2018 annual forecast

Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa is the world's crossroads. It encompasses the Arabian Peninsula, the mountains of Iran, the plains of Turkey, the deserts of the Levant, the lands north of the Sahara and all coasts in between. The story of the region, as is so often the case of places stuck between foreign players, is the story of trade, exchange and conflict. The traditional powers of the region are Turkey and Iran — Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the current Arab powers — and their competition for influence over the region's weaker states makes the Middle East and North Africa an arena of violence and instability.

16 MINS READDec 22, 2017 | 15:22 GMT
The Middle East and North Africa encompasses the Arabian Peninsula, the mountains of Iran, the plains of Turkey, the deserts of the Levant, the lands north of the Sahara and all coasts in between.
(Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The Middle East and North Africa encompasses the Arabian Peninsula, the mountains of Iran, the plains of Turkey, the deserts of the Levant, the lands north of the Sahara and all coasts in between.

section Highlights
  • Iran will lean heavily on Russia and Europe for support as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel team up to undercut it.
  • Determined to prevent Iran from following in North Korea's nuclear footsteps, the United States will redouble its efforts to counter Iranian influence across the Middle East. Though Washington's actions will jeopardize the Iranian nuclear deal, Tehran won't abandon the accord.
  • To the west, the diverging interests of Iran, Turkey, Russia and Syria will impede any meaningful progress in settling the Syrian civil war.
  • Saudi Arabia will make notable strides in reforming its economy, but it will struggle to achieve the same success in altering social behavior and expectations within the kingdom. 
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Against Iran, an Unlikely Alliance Rises

The United States will enter the new year intent on reining in Iran. The White House, Congress and the Pentagon share a firm resolve to undermine the formidable network of influence that Iran has built across the Middle East through its connections to an array of political and militant groups. North Korea's likely achievement of a nuclear deterrent in 2018 has only hardened Washington's determination to stop Tehran from heading down the same dangerous path.

The United States isn't the only country eyeing Iran's activities with concern. Saudi Arabia — Iran's regional nemesis — has watched anxiously as the Shiite power's reach has slowly spread through its backyard over the past few years. Emboldened by Washington's renewed campaign against its longtime adversary, Riyadh will seize the chance to challenge Tehran for dominance in the Middle East. Recognizing an opportunity of its own, Israel will lend support to Saudi Arabia and the United States in hopes of cutting down their common enemy. In doing so, Israel will pull its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has historically existed behind the scenes, out from the shadows.

Negotiating the Fate of a Nuclear Deal

As tension rises between the United States and Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will hang by a thread, though it will probably survive the year. The deal was designed to halt Iran's nuclear weapons development program, and by most accounts — including that of the International Atomic Energy Agency — Tehran has complied with its terms. As long as Iran remains in compliance, it will enjoy sanctions relief as well as the ability to receive foreign investment and export oil.

But the White House believes the deal is neither robust enough to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions nor comprehensive enough to stymie Tehran's ballistic missile program, sponsorship of terrorism or support for militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. U.S. President Donald Trump signaled his intention to confront Iran on the matter when he decertified the JCPOA in October 2017. To Tehran, the move merely confirmed its long-held suspicion that Washington is not a credible negotiator. 

That different branches of the U.S. government have different ideas about how to approach the JCPOA will only add to the mixed signals coming from Washington. For its part, Congress will take steps to slap new sanctions on Iran while taking care not to violate the deal. Trump, on the other hand, has carefully surrounded himself with policy hawks who are more willing to infringe upon the agreement, regardless of whether Iran's activities are related to its nuclear program, to try to force it back to the negotiating table. Their hard-line stance toward Iran will accelerate the deterioration of Washington's relationship with Tehran. And by stripping away the security guarantees implicit in the agreement, the United States will set itself on a collision course with Iran throughout the Middle East.

