Middle East and Africa | Ever darker

The year everything (and nothing) changed in the Middle East

Months of bloodshed have only reinforced the region’s existing woes

A Palestinian woman and two children look out from a building, damaged by Israeli bombardment, in the southern Gaza Strip.
image: Getty Images
| Dubai

BACK IN FEBRUARY, ten months and a lifetime ago, a diplomat from a Gulf state offered this correspondent a confident prediction about the year ahead. The Middle East, he argued, was tired of conflict. De-escalation and diplomacy would be the orders of the day, as old foes saw the benefits of making peace. “This is a moment of change for the entire region,” he said.

At least that last part was correct. Hamas’s bloody assault in Israel on October 7th, and the Israeli offensive in Gaza that followed, have seen the deadliest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians since 1948. It has pushed the region to the brink of a broader war, one that has already drawn in America, Iran and militants from at least four Arab countries.

Before October Israel could brag about its warming ties with countries in the region. But now Arab citizens are seething and Israel is, once again, a neighbourhood pariah. The war has, improbably, rocked global shipping, and it could even jeopardise Joe Biden’s bid for re-election. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which until recently seemed mostly dormant, has roiled the globe and seems to have transformed the Middle East. Or perhaps not. Instead of reshaping the region, it may have just reinforced the Middle East’s long-standing problems.

Before “Black Saturday”, as Israelis call October 7th, there was a serious push for regional de-escalation. In March Saudi Arabia struck a deal to ease tensions with its longtime foe, Iran. The agreement was signed in China, a country which had previously played little role in Middle Eastern diplomacy. Then, in May, the Saudis agreed to allow Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s blood-soaked dictator, to reclaim his seat at the Arab League. The Gulf states and Egypt sought to mend troubled ties with Qatar and Turkey, both of which they had shunned for years because of their support for political Islam.

Despite the violence of the past few months, that detente has largely held. Even though all have close ties with America, and several with Israel, the Gulf states have not been attacked by Iranian proxies. Nor is Israel under attack by any Arab states—only non-state actors too powerful for governments to control. For decades the defining characteristic of the Middle East has been widespread state weakness. Aside from the six members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), a club of stable petro-monarchies, the region is a swathe of failed, or failing, states. The war has only made that clearer.

Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, openly admits that he does not decide whether his country goes to war with Israel; that choice rests with Hizbullah, the Iran-backed militia and political party. Its daily attacks on Israel have kept thousands of Israeli troops along the border with Lebanon. In Yemen the Houthis, another militia backed by Iran, have forced hundreds of cargo ships to avoid sailing through the Red Sea.

Yet their actions have not deterred Israel from its devastating assault on Gaza, nor compelled America to demand a ceasefire or withdraw its troops from the Middle East. They have imposed costs on Israel, America and the world economy—but perhaps at greater cost to their own populations, who already suffer from poor governance and now risk being drawn into regional conflict.

Weak states tend to have weak economies. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian dictator returned to a third term in a stage-managed election in December, will probably thank his voters by devaluing the currency for a fourth time in two years. In November Jordan agreed to a $1.2bn programme with the IMF, replacing an earlier arrangement that had been due to end in March 2024.

Again, the war in Gaza will exacerbate that problem. Tourism bookings have plunged not only in Israel but also in Egypt; some Western carriers have halted flights to Lebanon and even Jordan. The Houthi attacks on shipping will hurt Egypt’s Suez Canal revenues and raise prices for Arab consumers, many of whom were already grumbling about inflation.

The conflict will also widen the gap between the Gulf and the rest of the region. Visitors to the GCC countries this autumn would hardly have felt that the Middle East was in turmoil. Hotels and restaurants were packed in Dubai, which hosted a well-attended COP28 climate summit. Saudis flocked to amusement parks, sports matches and other diversions that the kingdom put on as part of an annual entertainment festival.

Neither Bahrain nor the United Arab Emirates, the two Gulf states that have official diplomatic relations with Israel, severed those ties in response to the Gaza war. The UAE is one of the few countries whose state-owned airlines have not stopped flying to Tel Aviv since the outbreak of war—arguably a diplomatic statement more than a commercial decision. Saudi Arabia still wants to do its own normalisation deal with Israel, although it is now unlikely to happen soon.

For most of his presidency Mr Biden tried to act as if America was done with the Middle East; he wanted to focus on Europe and, especially, Asia. But the Middle East was not done with him. Since October 7th America has sent two aircraft-carrier groups and thousands of troops to the region. Diplomats shuttle between Jerusalem and Arab capitals to try to prevent the war from widening, and to talk about what happens after it. America’s navy has started an international coalition to secure Red Sea shipping.

This is largely a return to form for America, long the region’s unquestioned external power. Recent years have seen much talk about a more multipolar Middle East. Yet amid the region’s worst crisis in a decade, Russia and China have played little role beyond needling the West for its perceived hypocrisy.

In the Holy Land, the war has reinforced rather than reversed a long-term trend—towards intransigence. Optimists hope the war will create an opportunity for a permanent settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Polls suggest it will do the opposite. A survey published in December by the leading Palestinian pollster found that 72% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza thought Hamas was correct to attack Israel on October 7th, despite the horrific consequences. In a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think-tank, 52% of Israeli Jews said their country should not pursue a two-state solution after the war.

It is too early to predict how (or even when) the Gaza war will end. So far, though, it has not reshaped the region’s borders, as did the wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Nor has it toppled any regimes—though in time it may, perhaps, end Hamas’s in Gaza and Binyamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel. What it has done is squash hopeful talk of a “new” Middle East by laying bare the region’s old, unresolved problems.

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