Iran-Saudi Tensions Top List of 2016 MENA Region Challenges

The wreckage of a house destroyed by Saudi-led bombing. Sanaa, Yemen, June 13, 2015 (Ibrahem Qasim)

It was clear to even the casual observer that the Middle East and North Africa region was mired in political instability and violence in 2015. Conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, civil unrest in Bahrain and Israel, and ongoing challenges with stabilizing Libya—despite this week’s progress on a unity government—have laid the foundation for a similarly concerning 2016. There are also emerging signs that existing challenges will not only continue, but expand and take on an increasingly sectarian and externally supported character as major powers seek to ensure that parties favorable to them endure.

The most concerning issue in 2016 to date has been the developing crisis between predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia. In early January, Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr on charges of terrorism. Nimr, a symbol of opposition to the rulers in Riyadh, represented the minority Shiite population in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. This group has long agitated, with the political and ideological support of Iran, for greater rights and the release of jailed activists. Attacks by Iranian protesters against Saudi diplomatic offices in Riyadh and Mashhad were the catalyst for a serious break in relations. Following these incidents, Saudi Arabia and its regional political and military allies Bahrain, Kuwait, Sudan, and Qatar reduced diplomatic contact and/or withdrew ambassadors from Iran.

The failure to resolve the dispute between two of the region’s most powerful and influential states is likely to undermine efforts at securing a negotiated settlement in many conflicts. Syria, in a state of civil war since 2011, is likely to be the main casualty. Saudi-supported rebels will continue to push for and demand the removal of Bashar al-Assad before any meaningful talks, while Iran’s support for Assad and pro-Syrian government Hezbollah forces remains unwavering. The late 2015 involvement of Russia in the crisis has further complicated the political dynamics in the country. Russian forces have increasingly targeted both rebels and so-called Islamic State (ISIS) forces since September and there are no signs that it will be reducing its footprint in the country until its long-term interest of ensuring the survival of a pro-Russian regime in Syria is met.

The potential involvement of more state actors is also large in Syria. Turkey, which has experienced several high profile bombings in its urban centers attributed to ISIL over the past year, most recently in Istanbul in early January, continues to threaten greater involvement in the country’s north. However, this remains dependent on a number of factors, including the support it receives from NATO, the proximity of Kurd forces in northern Syria and southeastern Turkey, and the political position of Russia and the actions of its forces near the Turkish frontier. Tensions between Turkey and Russia, particularly following the November shooting down of a Russian warplane, has deepened anxiety surrounding a potential interstate conflict and potential direct Turkish military involvement in Syria. The US, which supports Turkey, many Syrian rebel forces, and the Kurds, is also unlikely to become directly involved given the complex nature of the battlefield and President Obama’s stated preference for forming coalitions and pursuing diplomatic solutions rather than on-the-ground, Iraq-like military options.

The Yemen conflict is another casualty of the Saudi-Iran dispute. Through late 2015, there were some indications that a meaningful negotiation would be initiated to end the fighting. However, the prospect of this occurring now is slim. Saudi Arabia and its military coalition partners are more likely to seek a victory against the Houthi rebels or a settlement that is heavily in favor of the Saudi-led coalition. But a settlement is unlikely to be supported by Iran. As such, fighting will continue and become increasingly bloody and costly as coalition forces move into the rugged interior encompassing the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa.

The Israel-Palestinian dispute will, as always, follow predictable cycles of violence and relative calm, barring any meaningful progress toward a political solution. Key drivers of instability will continue to be Israeli construction of settlements, management of religious sites in Jerusalem, alleged or actual abuses in Palestinian territories against civilians and suspected militants, tensions between Israel and the Gaza Strip-based Hamas, and Palestinian-led violence against Jewish and Israeli interests.

Israel’s diligent watch over its northern border is also unlikely to be lowered in light of the increasing proximity of Russian, Syrian, and Hezbollah forces in southwestern Syria, and threats of retaliation by Hezbollah in response to the killing of Samir Kantar, a prominent Hezbollah figure in Damascus in December. Indeed, the friction between Hezbollah and Israel may develop into a wider conflagration in 2016. However, the Lebanon-based movement will calculate that fighting both in Syria and against Israel may be too costly. Israel, for its part, will seek to diminish the risk of confrontation with Russia, which currently supports Hezbollah and Syrian military operations in Syria.

North Africa also faces severe challenges. The relative calm in Algeria, Morocco, and the Western Sahara is offset by ongoing security challenges stemming from Islamist extremists in Tunisia, the fractured and unstable Libya and persistent tension between both moderate and extremist Islamist forces in Egypt against the military there. Throughout this region all regimes, excluding Libya, may increasingly stabilize, but will still be susceptible to periods of unrest in response to economic-related issues, such as low oil and gas prices, as well as the persistence of jihadist violence from groups such as ISIS.

Lower prices for commodities will undermine state efforts to placate their large pools of unemployed, which, in the Arab world, remain at alarmingly high levels, particularly among youth. Algeria remains a key point of focus for 2016 given its almost exclusive reliance on income from the oil and gas sector. Economic, including service delivery-related civil unrest, may spike through the year and increasingly be accompanied by calls for political change. Attacks in Tunisia and Egypt throughout 2015 also underscored the risk posed by militants to the critically important local tourism sectors, which employ thousands of people and contribute significantly to each of these state’s coffers. Militants are likely to seek to escalate violence against soft targets in 2016 to undermine national economies.

In Libya and Egypt’s North Sinai governorate, where the influence of the state is less pronounced, militants aligned with ISIS will likely seek to capture and hold more territory. In December and January, ISIS forces in Libya expanded out of their bases in Sirte and have taken territory in the country’s oil processing and export region between Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf. There has at least been some tentative good news in the country, with the agreement of rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli to unify under a UN plan, though the durability of these arrangements remains to be seen.