Twenty things to track at the start of the next decade in the Middle East and wider world.
The global spotlight will fall on Saudi Arabia in 2020 as it assumes the presidency of the G20 ahead of the leaders’ summit in Riyadh starting on Nov. 20. Under the theme “Realizing Opportunities of the 21st Century for All,” the Saudi presidency will focus on three aims: Empowering people by creating the conditions in which everyone — especially women and young people — can live, work and thrive; safeguarding the planet by fostering collective efforts on food and water security, climate, energy and the environment; and long-term strategies to share the benefits of innovation and technological advancement.
On Feb. 29, an elite field of runners and riders will assemble at King Abdul Aziz Racetrack in Riyadh for the Saudi Cup which, with a purse of $20 million, is the world’s most valuable horse race. Hailed by Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al-Faisal, chair of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, as “without doubt the most significant event in the history of horse racing in Saudi Arabia,” the contest is the spectacular opening move in the Kingdom’s bid to position itself as a leading player on the sport’s global stage. The cup also marks another first in the Kingdom’s race toward modernization — it is open to both male and female jockeys.
Could 2020 be the year that peace finally returns to Syria — or, in the wake of the US withdrawal and the surge into northern Syria by the Turks and Assad regime, will the territorial ambitions of Moscow and Ankara condemn the country’s civilians to another year of despair? The signs are not good. The latest round of peace talks, held in Geneva in November, faltered after government and opposition negotiators failed even to agree an agenda for plans to draft a new constitution. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for one million Syrian refugees in Turkey to be returned to the north of Syria could further destabilize a volatile situation.
On March 17, Saudi Arabia will begin conducting the fifth general census in the nation’s history, designed to gather information about its population — vital for government planning in areas including education, health, employment, housing and deverlopment. The first census, in 1974, recorded a population of just over 7 million. By the time of the fourth and most recent census, in 2010, the population had grown to more than 27 million.
On Oct. 20, Dubai will formally come of age when millions of visitors begin flocking to the Gulf’s most dynamic city for Expo 2020, the first to be held in the Arab world and without doubt the number-one highlight of the year for the UAE and wider region. Featuring live shows, mass-participation events, more than 200 opportunities to experience global cuisine and 190 countries showcasing the best they have to offer in a breathtaking range of pavilions, this six-month celebration of the best of human ingenuity, art and culture will cement Dubai’s reputation for innovation and doubtless boost its role as a global destination.
From March 12 to 21, Jeddah Old Town will host the inaugural Red Sea Film Festival, a nine-day international celebration that promises to showcase “the world’s best films, educational workshops, informative industry master classes, immersive art experiences, experimental projects and other cinematic events.” The festival will feature a retrospective honoring the pioneering Egyptian film director, Khairy Beshara, who will attend public screenings of nine of his films, remastered and restored by the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation.
Will 2020 be the year that superfast fifth-generation 5G mobile Internet access changes your life? STC and Zain have already launched 5G services — which promise faster upload and download speeds — in Saudi Arabia, as have Etisalat and du in the UAE and Batelco in Bahrain. But 2020 is predicted to be the year that the prices of handsets, infrastructure and data will fall dramatically, not only bringing the benefits of superfast connectivity to phone users everywhere, but also facilitating and speeding the adoption of information-hungry autonomous vehicles.
If you need an excuse to upgrade your mobile connectivity to 5G, look ahead to July 25, when athletes from the region and the world will converge on Japan for the Tokyo Olympics. The six GCC nations will be hoping to improve on the tally of one gold, two silver and one bronze medals that they brought back from Rio in 2016. If you want to make sure you don’t miss them in action, keep a careful eye on the competition schedule at tokyo2020.org and be prepared for some early starts — some events are scheduled for 9 a.m. local time, 4 a.m. in the UAE.
Futurists predict that 2020 will be the year that artificial intelligence (AI) jumps the barrier from behind-the-scenes data manipulation to mainstream applications, revolutionizing media, entertainment, transport and more — but also potentially threatening millions of jobs as roles for which human beings were once essential go the way of automation.
