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2022: A year in the Middle East

2022 was a year full of unprecedented protests, groundbreaking state visits, important elections, and new challenges for the Middle East and North Africa.

[CIA World Facebook | Wikipedia Commons]

Here’s a look back at some of the biggest moments of 2022 in the region and what our authors had to say about them:

January 3: Eighth round of nuclear negotiations resume in Vienna

The eighth round of negotiations over reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) began in Vienna. This time, the talks featured a new Iranian negotiating team appointed after the election of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi. As academic Mehrzad Boroujerdi noted, “several [officials] are associated with failed talks that occurred under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) and were opponents of the multilateral accord, while others are apolitical technocrats.” The Americans and Iranians met each other directly in Vienna—a departure from the Donald Trump administration years, when Iran had refused to sit with Americans during talks, instead depending on passing messages through other delegations.

January 24: The UAE intercepts two ballistic missiles targeting Abu Dhabi

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) intercepted two ballistic missiles targeting its capital, Abu Dhabi. It was the second assault that Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for during that past week. A week earlier, on January 18, Houthi rebels had launched drone strikes near an Abu Dhabi airport, killing three people. “The recent attacks by the Houthis on Abu Dhabi clearly demonstrate, yet again, Iran’s unique policy to routinely give precision weapons to non-state proxies so they can intentionally target civilians across borders,” explained director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs, William Wechsler, at the time. Responding to the first attack, the Saudi-led coalition, which the UAE backs, launched airstrikes on Yemen’s port city of Hodeida on January 21, hitting the country’s telecommunications center, which knocked out the internet and killed three children. Over eighty people were killed at a detention center in a separate airstrike in the rebel-held Sa’ada province.

February 6: The formation of a new Iraqi government faces significant obstacles

On January 9, the Iraqi Council of Representatives convened to inaugurate a fifth legislative term. However, several obstacles appeared to block the formation of the new government, including a violent dispute over the registration of the largest bloc in the Council of Representatives, which sent the Council’s President Pro Tempore Mahmud al-Mashhadani to the hospital. “The Shia political blocs, which are the majority and are to nominate the prime minister, are witnessing their worst political conditions since 2003, as their interpersonal differences seem virtually irreconcilable,” warned director of the Iraq Initiative, Abbas Kadhim.

February 10: Libya’s House of Representatives votes to oust Prime Minister Abdulhamed Dbeibah and appoint new minister

Libya’s internal divisions only increased after Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives, voted to oust Prime Minister Abdulhamed Dbeibah, who refused to step aside. Two other candidates for the role withdrew, leaving former interior minister Fathi Bashagha to be chosen as Libya’s new prime minister. However, Prime Minister Dbeibah claimed he would relinquish power only after a national election. Karim Mezran, director of the North Africa Initiative, noted that Libya may have two prime ministers again, and predicted “the pressure of a continued low-level confrontation and a stalled political and economic situation.”

February 14: Turkey and the UAE sign 13 new agreements

Turkey and the UAE have been considered rivals since the 2011 Arab Spring, negatively impacting their economic ties and investment activity. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the UAE on February 14, during which the two countries signed thirteen agreements on defense, trade, technology, agriculture, and other sectors. Amjad Ahmad, Atlantic Council empowerME chairman, and Defne Arslan, senior director of the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY, recommended that, since official relations between the countries are improving, “the private sector needs to reengage in dialogue to ensure that they can take advantage of the political stability that will come out of these agreements.” They also noted that “this rapprochement can be a catalyst for positive change and may lead to interesting spillover benefits.”

February 24: Russia invades Ukraine

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries across the Middle East responded incredibly differently—Iran, for example, strengthened its ties with Moscow. “To an extent, Iran’s support for Russian actions reflects the improvement in bilateral ties, which have grown considerably at the political and military levels over the past decade,” argued academic Nicole Grajewski. On the other hand, Israel condemned Russia’s invasion and provided Ukraine with humanitarian aid. As nonresident fellow David Daoud observed, “Israel’s sympathies are clearly with Ukraine.” The invasion also affected many sectors critical to Middle Eastern economies, such as oil and gas, as well as agricultural imports and tourism.

