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Year In The Arab World
Balancing act
From the Financial Times of Wed, 17 Dec 2014 21:32:29 GMT
Year in the Arab World special report

The past year will be remembered as one of the Middle East’s most tumultuous, a time of political decadence and shattered illusions. Rarely a peaceful region, the Arab world was convulsed in 2014 by existential crises, in which borders of nation states created by colonial powers after the end of the first world war were challenged and the dreams of a young population for more democratic political systems were smashed.

By the end of the year, four Arab countries were engulfed in war — Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen; the Gaza Strip was still reeling from a summer conflict with Israel; and Lebanon and Jordan were struggling with waves of Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, an autocratic government has returned to Egypt, even more repressive than the Mubarak regime swept away in the 2011 revolution. And the Gulf was patching up a political conflict that pitted Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar for much of the year.

Across the region, Arab governments have been forced to contend with the diminishing role of the US and continuing anxiety over the influence of Iran. But, as ever, they continued to be thwarted by inter-Arab bickering and the lack of a common vision.

The main pocket of relative stability was in the oil-rich economies of the Gulf, where growth was fuelled by high energy prices and generous government spending programmes. Dubai has reclaimed its role as a magnet for Arabs from other troubled spots, and emerged from its debt crisis with a determination to reassert its ambition as the regional business hub. By year-end, however, the steep drop in oil prices looked likely to sour the mood and put a damper on the oil-based economies’ expansion.

In 2014, there was good news from North Africa, where Tunisia’s democratic transition progressed with free parliamentary and presidential elections and Morocco pushed ahead with plans to turn itself into a finance hub for sub-Saharan Africa.

In this special report, the Financial Times republishes edited highlights of our political, security and economic reporting over the past year, giving readers a gripping and concise picture of the challenges facing the region.

As this special report shows, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, has posed the most dramatic test for the Arab world since the Sunni extremist group took over Mosul, Iraq’s second city, in June. Isis has merged the civil war in Syria with the sectarian conflict in Iraq, and could become a menace to other states in the region.

The resurgence of a monstrous jihadi force lashing out against the Shia as well as other minority sects has provoked regional and international outrage. It has brought the US back into the region, temporarily, with air strikes against Isis positions containing the jihadis’ advances but not yet close to destroying the group.

However, as President Barack Obama has made clear to Washington’s Arab allies, it will be up to the political elite in the region — particularly in Iraq — to find the compromises that are necessary to defeat Isis.

While Iraq may have a chance of overcoming the raging conflict and surviving as a state, restoring stability to Syria looks nearly impossible, at least in the short term. In Syria, Isis is only one piece of a complex puzzle, with the regime of Bashar al-Assad still battling it out with a range of opposition groups. Opponents to Assad, within Syria and across the region, argue that organisations like Isis will continue to thrive as long as the Assad regime survives.

As 2014 draws to a close, hope appears in short supply in the Arab world, the optimism of political transformation that erupted in the 2011 youth revolutions long gone, replaced by anxiety over jihadi violence, and uncertainty over what lies ahead.

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