The White House's willingness to threaten the deal will revive Tehran's old paranoia as it guards against what it believes to be a concerted effort by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Iran will not be the first to walk away from the nuclear deal, for fear of its economy falling into disrepair once more amid renewed sanctions. But threats to the JCPOA and harsher economic measures emanating from the United States will stir up hard-liners in Iran who don't value dialogue with the West as much as moderates like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani do. These factions will be able to secure more defense funding and popular support. However, Iranians across the political spectrum will be eager to keep the nuclear deal intact so that the country can continue to export oil and court investment from Europe, China and Russia.

Iran will turn to its allies in Europe and Russia to help protect the agreement's framework. After all, the sanctions that the JCPOA lifted were leveled against European companies, not Iran. As a result, most EU members have defended the deal as a means of allowing their economic transactions with Iran to continue while curbing Tehran's nuclear program. The Continent will thus appeal to the United States to uphold the agreement. Russia will join Europe in its support for the JCPOA, as the closer ties forged by two years of cooperation between it and Iran in the Syrian civil war begin to bear fruit for Tehran off the battlefield.

The Syrian Civil War

As Russia and Iran have gained ground in Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United States have lost it. But though their influence over the country's divided rebel groups has slipped, Washington and Riyadh will look for ways to take advantage of the grueling civil war to undermine Tehran. 

The Syrian Civil War

Six years of conflict in Syria, coupled with the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, have given rise to a slew of Iranian-backed militias scattered across the Levant. Iran is keen to use these groups to clear a land bridge linking it to the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since the Sassanid Empire ruled Persia in the seventh century. But the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel are determined to quash Tehran's local allies. Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group that is one of Iran's most powerful non-state partners, will risk becoming a prime target of this crackdown. Though it would be too difficult to isolate and squeeze the group in its homeland, Hezbollah is more exposed to military action against it in Syria, where it fights alongside the forces of President Bashar al Assad. As long as the war rages on and Hezbollah remains overextended, Israel will have a window in which to strike the group, enjoying the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia as it does.

For the most part, the parties involved in the Syrian civil war have largely achieved their goal of beating back the Islamic State, which lost vast stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq throughout 2017. With their common enemy vanquished, the parties will have to confront the far more complicated and delicate issues the conflict has raised. Though a cease-fire is still unlikely next year, future rounds of peace talks eventually could yield a power-sharing arrangement that reserves a place for al Assad's inner circle and kick-starts the process of drafting a constitution. Yet any deal that Damascus approves would be mostly cosmetic, and any deal that affirms al Assad's authority would be rejected by the rebels.

Regardless, Russia is intent on finding a quick exit from the conflict that protects the gains it has made over the past two years. To do so, it will have to rein in the Iranian and Syrian governments, which are more interested in securing a total military victory than in reaching a negotiated resolution. Russia will also have to maintain an open and functional dialogue with Turkey, which has its own ambitions in Syria to attend to. Ankara's primary goal is to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish statelet along its southern border by keeping the region's Kurdish forces divided. Consequently, Russia's negotiations with Turkey in the year ahead will center on the fate of Syria's Kurds, who have demanded their own autonomous region.

Despite the challenges facing it, Russia will play a prominent military and diplomatic role in Syria in 2018. However, its ability to meddle in Middle Eastern affairs at the United States' expense won't be confined there. Rather, Russia will extend its reach to other corners of the region by strengthening its economic and political ties to the Arab Gulf states, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Turkey. 

Jostling for the Battlefield Advantage

The tides of the Syrian civil war may have turned in Iran's favor, but Saudi Arabia could have better luck on other battlefields — both physical and political — throughout the region. Hoping to capitalize on renewed U.S. hostility toward Iran, the kingdom will try to counter the growing influence of its long-standing rival among its weaker neighbors, such as Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

Complicating Saudi Arabia's efforts, however, will be Riyadh's lackluster attempt to rally its like-minded Sunni allies against the Shiite Iran. On paper, the kingdom's partners are far more powerful than Iran's weak proxies. But in practice they are also less reliable. Saudi Arabia will struggle to amass the support it needs to lead any concrete action against Iran. Because of this failure, at least in part, the kingdom will have trouble eroding Iran's military presence in Syria and Iraq, where Saudi Arabia lacks the asymmetric capabilities in which the Islamic Republic and its allies excel. 

