Key political trends that could shape the Middle East in 2024
Last year wrapped up with Israel waging its apocalyptic war on Gaza, which has so far killed 22,000 Palestinians and wounded 57,000 others since October.
Most likely, the Gaza crisis will continue dominating headlines for the foreseeable future at the expense of international attention paid to Ukraine.
Arab states are nervous about spillover effects. Egypt and Qatar are leading diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the Gaza conflict and contain it with the aim of ultimately helping to mediate an effective ceasefire between the warring sides.
Yet, as the crisis continues spreading into the southern Red Sea with Houthi rebels disrupting global shipping as part of a strategy aimed at weakening Israel, the lack of a ceasefire in Gaza will continue subjecting the region to grave dangers.
There are many geopolitical trends to look out for in 2024. Four of them include the Gaza war’s regional impact, Syria’s rehabilitation in the Arab world, the Saudi-Iranian détente’s trajectory, and the possibility of a new Iranian supreme leader coming to power.
"The lack of a ceasefire in Gaza will continue subjecting the region to grave dangers"
The Gaza war
Last year ended with the US and Israel more isolated internationally than at any point in recent history. In December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution affirming the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.
The narratives about Israel-Palestine pushed by most policymakers in Washington and America’s mainstream media are completely at odds with the ‘Arab Street’ and the rest of the Global South.
While obsessed with trying to expand the scope of the Abraham Accords and attempts to bury the Palestinian issue, the Biden administration and the US foreign policy establishment failed to understand the Arab world.
The question of Palestine is still important in Arab societies. The bitterness of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 and other historic events remain a source of rage and indignity for many in the region. The Palestinian cause continues mobilising Arab citizens, as demonstrated by protests across the Middle East and North Africa since October.
From the perspective of many Arab governments, however, this dynamic makes the Palestinian issue dangerous. Palestine solidarity protests in Arab countries can quickly take on other issues - including the passivity of regional states to Israel’s brutality and their relationships with Tel Aviv, as well as other issues from corruption to economic mismanagement - that challenge regime legitimacy.
This year, statesmen in US-backed Arab states, especially those which have normalised with Israel, will closely watch how the Gaza crisis plays out across the region, particularly among civil society actors that take part in grassroots activism.
Policymakers in the region will seek to strike delicate balances that cater to public anger while also upholding the interests of their governments in relation to the US and Israel.
Such factors mean that probably no Arab state will normalise with Israel in 2024. Put simply, the Abraham Accords are toxic in the eyes of most Arab citizens whose anger toward Israel and the US has intensified since 7 October.
Beyond the ways in which the issue of Palestine can play out domestically in Arab countries, there are important dynamics in the Gulf sub-region’s security architecture worth watching as Israel’s war on Gaza rages on. The possibility of this conflict further regionalising and internationalising means that more direct US and/or Iranian involvement can’t be ruled out as a potential scenario.
Under such circumstances, the Arab states with the highest stakes would be the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members and Iraq, which are both Iran’s immediate neighbours in the Arab world and close military allies or partners of Washington.
With the Israeli war on Gaza continuing this year, there is no reason to expect tensions in Israeli-Iranian relations to cool. Tel Aviv and Tehran’s hostility toward each other, and confrontations between Israel and Iranian-backed non-state actors, will probably intensify as the Palestinian death toll mounts.
“Within the context of the security dilemma, Iran and the GCC states, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE, by extension will strengthen their military capabilities with the goal of greater deterrence but the risk of increased conflict,” Dr Eric Lob, an associate professor of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University and a Non-Resident Scholar with the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program, told The New Arab.
“That said…this risk can be reduced by Iran and the GCC states continuing to engage with each other and confine the conflict to the Israel-US alliance and Iran-led axis of resistance. Such an outcome could be achieved irrespective of the Abraham Accords, which is a series of diplomatic agreements versus security ones,” added Dr Lob.