February 24: Russia invades Ukraine

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries across the Middle East responded incredibly differently—Iran, for example, strengthened its ties with Moscow. “To an extent, Iran’s support for Russian actions reflects the improvement in bilateral ties, which have grown considerably at the political and military levels over the past decade,” argued academic Nicole Grajewski. On the other hand, Israel condemned Russia’s invasion and provided Ukraine with humanitarian aid. As nonresident fellow David Daoud observed, “Israel’s sympathies are clearly with Ukraine.” The invasion also affected many sectors critical to Middle Eastern economies, such as oil and gas, as well as agricultural imports and tourism.

March 10: ISIS names a new leader

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) announced via social media the death of its previous leader, whom US officials claim blew himself up during a raid on February 3 in northwestern Syria. ISIS announced that their new leader would be Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, about whom little is known. Although significantly reduced in capacity, ISIS is still a dangerous force—two weeks prior to this announcement, they had attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces-run al-Sina’a prison. Orwa Ajjoub, senior analyst at COAR, explained that “discussions over the identity of the new leader and power succession within ISIS offer a valuable insight into the group’s organizational structure,” while at the same time warning that “ISIS seeks to replenish its depleted manpower and show its continued relevance.”

March 10: The US designates Qatar a major non-NATO ally

The United States designated the state of Qatar a “Major Non-NATO Ally” or MNNA, recognizing that bilateral security cooperation has become increasingly important and pointing towards the possibility that Doha will be a partner in the fight against violent extremism and terrorism. Clarke Cooper, a nonresident senior fellow and former assistant secretary at the US State Department, observed that, “although Qatar’s eligibility for MNNA status doesn’t automatically include a mutual defense pact with the United States, being designated a MNNA state is very much a declaration that the United States wants a deeper and stronger security-cooperation relationship with Qatar and expects the country to play a greater role in regional security.”

April 27: Israeli prime minister’s Holocaust speech neglects to mention Iran

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gave the keynote speech during the opening ceremony of Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day in Jerusalem. The address, which is broadcast live with officials, major societal figures, as well as Holocaust survivors and their families, is one of the most prominent speeches an Israeli prime minister delivers. For the past thirteen years, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the one who spoke. Each time, he heavily discussed the threat of Iran and its potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, sometimes describing Iran as having the potential to create a second Holocaust. However, Bennett failed to even mention Iran in his speech. Daniel Shapiro, distinguished fellow and former US ambassador to Israel, explained that “Bennett’s choices in his speech…suggest a subtle difference from Netanyahu on Iran,” adding that, “what has changed is Bennett’s decision to focus less on arguing with the United States in public and more on upgrading Israel’s capability to defend itself, including its ability to strike inside Iran.”

May 3: The Iranian government raises food prices

The administration of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi introduced a new set of hiked prices—including on wheat, flour, cooking oil, chicken, eggs, and dairy products—in an attempt to combat its massive budget deficit. This led to a series of protests, as well as harsh criticism of Raisi from local media and current and former officials. Authorities responded with a partial Internet shutdown in sections of Iran and cracked down on protestors. Journalist Sayeh Isfahani noted that this is the government’s “tried-and-tested tactic of hiking prices and rationing goods,” and highlighted one cleric’s tweet, which suggests that “the government’s plan for eradicating poverty might be the elimination of the poor.”

May 9: Israel’s Knesset resumes work after spring hiatus

Israel’s Knesset returned to a summer session that proved long and chaotic after its spring hiatus. Before the recess, Yamina Member of Knesset Idit Silman resigned from her position as majority whip on April 6, switching to the ranks of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thus, moving the Knesset into a sixty-sixty deadlock. Shalom Lipner, nonresident senior fellow, argued that “the tenuous prospects of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s ruling coalition are fanning speculation from critics that its box office run will be cut short.”

May 13: UAE President Sheikh Khalifa passes away

UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan passed away at age seventy-three. His death occurred during the fiftieth anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the UAE. Despite growing stresses between the two countries—the UAE abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and saw President Joe Biden’s response to the Houthi attacks in February as slow and insufficient—R. Clarke Cooper, nonresident senior fellow, observed that, “in this time of transition, it is incumbent upon the US to readily affirm its long-term relationship with the UAE and strongly reaffirm its shared strategic commitments to promote peace and security, support mutual economic growth, and expand educational opportunities.”