The Balance of Power in the Middle East

Yemen is one place where Saudi Arabia will be more likely to succeed. The country's civil war took a surprising turn at the end of 2017 when Houthi rebels killed their erstwhile ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. His death drove many of his followers to defect from the Houthi alliance, perhaps shifting the battle's momentum in favor of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition if they take up arms against the Houthis. Either way, the Houthis will be more desperate than ever to secure aid from Iran in the short term — and the GCC will be more determined than ever to stop them from receiving it.

Yemen will thus become the center of a violent war by proxy between the GCC and Iran as the coalition intensifies its effort to loosen the Houthis' grip on the capital, Sanaa. Now that rifts have opened within the rebel alliance, a political settlement to the conflict will be even more elusive — especially as other Yemeni interests, including southern secessionists, seize the chance to press their own political claims.

Houthi Missile Ranges

Jockeying for Political Influence

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will stir up trouble for Iran on political battlegrounds as it works to undermine Iranian-backed parties and politicians in Iraq and Lebanon. Iraq will hold general elections in May, offering the country a rare moment to assert its independence from the foreign powers involved within its borders. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will champion an emerging strain of nationalism that advocates the resistance of external influence (including from the United States, Iran and Turkey), while Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr will embrace the same rhetoric in hopes of channeling it into electoral gains.

After the elections have wrapped up, Iran will use its connections to Iraq's Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces — some of those militias have created political wings that will participate in the race — to shape coalition building in Baghdad. To balance against these groups, the GCC will funnel money and aid to other Sunni and Shiite parties in Iraq. Given the entrenchment of the Shiite Iraqi politicians aligned with Iran, however, the Gulf bloc will have difficulty weakening Tehran's influence.

To the north, in Iraqi Kurdistan, a failed attempt to declare independence toward the end of 2017 made the split between Arbil province (led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party) and Sulaimaniyah province (led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) even more pronounced. Turkey and Iran will settle back into their long-standing roles as the parties' respective economic and political patrons in the year ahead. As the autonomous region's negotiations with the central government progress, Baghdad will use its relationship with Tehran to try to drive the wedge between the Kurdish parties deeper — exacerbating Iran's competition with Turkey in the country in the process. The widening rift among Iraq's Kurds will be clear in the results of the region's general elections in 2018, hindering Arbil's ability to barter with Baghdad over oil revenue and disputed territory.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia will try to use Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to influence politics in Beirut in order to undermine Hezbollah's interests. But the militant group is deeply entrenched in Lebanon, and despite the small diplomatic gains that Saudi Arabia will eke out among the country's Sunni and Christian communities next year, Riyadh will not be able to mount an effective assault on the insurgency's standing in the country. Turkey will encounter similar barriers as it leans on its links to Sunni leaders in Lebanon to try to counter Iran's militant partner.

Even so, Turkey will seek out other means of making its own mark on the Middle East. Qatar will be an unlikely ally in this regard: Both countries desire regional prestige and independence from their powerful neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the coming year, Turkey will shore up its support for Qatar by deploying troops and military equipment to its territory and ramping up trade. Turkey's growing presence on the Arabian Peninsula will antagonize Saudi Arabia while underscoring the divides permeating the GCC. At the same time, the emerging partnership between Turkey and Qatar will frustrate the Saudi kingdom's attempts to solidify its position as the dominant Sunni power in the Middle East. 

The Saudi Survival Strategy

As Saudi Arabia grapples with its rivals abroad, it will also have to wrestle with tricky reforms at home. Though all GCC states will have to undertake tough reforms in the year ahead, Saudi Arabia's are the biggest and most ambitious. At the heart of the domestic policy changes underway will be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who will wield his newfound power to advance his sweeping agenda. The young leader will try to make good on his promises of aggressive economic reform, aiming to boost non-oil revenue through taxes and investment profits, stimulate private-sector growth and nationalize the kingdom's labor force. 