"Various militia groups in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine will continue to find space to operate, and a cause to pursue, so long as the Israeli massacre of Palestinians and its destruction of Palestine continues"
“If Israel succeeds in drawing Iran and the United States into the conflict, the GCC states are the most likely theatre of conflict. Despite enhanced diplomatic relations between [Iran] and its GCC neighbours in recent years, the American targets within reach of Iranian missiles are almost all located within Iraq and the GCC,” said Dr Mehran Kamrava, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Qatar, in an interview with TNA.
“Also, the various militia groups in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine will continue to find space to operate, and a cause to pursue, so long as the Israeli massacre of Palestinians and its destruction of Palestine continues," added Dr Kamrava.
"Even if the GCC states try to control or exploit the actions of some of these militia groups, as they did during the early years of the Syrian civil war, they do not always have the strategic depth and the resources to fully control these groups. This will only aggravate regional security dilemmas.”
Syria's regional reintegration
The Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad made huge inroads in terms of its rehabilitation in the Middle East and North Africa last year. Damascus officially regained full-fledged Arab League membership with Assad himself travelling to three GCC states - Oman, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. It will be important to see how this trend plays out in 2024.
A likely consequence of the Israeli war on Gaza will be officials in GCC members (with the notable exception of those in Qatar) determining that regional circumstances make it more prudent to deepen relations with Damascus.
There is a high probability that these Gulf Arab states will be even less concerned about disapproval from Washington and European capitals within the context of the West's role in facilitating Israel’s criminal conduct in Gaza. Assad’s presence at the 11 November joint Arab League-Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) emergency summit in Riyadh spoke to that point.
“The Israeli onslaught on Palestine is only likely to expedite the reintegration of Syria into the Arab fold that was started in 2023. At least at the rhetorical level, Palestine has frequently been a unifying factor among Arabs, and its further destruction by Israel is only likely to lead more Arab states to seek reconciliation with one another, even if superficially,” Dr Kamrava told TNA.
Yet, some experts argue that various issues such as the Captagon trade will result in Syria’s return to the MENA region’s fold occurring at a slower tempo.
“Regarding Syria’s quest for normalisation in 2024, I think that it will not be able to maintain the momentum it once experienced in the spring and summer of 2023. Countries such as Jordan have recognised the regime’s unchanged red lines and inability to deliver change on objectives such as reducing narcotrafficking across Syrian borders,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the power vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, in a TNA interview.
Gordon Gray, the former US ambassador to Tunisia, notes that with the region focused on the Gaza war, Arab capitals will probably pay less attention to Syria compared to last year.
Yet, the former US diplomat maintains that the Syrian regime’s reintegration into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold is set to continue “slowly but steadily” in 2024. Yet, mindful of Syria’s major problems, Gray told TNA that “it is difficult to imagine wealthy Gulf states having much appetite to underwrite whole-scale Syrian reconstruction”.
Ferial Saeed, a former senior US diplomat, sees the Gaza war as giving Arab states further incentive to warm up to Damascus, which is important to efforts aimed at helping to “dilute Iran’s influence in the region and discourage the [Gaza] conflict from spreading”.
She told TNA that it would therefore be logical for GCC members to finance reconstruction in Syria. However, as Saeed noted, “solving Assad’s economic problems without reciprocity in loosening ties to Iran risks encouraging him to straddle both camps”. The former senior US diplomat explained that she expects “more engagement, which is cost-free and reversible, leaving more substantive moves in reserve until the regional picture and Iran’s position in it are clearer”.
What will be important to monitor is whether China decides to make any major moves in Syria as part of an effort to help the country reconstruct and redevelop.
But just as conditions in Syria give GCC states reason to avoid taking the risks that would come with investing in Syria, Beijing will probably decide to avoid such risks as well. Now with the possibility of more spillover effects from the Gaza war into Syria, the Chinese are probably even less likely to take such risks.