May 15: Lebanon holds a parliamentary election

Lebanon held its first parliamentary election since its economic collapse. However, the Lebanese population regarded the elections with pessimism, signaling general apathy about the political situation in the country, as evident by its 41 percent turnout. Nicholas Blanford, nonresident senior fellow, contended that “most Lebanese believe that those politicians who created the financial disaster in the first place lack the will and ability to implement sector-wide reforms.”

May 23: Commercial tower in Iran falls, causing protests

The Metropol, a ten-story commercial tower, collapsed in southwestern Abadan in Khuzestan province, killing at least forty-one people, including at least five children. Citizens, officials, and media blamed the tower’s fall on negligence and corruption, and independent journalists implicated top officials in the tower’s collapse. The tragedy caused immense public anger, leading to street protests in Khuzestan, which the Iranian government responded to with partial internet shutdowns and brutal force. Journalist Sayeh Isfahani wrote that, “as the frequency of protests increase in Iran and people often target [the] top echelons of power, including the Supreme Leader, there is one thing in common between the historical analogies: they all predict the collapse of the Islamic Republic.”

June 9: Israel-Lebanon maritime border dispute picks up again

An Israeli floating gas production unit arrived in the maritime zone disputed between Israel and Lebanon. The gas production unit, which is exploring the Karish gas field, is in a disputed area of 860 km in the eastern Mediterranean. Large gas reserves have been found in the area in recent years, leading to further tensions between the two countries. Lebanon issued a statement saying that any exploration, drilling, or extraction work that Israel carries out would constitute a provocation and act of aggression. On the other hand, the Israeli government considers the Karish gas field part of its exclusive economic zone and not part of the disputed maritime territory. Nicholas Blanford, nonresident senior fellow, highlighted that “Lebanon and Israel appear eager to seek a negotiated solution and, despite Hezbollah’s saber-rattling, the party has little incentive to engage Israel in a fresh shooting war.”

June 12: Muqtada al-Sadr renounces his electoral victory and orders his parliamentary bloc to resign

Influential Shia cleric Muqtadaal-Sadr told members of parliament from his bloc to resign in what he termed a bid to break the parliamentary deadlock and create space for the establishment of a new Iraqi government. Since Iraq’s general election in October 2021, parliament had been unable to create a majority in support of a new prime minister. Thus, Sadr, a populist, said in a statement that resigning was a sacrifice from him for the country. Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative, noted that “no matter how many times the elections are repeated, parliament’s demographic and political configuration won’t change, as the seats are firmly allocated to demographically segregated districts, with only a few exceptions,” adding that “For real political reform to happen, Iraqis must return to the drawing board and courageously correct their mistakes in the 2005 constitution.”

June 22: Crown prince of Saudi Arabia visits Turkey

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) visited Turkey for the first time since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Just months before in April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a visit to MBS in Riyadh. According to Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, and Pinar Dost, deputy director at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY Program, “the Turkey-Saudi Arabia rapprochement is part of a broader normalization strategy by Turkey with countries in the region, which became possible after the end of the Gulf rift.”

July 1: Libyans take to the streets to protest

The price hikes of food and goods and constant electricity cuts aroused the anger of Libyans. However, what also contributed to their frustration was the “misbehavior of the political class,” according to director of the North Africa Initiative, Karim Mezran. Protests in Libya even prompted the torching of the Libyan House of Representatives in the port city of Tobruk. “The Tunisian case provides good, willing Libyans and the international community the opportunity to do more than limit themselves to redundant generic statements—they can act decisively to avoid a worse crisis,” argued Mezran.

July 13-16: US President Joe Biden visits the Middle East

US President Joe Biden made his first visit to the Middle East in July. The trip focused on repairing relationships across the region in an effort to foster regional stability and advance normalization with Israel. According to distinguished fellow, Dan Shapiro, the president made familiar talking points on Iran, security cooperation, and the Palestinians, but, if careful attention is paid something new can be detected. “Like all foreign policy these days, a visit to the Middle East is, as much as anything, about US competition with Russia and China.”

