We look at five countries which might witness dramatic change in the coming year.
The following represents an abridged version of the ‘2020: The Year Ahead’ report produced by TRT World Research Centre. The full report can be accessed here.
As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, it has become increasingly clear that ours is a world in transition away from the unipolar moment of the late 20th century towards a more multi-polar and ultimately uncertain world. Consequently, many of our assumptions and received wisdoms are being challenged.
This dynamic makes the already difficult task of looking ahead even more challenging. Some key themes to look out for in the next year, and into the next decade, include the consequences of what appears to be increasing US disengagement from the Middle East, the continuation of mass protests and what has been referred to as a revolt against neo-liberalism, and the seemingly unstoppable march of right-winged populism and nationalism.
The following represents an attempt to highlight a number of key hotspots that serve as mirrors for global trends that are likely to shape our world well into the next decade.
Under Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical clout has arguably been running thin. From the disastrous war against the Houthis in Yemen to the more recent attack against the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities, both the internal authority and external reputation of MBS are proving to be increasingly fragile.
Faced with what appears to be increasing American disengagement from the region and a hesitancy to deploy hard power, the Saudis have been forced to backtrack on a number of key dossiers. They have been reportedly intensifying their talks with the Houthis in Yemen in hopes of extricating themselves from the conflict and have most recently re-engaged with Iran, backtracking from their previous aggressive stance.
2020 is likely to see a continuation of these trends, particularly as the Kingdom will increasingly be challenged on the economic front. With the failure of the international flotation of the Aramco IPO there is the distinct possibility that MBS’ ‘Vision 2030’ may flameout. The multiple foreign policy failures, combined with heavy-handed repression and a steep economic slowdown, will pave the way for possible upheavals within Saudi Arabia.
Internally, MBS has eroded his support base within the royal family by alienating several elders and putting others under house arrest. In 2019, MBS moved against several tribes which were loyal to the royal family and played a pivotal role within the security apparatus. Following the mysterious assassination of the bodyguard of King Salman, Abdul Aziz al-Fagham, a respected figure within the Mutair tribe, another leader of the prominent Otaiba tribe, Faisal bin Sultan bin Humaid, was placed in indefinite solitary confinement.
Prospects in 2020 are bleak for Saudi Arabia. The erosion of tribal loyalty is a high-security risk; tribal allegiances constitute the last safety net for the kingdom. After years of tinkering, failure to respect the delicate societal balances may well constitute the final nail in the coffin of MBS’ ambition to become king. Concerns about the stability of the kingdom are higher now that they have been in 50 years.
2020 promises to be a year of instability for Lebanon as the interrelated political and economic crises continue to play out. As the year progresses however, it will become clear that the political dynamics in the country have changed. The multi-sectarian uprising that broke out in October has altered the political landscape in ways not seen since the emergence of rival March 8th and March 14th blocs in the aftermath of the 2006 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Perhaps the only positive note in an otherwise gloomy 2020 forecast is that the multi-sectarian protest movement that emerged as a significant political force in October is set to increase its political influence in 2020.
While developments in the country will remain fluid, there is chance that if a new government can be formed under the Prime Minister-designate, Hassan Diab, it will have a chance to push through at least a minimal level of reforms. At the same time, while the bar for success is arguably low, there remains the possibility that Lebanon’s economic situation has gone past the point of no return as it relates to the lifespan any new government might have to address some of the more pressing issues.
On the economic front, Lebanon will continue to face tremendous challenges. 2020 may see the country gain access to funds pledged by the International Support Group for Lebanon if a new government can begin enacting necessary reforms. However, with the IMF predicting poverty levels to rise to 50 per cent- a figure that reflects pre-crisis projection - businesses continuing to close or lay off employees and the state on the verge of bankruptcy, economic prospects for 2020 do not look very bright.
Perhaps one of the most significant challenges for 2020, and beyond, will be to restore confidence in the country’s financial sector. In the coming year, banks will have a near-impossible time convincing Lebanese expats, once the major source of foreign currency deposits, to continue to trust their money to Lebanese banks.
The inability to maintain the flow of US dollar deposits into the country will ultimately affect the ability of the Lebanese Central Bank (BDL) to maintain the peg of the Lebanese Lira. While the official rate will likely remain at the peg level (approximately 1500 LBP/USD) through at least the first half of 2020, it will continue to lose value in the unofficial exchange market as the amount of available dollars in the country continue to dwindle.
With banks continuing to severely restrict access to money, arbitrary price increases, layoffs and the beginnings of what could prove to be an acute shortage of essential commodities, the situation is likely to worsen over the coming months. A spate of recent suicides in the country are demonstrative of the fact that the system is crushing people’s dignity.
In 2020, Iraq is likely to face an intensification of a similar set of issues that sparked the popular uprising in the first place. The core grievances that pushed Iraqi protestors onto the streets in October – namely rampant corruption and a lack of opportunity and basic services - are not likely to see much progress in the coming year.
Following the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, the first challenge will be selecting a new prime minister who can implement the promises that his predecessors have failed to deliver. Abdul Mahdi represent a consensus reached between the rival Saairun Alliance, led by nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Fatah Alliance led by pro-Iran militia leader Hadi Al-Amiri.
Now, they must restart the tedious process of agreeing on another candidate who is likely to be just as weak as the previous one. Whoever the new Prime Minister will be, they will most likely serve in a caretaker capacity, further restricting his powers, until new elections are held.
Holding new elections will itself be another challenge. Electoral reform is one of the key demands of protesters who view the current system as being rigged in favour of traditional parties. Although parliament is currently working on a bill designed to ensure fairer elections, 2020 is not likely to see a breakthrough in this regard.
Demonstrators have been increasingly vocal in demanding the curbing of Iranian influence in Iraq. While public sympathy towards Iran is likely to decrease, Tehran still has the ears of Iraqi politicians across the spectrum. While most notable amongst members of the Fatah alliance, Iranian influence extends to a number of key Arab-Sunni, as well as Kurdish political movements. There is little indication that this will drastically change in 2020.
2020 will be another critical year for Algeria. In the past year, the country witnessed the removal of long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office amidst a sustained popular uprising. The Hirak (popular movement) represents the outcome of decades of structural injustice and cyclical tensions.
While the Hirak has no formal structure, it has achieved some considerable, albeit mostly tactical, victories. It twice forced a postponement of Algeria’s presidential election and has pushed the military establishment into some costly political errors, not least the organisation of the presidential elections on 12 December 2019, which witnessed an abysmally low voter turnout amidst allegations of massive fraud.
From the regime’s vantage point, these elections constitute the closing of a tumultuous chapter and the beginning of a new one, in which the intention of establishing a dialogue features high on the agenda. Unlike President Bouteflika, the current rulers will be unable to buy social peace.
In the upcoming year, concerns vis-a-vis the long-term transition to democracy, the primacy of the civilian political leadership over the military, and the rule of law will come to the fore.. In order to keep up the same level of mobilisation and to progress to the next level, the Hirak would need to structure itself from the ground up. Precariously, such a process entails real dangers and acts as a double-edged sword since this could lead to the neutralisation or co-optation of its emerging leaders. The regime could also exploit the contradictions and drive a wedge between the grassroots and their leaders.
On the other hand, the economic constraints will oblige the government to seek assistance from international banks to finance imports and the deficit of the Algerian state. This will mean going into a vicious cycle of debt, low growth, and high unemployment. This could potentially drag the country into more rounds of upheaval and push the military to impose their authority directly if things get out of control.
The United States
In the upcoming year, the United States will face challenges on both political and economic fronts.
With regards to the economy, 2020 comes with great risks. US-China trade tensions and an ongoing synchronised growth slow-down in other major economies represented the main sources of risk. Prolonged economic expansion since the 2008 crisis seems to be based on shaky grounds such as the Trump administration’s one-off fiscal stimulus package. What is most concerning is that neither the government nor the Federal Reserve, have the necessary policy tools to fight the next recession when it hits.
Regarding the political challenges, the question on everyone’s mind is, will Trump’s impeachment impact the 2020 presidential race?
While the world seems to expect that the American people will, and indeed should, cast the bellicose president aside, the reality of American political dynamics may prove to be more than the Democrats can overcome. All signs indicate that there is a high likelihood that Donald Trump is set to return to the White House for four more years.
Polling suggests that voters in key swing states are not interested in making impeachment an election issue. By turning their attention to impeachment and Trump’s presidential suitability, Democrats are taking resources away from efforts to push key issues such as health care, wages, labour issues - notably the fact that the Manufacturing Index in the US continues to drop month after month - where Trump is particularly vulnerable. Focusing on Trump’s belligerent behaviour and corruption is perhaps not the winning strategy that some Democrats may think it is.
In the end, it is all about mobilising key demographics. In 2020, one of the key determining factors will be voting patterns of middle and working-class white women.
This is not to say that the Democrats ability to mobilise African American and Hispanic voters is not an important factor to consider. This is all the more so in light of documented cases of voter suppression tactics deployed by Republicans including intimidation of minority voters, curbs on voter registration and election security issues.
Republicans have been hesitant to spend money securing electronic voting systems, which does not bode well 2020 in light of the fact that foreign - notably Russian - meddling reportedly focused on African American votersin particular.
However, by focusing on impeachment and character issues the Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot. For better or worse, barring unforeseen circumstances, the world is likely going to have to learn to deal with President Donald Trump for another four years.