Is peace finally coming to the Middle East?
For decades, the Middle East has been mired in conflict. From the year 1900 to now, there have been close to 100 major conflicts ranging from civil wars, revolutions, riots, proxy wars and direct military conflict in which millions of lives have been lost. Some of the major conflicts over the years have included the Arab-Israeli conflict, which began in 1948 and has not officially ended three-quarters of a century later; the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990); the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Gulf War (1990-1991) and more recently the US-Iraq War (2003-2011), the Arab Spring Uprisings (2010-2012), the Syrian Civil War (2011-present) and the Yemeni Civil War (2015-present).
Mid-East conflicts have over the years had major impacts on the global economy, largely because these conflicts tend to inflate oil prices. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) estimates that 64.5 percent of its members’ oil reserves are in the Middle East. The region also holds roughly 40 percent of the world’s conventional gas reserves. These figures suggest that more than any other part of the world, the Middle East plays a central role in global energy markets. Therefore, it stands to reason that in a world that is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, turmoil in the Middle East is bad for the global economy.
There is also the impact on human lives to consider. In Yemen, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the ongoing civil war has claimed over 100,000 lives, displaced 4 million people and another 24 million people need assistance. Meanwhile in Syria, the CFR estimates that close to 12 million people have been displaced (both internally and abroad). The Syrian conflict has also claimed over 400,000 lives.
One cannot help but feel that the Middle East has been in turmoil for too long. However, some recent developments provide reasons for optimism. On August 13, 2020, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed a peace agreement, also known as the Abraham Agreement. Importantly, as part of the deal, Israel has agreed to suspend plans to annex parts of the West Bank – a thorn in its relationship with the Palestinian people and the wider Arab world for many years.
The Palestinian leadership has rejected and denounced the Abraham Agreement. Unsurprisingly, Iran has also denounced the agreement with its President Hassan Rouhani calling it a “huge mistake”. However, in many parts of the Arab world, the Abraham Agreement has come in for high praise. Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain and Oman have all welcomed the deal.
Outside of the Arab world, the deal has also been lauded. The United States (US) was a major broker in the agreement and it has turned out to be a major diplomatic achievement for the Trump administration. Other Western powers, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Spain, have also supported the Abraham Agreement.
The Abraham Agreement also has wider significance beyond the immediate Israel-UAE relationship. There is potential for the deal to be a watershed moment in improving Israel’s relationship with the other Arab countries with which it has no formal diplomatic ties, but which are in America’s sphere of influence. Such a development has the potential to at least ease some of the tensions between Israel and its neighbours.
A less publicised, but equally important development, was the recent week-long negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, during the week beginning August 24, 2020, aimed at drafting a new constitution for Syria. These negotiations ended with an agreement to meet for further talks at an as yet unspecified date. While there was no major breakthrough in these negotiations, none of the parties walked away from the table and the United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen noted that there were a few areas of commonalities. Hopefully, these negotiations represent light at the end of the tunnel for the Syrian people.
Finally, in the same way that one swallow does not make a summer, one or two positive developments in the Middle East are unlikely to bring about lasting peace to the entire region. Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territory, the myriad of proxy wars, the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and the instability in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to fan the flames of conflict for many years.