July 25: Tunisia’s Constitutional Referendum

Tunisians headed to the polls on July 25 to vote on a new constitution to replace the 2014 one adopted by the Constitutional Assembly after the 2011 Arab Spring. The referendum comes exactly one year after President Kais Saied’s decision to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspend parliament. As Alessia Melcangi, nonresident fellow, notes, 92.3 percent officially ratified Saied’s power grab over Tunisian institutions; “however, despite the result, the low turnout, which the electoral commission put at only 27.5 percent, represents a rift in the popular support base that the president should consider.

August 2: The founding head of al-Qaeda is killed

One of the masterminds behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed by a US drone strike in Afghanistan on August 2. The Egyptian-born physician-turned-terrorist had long threatened United States security and his death served as another win for the Global War on Terror. Nevertheless, while nonresident senior fellow and former deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security, Thomas S. Warrick, called it a “welcome success,” he warned that “both officials and the public need to be careful not to leap too far in drawing conclusions about what’s needed to secure the American people from future terrorist threats.”

August 29: Muqtada al-Sadr withdraws from Iraqi politics

Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his resignation from Iraqi politics on August 29, prompting his supporters to storm government palaces in Iraq and sparking concerns of further violence. The sudden announcement followed months of protests by his followers. The powerful cleric had been calling for the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament and new elections since its deadlock after the parliament elections of October 2021. Nonresident senior fellow Andrew Peek pointed out that “the United States cannot choose the future of Iraq, and neither can Iran (or at least totally). Not even average Iraqis at this point can do so—only Sadr can.”

September 16: Mahsa Jina Amini dies in police custody, sparking anti-government protests across Iran

On September 13, Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, was arrested by the so-called morality police for “violating” mandatory hijab in Iran. The twenty-two-year-old was brutally beaten up during her detention, leaving her in a coma, where she died three days later on September 16. Her family has accused authorities of covering up her murder. Since September 17, Iranians in all thirty-one provinces have taken to the streets across all social groups and classes in anti-government protests, led by Iranian Generation Z, with women at the forefront. As journalist Sayeh Isfahani explained, “the ongoing protests are unparalleled and mark a watershed moment for Iran and possibly the Middle East as a whole: a women’s revolution that spans class and ethnic divides and hopes to tear down patriarchy manifested in its most violent form.”

September 25: Italy elects far-right prime minister

Giorgia Meloni, a member of the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), claimed victory in the Italian general election on September 25. Meloni is the first female prime minister of Italy and is now leading the most far-right government since Benito Mussolini. Interestingly, her political origins are rooted in fascist ideology, though she claims to have moved away from this association and is now a democratic conservative politician. Nevertheless, there are concerns of her vision for the Mediterranean Sea and wider Middle East, given her Islamophobic rhetoric and calls for tightening illegal immigration from North Africa. As Karim Mezran, director of the North Africa Initiative, and Nour Dabboussi, a researcher, argued, “Italy’s ties with the Gulf countries could start crossing a delicate tightrope if the Fratelli d’Italia government proceeds with a political strategy that effectively marginalizes Arabs and Muslims domestically.”

October 11: More rebel infighting in Syria

Beginning on October 11, clashes erupted between factions of the Syrian National Army (SNA) after the murder of activist Muhammad Abdullatif and his pregnant wife in the city of al-Bab in Aleppo. Abdullatif was investigating the alleged involvement of the SNA’s Hamza Division in drug trafficking. His murder occurred in al-Bab, where the Hamza Division’s presence is “rather limited.” Furthermore, a rival SNA group that holds a powerful presence in the city “identified and arrested the hit team that was allegedly headed by a Hamza Division security man,” which caused clashes between the two groups. “When Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a powerful jihadist group based in neighboring Idlib province, directly intervened on behalf of the Hamza Division, the issue attracted considerable attention beyond the microcosm of Syria’s armed opposition landscape,” argued analysts Malik al-Abdeh and Lars Hauch.

October 13: Iraq elects a new government

Iraq selected a new president, Abdul Latif Rashid, and a prime minister, Mohammed al-Sudani on October 13. This recent election was coordinated by the Shia Coordination Framework, which includes parties with strong affiliations with Iran. This may not bode well for the United States. However, as nonresident senior fellow C. Anthony Pfaff illuminated, “the United States would benefit from broad engagement across a range of Iraqi stakeholders—including those adversarial to the United States—to identify interests and opportunities to facilitate cooperation.”

