The MENA and Gulf regions: any rays of light?

By Harry Hagopian
February 28, 2018

With the vernal equinox almost upon us, and the days getting longer, brighter and therefore more hopeful, in spite of a period of storms, can the same be said about the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and and Gulf regions today? Putting political sophistry and politicians’ leger-de-main aside, how does the man or woman in the street – assuming they have an interest – view the latest developments in this volatile and riven region? Here are some pithy and precise comments on five key countries and areas.


We have come to learn from President Donald J. Trump that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, despite the clear principles of International law that incorporate a raft of UN Resolutions as well as customary law and international legitimacy. We now also learn that Israel will get its ‘temporary’ embassy in Jerusalem on 14 May 2018 when it celebrates its 70th anniversary – a symbolism not lost on many observers.

My own understanding has always been that Jerusalem was one of the final core issues to be negotiated between the protagonists. But this has now been pre-empted by the US Administration as it prepares its ‘deal of the century’. Whether some Arab countries covertly or otherwise support such US attempts to 'resolve' the conflict, it is obvious to anyone with political nous that the Arab masses will not accept a sell-out of Palestinian rights. Nor will such a deal survive for long without plunging the region into further violence. Wisdom has alas, lost its currency again.

A word of caution too: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves not only Jews and Muslims, it also involves Christians, who together with Muslims, have been struggling for their national aspirations. One telling example is the refusal of the Christian Church leaders to meet with US Vice President Mike Pence in Bethlehem last month.


We are now geared up for a presidential election in late March that is almost a joke – or should I say a shoo-in. This great country, the most populous in the Arab World and with a rich history, is suffering a dictatorship that is worse than that which existed during President Hosni Mubarak’s long tenure when he was at the helm of power.

Today, individual rights are snuffed out, organisations are either shut or clamped down, and journalists as well as activists are summarily thrown into gaol on the most spurious of charges. It seems to me that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, propped up by vested interests of regional powers such as in those in the Gulf as well as domestic secular or religious institutions, simply thinks that Egyptians must follow his way or else find the highway.

No wonder that all credible opponents in the presidential jamboree next month were plucked out somehow or other and the only opponent to the incumbent is a man who is his great fan and who stands no chance of winning the race. This is the lamentable figleaf of democracy in a rigged system that believes in the strength of repression and not in ideas.


Talk about local, regional and global proxies fighting each other out with merciless and bloodthirsty cruelty. Parts of the country are in ruins, and all this is because one man – and his coterie of supporters – does not wish to relinquish his brutal hold on power. Ask those in the know about the torture chambers and notorious prisons in Syria that house all those who disagree with a president who thinks he alone has the right to inhabit the presidential palace.

Eastern Ghouta is solely the latest example where massacres that are tantamount to crimes against humanity are being committed by the Syrian regime and its allies. But Syria is a chessboard for Russia, Iran, the USA, Turkey, as well as a motley of mercenaries, fanatical terrorists or well-meaning fighters, who are together breaking the country. This war will not end when Eastern Ghouta inevitably surrenders, but will continue in different forms.

Equally worrying is that some parts of the country are so devastated that the three million plus refugees abroad will not be able to return home. In fact, not only does the regime not wish them back, their towns have become uninhabitable.


Libya is a beautiful country that I often compare to an unspoilt Cyprus in my articles or interviews. Getting rid of Gaddafi and then leaving this oil-producing country to its own fate was one of the failures of Western policymakers. We now have different executive, legislative and military sources of reference across the whole country.

Into this fray enters the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) which was set up by a UN Security Council Resolution in 2009. It has been led by a number of eminent personalities that include Tarek Mitri and Ghassan Salamé of Lebanon. But UNSMIL has failed in its mission to date, and the country is still bitterly divided and unpredictably violent despite laudable attempts to find solutions. This is not only because of the tribal makeup of the country, but because all those political and military leaders have their distinct and entrenched interests.

Perhaps one way of looking at the plight of Libya is to try and cultivate new leaders who are more open to the peace-making efforts of the UN and other organisations and who realise that the enormous oil output of the country – if used intelligently and for the common good – could reform Libya and its institutions beyond measure.

The Gulf Cooperation Council and Yemen

The contrived spat between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the one hand, and Qatar on the other, would be tragi-comic if it were not also dangerous. Three GCC members decided that they disapproved of the Qatari propensity to adopt independent domestic and foreign policy initiatives that were not synchronous with theirs. As such, they decided to 'punish' Qatar and quickly bring it down to its knees.

However, their efforts boomeranged as realpolitik changed this reality. Qatar has diversified its sources, and managed to use the fabulous wealth from its local resources, to counter the blockade. In so doing, Turkey (and to a lesser extent Iran) have enhanced their influence in Qatar at the expense of more cohesive intra-Gulf relationships. The comments by Saudi and Emirati officials – as well as by their fawning cronies and mouthpieces – is ludicrous. It remains imperative that this unnecessary spat be foreclosed sooner rather than later.

Add to this political melee the war in Yemen that has been spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has not only ruined large parts of an architecturally-distinct country but has also radicalised many segments of its population and weakened the tribes that are a bulwark not only against Houthis but also against AQAP. Besides, this war has enhanced Iranian hegemony – something Saudi Arabia and the UAE are ostensibly struggling to contain regionally.

So what two summary conclusions do I wish to highlight from my latest observations?

First, the counter-revolutionary forces across the MENA and Gulf regions have gained the upper hand at this stage. With untold amounts of monies, as well as brutal suppression, they have striven to put the lid back on those initial uprisings that initially sought the basic freedoms we in the West take for granted. However, the genie still remains outside the bottle, and it is not possible to impose a wholesale amnesia on the younger generations. The Arab Spring was a hasty misnomer, but the Arab Winter is an ephemeral misnomer.

Second, the Palestinian conflict is now facing a political cul-de-sac. But a whole people cannot be robbed of their rights for self-determination by the oppressive practices of Israeli governments and the collusion of some Arab rulers or other global powers. Three million Palestinians cannot be made willing refugees again, and the younger generations are even more conscious of their rights. Ahed Tamimi from Nabi Saleh is an example of resistance. The question is how much more pain has to be sustained before the dream becomes real.

With populism being the latest ferocious ism that has rooted itself in many corridors of power, is there a ray of light in the horizon for any of those countries? Perhaps not very perceptibly at this moment, but equinoxes change as do political realities. After all, when it becomes more difficult to suffer than to change, then change becomes inevitable.


© Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as Legal Consultant to OTS Solicitors in London (particularly on Brexit and immigration issues). He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor ( Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land (The Russell Press).  Dr Hagopian’s own website is -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here:

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.