of the war in neighbouring Syria, with around 800,000 refugees having fled to Turkey, placing extraordinary strain on the country's resources. The state's troubled relationship with its Kurdish population has been further complicated by the prominent role (often backed by the US and its allies) played by Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq. That Turkey remains stable and democratic is admirable considering the pressures. But for the first time in a while, the strain is showing.
Iran always seems to be in the news these days, whether looming large over President Trump's election campaign and subsequent foreign policy rhetoric, or using its influence in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to back up its claims to being a regional political player; the impasse between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours in 2017 owed much to Iran's perceived meddling in regional affairs. At one level, Iran's hand was forced by Isis's deliberate targeting of Shiite communities as apostates, prompting the Islamic Republic to position itself as the protector of and advocate for Shiites across the region. At the same time, it is a role that Iran appears more than happy to play, building on its close historical ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Assad government in Syria. So complicated were things in Iraq for a time that US troops were essentially fighting on the same side as Iranian advisors in the 2017 battle for Mosul. Whether such realpolitik survives once the common enemy has been defeated remains to be seen.
The Bad News
Sadly, there is bad news in abundance in the Middle East. Syria is nothing short of a catastrophe with no end in sight, while Iraq always seems to be at war with itself; the utter devastation wrought upon Mosul and the wholesale persecution of religious minorities in the country – Iraqi Christians, the Yazidis – have been epic in scale, threatening communities with ancient roots in the soil of the country. Elsewhere, the democratic spark seems to have gone out in Egypt as a price for stability, while Israelis and Palestinians continue to stare out across the barbed wire and increasingly high walls with the same level of mutual incomprehension that they have had for more than 60 years – peace conferences no longer even happen. Lebanon, too, remains fragile, its border regions off-limits, its resources and infrastructure strained by the presence of more than one million refugees from the conflict in Syria.
The Good News
The Middle East may be a tough neighbourhood, but it's not all doom and gloom – although sadly, good news stories rarely make the headlines. One of those delightfully boring headlines could read: 'Another Peaceful Day in Jordan'. Despite extraordinary challenges – around 600,000 refugees, wars on its northern and eastern borders, and a population sometimes impatient for change – Jordan goes quietly about its business, at peace and moderately prosperous. For all its critics, Israel is a dynamic, multicultural country whose urban spaces, Tel Aviv in particular, are transforming into some of the most happening places in the Mediterranean. Turkey, too, seems well equipped to deal with the robust domestic and international challenges to its stability. And while they may have their problems, Lebanon and Egypt remain at relative peace, despite constant and sometimes seemingly existential threats.