Given how much Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies lack the resources necessary to finance the rebuilding of the war-torn country, combined with the expected absence of Gulf Arab or Chinese money, 2024 will probably not be a year in which much progress (if any) is made in terms of redeveloping Syria.
"Riyadh and Tehran have kept their détente on track over the past nearly ten months, and it will be critical to monitor how Saudi-Iranian relations evolve in 2024"
One of the region’s major diplomatic breakthroughs of the past several years was when Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a Chinese-, Omani-, and Iraqi-brokered renormalisation agreement in Beijing on 10 March. Riyadh and Tehran have kept this détente on track over the past nearly ten months, and it will be critical to monitor how Saudi-Iranian relations evolve in 2024.
Dr Kamrava expects bilateral affairs to remain diplomatically cordial but does not anticipate the relationship between Tehran and Riyadh deepening too much.
“Barring unforeseen circumstances, such as massive Iranian retaliatory attacks on regional targets after possible Israeli action, the reconciliation trend is likely to continue at the diplomatic level, though it is unlikely to grow in depth and strategic significance. After the war, there may even be some state visits, but at most these amount to a return of the status quo ante rather than a major, new development in the region,” he told TNA.
This year, we can expect both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to want to keep the détente with the Islamic Republic on track. Although these two GCC states join Washington in having major concerns about Iran’s foreign policy and remain suspicious about Tehran’s agendas in the Middle East, Saudi and Emirati officials understand that their ambitious economic goals will be unrealistic if there is more chaotic turmoil in the Gulf and greater Middle East.
This factor is critical to understanding why Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seek to manage their problems with Iran and not return to the period of 2019 when their tensions with Tehran resulted in attacks on energy infrastructure on the Arabian Peninsula and vessels in the waters of GCC states.
Saeed believes that in 2024 there will be more dialogue between GCC members and Iran when it comes to regional challenges, chiefly the Gaza war.
“There is no lasting political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict without Iran’s acquiescence, and it is noteworthy that Tehran endorsed the final statement of the Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh, which includes the call for a two-state solution,” she told TNA.
“Deepening dialogue with Iran keeps the momentum of détente going while Saudi Arabia and the UAE evaluate how the war has re-shaped the strategic landscape and whether Iran’s embrace of regional economic integration represents a strategic shift or a tactical move to get around US sanctions.”
"There is no lasting political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict without Iran's acquiescence, and it is noteworthy that Tehran endorsed the final statement of the Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh, which includes the call for a two-state solution"
A new Iranian supreme leader?
Considering that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is 84 and has been facing serious health issues, the Islamic Republic’s third supreme leader could possibly come to power in 2024. This transition will be important to the future of Iran and, by extension, the rest of the Middle East.
There is much debate about whether it’s more likely that the current leader’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei, or his protégé, President Ebrahim Raisi, will be Khamenei’s successor. Regardless, the decision will probably be made in a manner which is anything but transparent.
Mindful of how much power the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) possesses in Iran’s political system, it is important to consider the interests of this elite force and other security services, which will favour a regime insider becoming the country’s next supreme leader.
With Mojtaba in his mid-50s, he could potentially serve this role for several decades. This factor would make him “an ideal candidate to prolong the military and security services’ privileged status with regard to both economic and political benefits,” wrote an anonymous Tehran-based analyst last year in an article published by the Stimson Center.
“Jockeying to succeed Iran’s so-called Supreme Leader is another important trend to follow, notwithstanding how opaque such manoeuvring will be. Iran is not Kuwait and cannot afford to replace Ali Khamenei with another geriatric,” said Gray.
In any event, Sina Azodi, a lecturer at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, does not believe that the fundamental nature of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy will change much at all after Khamenei’s successor consolidates power. The transition, though, will possibly come with some bumps.
“Initially there might be a period of confusion and domestic consolidation. But eventually, it will reorient itself with the grand strategy pursued by Khamenei, [which] is to keep the region free of foreign forces and eliminate threats abroad, instead of allowing them to arrive home,” Azodi told TNA.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero