The Five Most Important Middle East Events of 2011

Superlatives fail to describe 2011 for the Middle East.

Leaders once thought unshakeable have gone, popular grassroots movements once discounted have become the leading vehicle for change, and the term “revolution” has been completely redefined by the region’s people. Many commentators may therefore point to the Arab Spring as the most important event in the region this year, and maybe even in the modern history of the Middle East. However, to characterize the Arab Spring as a coordinated, fluid, pan-regional social movement is incorrect; the Arab Spring is a complex mosaic of different movements, ideas, and objectives, which together form a picture of overall change. This year was not solely the year of the Arab Spring, for it also presented an increasingly belligerent Iran and the death of a key Saudi royal.

Here are the five most important events of this year in the region:

Libya’s Successful Uprising. Many observers initially believed this uprising was doomed to fail, owing to the highly organized and effective Libyan police state. This, thankfully, did not come to pass. The capture of Tripoli and execution of Muammar Gaddafi entailed a fresh start. Now, it is up to the National Transitional Council to manage a divided and chaotic post-civil war society into one suited to participatory forms of government during 2012.

Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution. Egypt is arguably the most important Middle Eastern state; it is the most populous Arab country, a key ally of the West, and it upholds a fragile peace treaty with Israel. The ousting of President Hosni Mubarak was the apex of the Arab Spring, and it emboldened others in Libya and Yemen to demand change. Today, the Egyptian people continue their struggle to make their voices heard, notably through the recent elections. In 2012, the main factor will be whether the Muslim Brotherhood adheres to its promises of tolerance in its future role in the government of Egypt, and whether Egypt can move beyond the shadow of the Mubarak decades.

Syria’s Unending Revolution. Syria is a vitally important Middle Eastern nation, located in the most fraught geopolitical area. This makes it very sensitive for the West and other nations such as Israel and Iran. The ongoing quasi civil war and subsequent international isolation of the Syrian regime has ensured closer cooperation between Syria and Iran. Through this Iranian support (combined with Russian and Chinese pressure), the Syrian regime has not suffered the same fate as Libya. However, Syria has essentially mortgaged itself to Iran, becoming a key future proxy in Iran’s antagonism of the West and Israel.

The Death of Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia. Prince Sultan’s death was not unexpected, in fact it was anticipated. Yet, the one underlying concern is that his death heralds the start of the demise of the House of Sa’ud. With power eventually transferring from one generation of the family to the next, there are fears of instability as succession could be contested. As Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the West, and a heavy regional counterweight to Iran, this is concerning news. With its oil wealth and stakes in the U.S. economy, Saudi Arabia’s succession and the survival of the al-Sa’ud dynasty are key to keeping the Gulf region stable and secure. Prince Sultan’s passing invites closer observation of Saudi Arabia throughout 2012.

The Explosion of the Iran Nuclear Crisis. This year, Iran has departed from its usual course, as Tehran has consistently trod an increasingly belligerent and confrontational path. From Ahmadinejad’s controversial speech refusing to give up the nuclear program to the unprovoked invasion of the British Embassy and the downing of an American drone, Iran has sought no conciliation. The regime’s way of reacting to the Arab Spring phenomenon and its own population’s vocal demands for change has been to ramp on tension with the West. As such, Iran is one to definitely watch in 2012. As the West intensifies sanctions and Israel prepares for potential war, Iran’s every move should be heavily scrutinized.

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