Virgin Hyperloop One, the company behind the long-awaited rapid-transit system that the company claims will one day shrink the journey time from Dubai to Abu Dhabi to just 12 minutes, says it plans to break ground in 2020 on a Center of Excellence in King Abdullah Economic City that could propel Saudi Arabia to the forefront of hyperloop development worldwide. There are plans to build the world’s first full-speed test track and a manufacturing plant, creating 124,000 high-tech jobs for the Kingdom, from which hyperloop parts would be exported to other markets. Actual travel by hyperloop, however, remains some way off — perhaps by 2029, says Virgin.
A dramatic opening ceremony and spectacular celebrations are planned for the long-delayed opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum, a hugely ambitious project on which work began in 2002 and which is finally scheduled to open its doors to the public at a yet-to-be-decided date in 2020. Barely 2 kilometers from the pyramids of Giza, this will be the world’s largest archaeological museum. Bringing all the treasures of ancient Egypt under one roof as “a gift from Egypt to the whole world,” it is a bold attempt to put the country back on the world tourism trail and reinvigorate an economy damaged by years of political instability and terrorist violence.
With Boris Johnson and the Conservative party back in power with a much improved majority, the UK is now certain to leave the EU on Jan. 31. The immediate ramifications of Brexit for overseas visitors and foreigners living in the UK remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that with Britain now not only free but also desperate to sign new trade agreements around the world in double-quick time, canny trading partners everywhere will be looking to exploit the London’s isolation from the powerful European trading bloc.
In July, Nasa’s Mars 2020 mission blasts off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, opening a new chapter in the race to colonize the red planet. It will take the Mars 2020 Rover about seven months to make the journey to the Jezero Crater, where it will spend more than 680 Earth days (one Mars year) collecting samples and other intelligence vital for future human expeditions to the red planet. Rover will not be alone. Orbiting above will be the UAE’s Emirates Mars Mission’s Hope Probe, designed to answer key questions about the Martian atmosphere with future colonization in mind.
Teams from Oman, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan will be in Australia for the 2020 ICC T20 Cricket World Cup, to be held in seven locations across the country from Perth to Brisbane. Regional teams are expected to do well — three of the six championships held since the World Cup was inaugurated in 2007 have been won by India (2007), Pakistan (2009) and Sri Lanka (2014).
It is 40 years since the world managed to eradicate the curse of smallpox but in the past four decades every other disease targeted for elimination by the World Health Organization (WHO) has proved stubbornly resilient. That could all change in 2020, the deadline set by WHO and its supporting agencies for the eradication of polio, a crippling disease that remains endemic in just three countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
COP26, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland next November, has been described as “the meeting to save human civilization.” This is the climate-change summit at which nations will be expected to follow the commitments they made in Paris five years ago — already exposed as insufficient to prevent the target of 2 degrees of warming — with realistic, actionable plans. Inspiration to act may come from the 52nd session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Paris in February, at which scientists will release their revised assessments of the globe’s environmental state.
The last three months of 2019 in Iraq were marred by increasingly bitter and deadly protests triggered by frustration with corruption, poor public services and Iranian influence, leaving 500 protesters dead and tens of thousands wounded, according to the UN. With warnings that the violence “risks placing Iraq on a dangerous trajectory” and no replacement in sight yet for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, will 2020 see the crisis deepen — or protesters’ calls for political overhaul met?
Out of the news cycle for now, the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and North Africa continues. Across the region, says UNICEF, more than 70 million vulnerable people, including 32 million children, desperately need help, with harsh winters in store. To provide it, the UN is appealing to donor nations to pledge $10.4 million in 2020.
From Jan. 16 to Feb. 1, the UAE emirate of Sharjah will play host to the first international spin-off of Edinburgh’s famous Fringe Festival to be held in the Middle East. Expect 17 days of theater, dance, circus and music featuring artists from around the world.
Few countries in the world will be unaffected by the outcome of the US presidential election on Nov. 3. President Trump is likely to survive impeachment proceedings brought by the Democrats — his trial in January will be held in the Republican-controlled senate, and the prosecution is unlikely to win the two thirds necessary to remove him from office. That could mean a second term and continuation of uncertainty over global trade wars, Trump’s on-off relationship with North Korea and, if the US continues its retreat from the world stage, big questions about what will happen when Russia and China fill the vacuum across the MENA region.