Mohammed bin Salman's Powers

Saudi Arabia cannot afford to put off these tough economic reforms any longer, and its citizens will soon see tangible signs of painful, if necessary, change. To balance its budget, Riyadh will have little choice but to enact new taxes and proceed with the planned partial initial public offering of the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., which will provide much-needed capital for the kingdom's future investments. (The IPO is currently set for 2018, but it may be pushed back.) As prices on everyday goods like fuel rise, popular dissatisfaction could rise with them. The government will be responsive to its people's demands, revising some targets if they are deemed too aggressive. Thanks in part to such attentiveness and flexibility, as well as a willingness to boost its capital investment next year, the kingdom will reach several of its goals — including an uptick in non-oil revenue.

Some of Saudi Arabia's economic objectives require bold changes in social behavior that will take time to encourage. Eventually, Salman intends to design a new social contract that adjusts what citizens expect of their government, and vice versa. In the meantime, however, the kingdom will take notable strides toward that contract. Riyadh will likely grant women the right to drive in June 2018, and new entertainment opportunities will crop up throughout the year. The crown prince will preface each step with tentative announcements of the measures ahead to gauge the public's reaction and to fulfill his pledge of maintaining transparency. Though the country's conservative clerics will try to stand in the way of reform by appealing to an older demographic that is wary of the prince's aggressive reforms, young Saudis will increasingly embrace Salman's vision for the kingdom's future. 

The Importance of Saudi Reform

North African Nationalism

The Egyptian government will be keeping a close eye on popular opinion next year as well. The country will hold a presidential election in May. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will carefully manage the vote, leaving Egyptians with little choice in their actual selections. But more important will be the headcount at campaign events, social media activity and voter turnout — all of which will reveal some details about voters' opinions of Egypt's economic and security strategies. Any popular frustration with the government in Cairo will be channeled through opposition candidates, such as lawyer Khaled Ali. Subsidy cuts approved by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and scheduled for 2018 will deal a heavy blow to Egypt's lower- and middle-class citizens, but Cairo will try to mitigate the political fallout at home by handing out cash.

Buoyed by IMF loans, Egypt will exercise greater independence in its relationships abroad. (The more financially solvent the country is, the less reliance it has on foreign backers.) To that end, Cairo will balance its ties with the United States and Russia while holding Saudi Arabia at arm's length. Though Egypt is no friend to Iran, it isn't fond of kowtowing to Saudi Arabia's demands, either. Cairo will likewise find itself distanced from Ankara next year as Turkey lends support to the Palestinian cause — chipping away at Egypt's own credentials as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egypt will try to account for Turkey's actions, and to better manage its problems with Sinai militancy, by courting deeper ties with Hamas, the Palestinian group tasked with managing the Gaza Strip. Cairo will also assist in Washington's efforts to negotiate a new peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Next door, momentum will build behind an effort to hold elections in Libya. But although the latest U.N.-backed initiative is gaining support, the many factions taking part in peace talks are unlikely to hash out their differences next year. Nevertheless, a shared form of nationalism has arisen among the most powerful groups in Libya's east and west — including Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, who is gradually garnering the approval of the international community. A national conference in Tunis intended to catalyze the electoral process will showcase the common ground emerging in Libya in 2018. Even so, few parties will be convinced that the U.N. talks will meet their demands, ensuring that the strongest among them, such as Hifter, will continue to act in their own interest as negotiations unfold. 

The Jihadist Wars

The Islamic State may have suffered a sound defeat in Iraq and Syria, but the war against the world's extremist groups is far from over. Al Qaeda will attempt to exploit the collapse of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate to polish its own reputation as the leader of the global jihadist movement and to propagate its vision of "the long struggle." The group's recruitment efforts will aim to attract current and potential Islamic State followers in 2018.

Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State will seek out weak states where they can establish new strongholds or expand old positions, focusing on Yemen, Libya and the Sinai Peninsula. The ungoverned spaces of the Sahel, Afghanistan and Somalia may prove tempting for them as well. Meanwhile, al Qaeda will dig into its bases in conflicts throughout the Middle East — including Syria, where a schism between al Qaeda and an offshoot, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has jeopardized the organization's cohesion. As the battle for the hearts and minds of potential recruits around the world persists, so will the threat of homegrown militants inspired by the competing extremist ideologies urging them to carry out attacks. 

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