October 27: Israel and Lebanon sign maritime deal

The United States brokered a maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon. The agreement, which lays out their maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea, provides the opportunity for offshore gas exploration. As senior fellow Ksenia Svetlova explained, “The maritime border agreement instills some stability in the Lebanese system, removes the prospect of war (at least for the short term), and introduces the ability to profit from gas sales…Similarly, Israel, which experiences chronic political instability and watches with concern the wave of violence developing in the West Bank and the weakening of the Palestinian Authority (PA), will be spared from worrying about an immediate escalation at the northern frontier.”

November 5: Iran’s foreign minister admits drone sales to Russia

On November 5, international pressure made Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian confirm that Iran had supplied Russia with drones, though he insisted that the deliveries occurred before the February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, “Iran’s sales of drones to Russia could bring severe prestige, political, and economic consequences,” clarified Javad Heiran-Nia, director of the Persian Gulf Studies Group at the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies in Iran.

November 1: Benjamin Netanyahu is reelected as Israel’s prime minister

After a year-long experiment of a mixed right-center-left-Arab coalition, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was backed by far-right elements, was reelected on November 1. The shift to far-right Israeli politics will affect Israel’s domestic policies and tensions with the Palestinians and bring implications on its relations in the Middle East. As nonresident senior fellow Carmiel Arbit highlighted, “gone are the Arabs, women, and Druze whose participation in the last government presented a fresh face of Israel to the world,” adding that “under the leadership of a new far-right coalition, Israel would join a growing club of democracies cannibalized by extremist elements, leaving the country only further in peril.”

November 6-18: COP27 in Egypt

The 2022 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), better known as COP27, was hosted in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh this year. Over thirty-five thousand participants registered for the annual convention. While many have been skeptical of Egypt leading the annual gathering, citing its environmental policies and human rights concerns, nonresident senior fellow Shahira Amin wrote that “the opportunity to host COP27 has incentivized Cairo to take steps forward in regard to climate adaptation and human rights, even if a lot more needs to be done to show that authorities are serious about political and environmental reforms.”

November 21: The FIFA World Cup begins in Qatar

The World Cup begins in Qatar amid international outcry over its violations of workers’ rights. Over two million migrants work in Qatar, making up 95 percent of all private sector workers. These migrant workers were primarily responsible for constructing Qatar’s new soccer stadiums and other buildings in preparation for the World Cup. This led to the publicization of accusations that Qatar was violating workers’ rights and legalizing a system of forced labor, after which the International Labor Organization worked with Qatar to create a new legal system for the employment of migrant workers. However, Madeline Hart, a Young Global Professional at the Atlantic Council, pointed out that “although Qatar has made significant reforms, without proper implementation, migrant workers in Qatar will continue to suffer and die with no consequences for their employers.”

December 14: Morocco loses to France in FIFA World Cup semi-final

Though Morocco, the dark horse of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, did not win the semi-final against France, the Atlas Lions have won the hearts of many across the Arab and Muslim worlds and African continent. “Images of players prostrating to pray after each match, the celebration of family solidarity with players embracing their parents, and the waving of the Palestinian flag for every memorial picture are all acts of defiance of an essentially western-centric football culture and signals a more diverse and inclusive set of symbols that are epistemologically different from the usual World Cup glam,” observed deputy director for communications, Sarah Zaaimi.

December 7 – 10: Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Saudi Arabia

From December 7 to 10, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh to attend three summits. “Given the bad state of US-Saudi relations, it is natural to see Xi’s visit in the context of geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing, but that framework misses the bigger picture,” stressed nonresident senior fellow, Jonathan Fulton. “This trip was part of a much longer trajectory of deepening China-Middle East relations in which ties with several regional countries have become increasingly mature.”

December 17: Tunisia’s parliamentary elections

Tunisians yet again headed to the polls to select their new parliament, but fewer than 12 percent of the eligible voters showed up on December 17. The low turnout, a stark contrast from previous years, has shed light on the country’s dissatisfaction with Tunisian President Kais Saied’s one-man rule. “Considering the widespread dissatisfaction, President Saied has no other option but to step down, and Western democracies should fiercely condemn the vote and establishment of the new parliament,” argued associate director of the North Africa Initiative, Alissa Pavia.


(c) 2022, MENASource and Atlantic Council


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