2021 Year in Review: Events whose impact was felt across the Arab world

Special 2021 Year in Review: Events whose impact was felt across the Arab world
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Updated 31 December 2021

2021 Year in Review: Events whose impact was felt across the Arab world

2021 Year in Review: Events whose impact was felt across the Arab world
  • Despite this year’s rollout of vaccines and easing of restrictions, COVID-19 continued to dominate the agenda  
  • From Gaza to Afghanistan, conflicts flared even as world leaders prioritized climate challenges

DUBAI: From the second year of the global pandemic to the overthrow of governments, from glimmers of hope for environmental justice to the world’s biggest sporting and cultural events, the past 12 months have been a roller-coaster ride for the Middle East and North Africa region.

JANUARY

AlUla Declaration

The year began with great promise for the region when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman invited the leaders of the five other Gulf Cooperation Council member states to a meeting in AlUla, where he put forward his collective reconciliation project.




Gulf Cooperation Council leaders pose for a family picture in AlUla. (SPA file photo)

The AlUla Declaration, which ended the regional crisis that began in 2017, turned the page on all areas of disagreement in the Gulf, with its positive effects echoing across all regional issues, easing most tensions. 

The agreement “strengthens the bonds of friendship and brotherhood among our countries and peoples in order to serve their aspirations,” the crown prince said at the time.

 

MAY

Gaza War

Relations between Israel and Palestine deteriorated in the spring following a raid by Israeli police on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, provoking a wave of violence across Israel and the West Bank.

Outrage quickly escalated into a short but savage war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. At least 145 Palestinians and 12 Israelis were killed during the 11-day conflict.




Palestinian protesters run from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces during a demonstration in the West Bank on Nov.  5, 2021. (AFP)

During the fighting, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza City that housed the offices of the Associated Press and other media outlets, drawing international condemnation.

A ceasefire deal brokered by Egypt, Qatar and the UN came into force on May 21.

 

JUNE

Iran’s new president

Ebrahim Raisi, an ideological hard-liner hand-picked by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, was elected president of the Islamic Republic in June and inaugurated in August.




Caption

The election had the lowest turnout in the nation’s history, as many Iranians called for a boycott. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s populist former president, said he would not vote.

Raisi was allegedly an influential participant in the “death commissions” in 1988, overseeing the forced disappearance and execution of several thousand political dissidents in Evin and Gohardasht prisons.

 

JULY

Tunisia’s PM dismissed

Kais Saied, Tunisia’s president, dismissed the government and froze the country’s parliament on July 25 in a move his opponents branded a coup, but which attracted widespread public support at the time.




Tunisian President Kais Saied . (AFP)

Saied insisted his intervention was necessary to save the country from collapse amid an unprecedented economic and health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — failures that many attributed to misrule by the Ennahda party.

On Aug. 24, Saied extended the suspension of parliament until further notice, along with the suspension of legal immunity for parliamentarians. Public anger has since been rising, however, with fresh protests breaking out.

 

AUGUST

Olympic Games

After being postponed for a year because of COVID-19, organizers had hoped Tokyo 2020 would become a symbol of triumph over the pandemic. But with strict precautions still in place and a ban on spectators, the Olympic Games, which closed on August 8, felt somewhat underwhelming.




Saudi Arabia's Tareg Hamedi poses with his silver medal in the men's kumite +75kg in the karate competition during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Aug. 7, 2021. (AFP)

Nevertheless, they proved to be a great success for Arab athletes. Saudi karate practitioner Tarek Hamdi won silver in the men’s kumite +75kg category, while Egypt’s Feryal Abdel Aziz won gold in women’s kumite +61kg category.

Egypt’s Ahmed Elgendy won silver in the men’s modern pentathlon, Bahrain’s Kalkidan Gezahegne won silver in the women’s 10,000 meters, and the Qatari men’s beach volleyball duo of Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan won bronze.




Feryal Abdel Aziz (left) of Egypt in action durinng the Tokyo Oympics. (AFP)

 

Taliban resurgence

As US troops began their final withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, Taliban militants swept into Kabul, overthrowing the government of President Ashraf Ghani and restoring their hard-line rule over the country.

Although the group pledged to moderate its views on women’s rights, minorities and freedom of expression, many of the repressive practices that marked its previous rule between 1996 and 2001 have returned




Taliban fighters stand guard near the venue of an open-air rally in a field on the outskirts of Kabul on Oct.3, 2021. (AFP)

The US, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have frozen Kabul’s access to billions of dollars in aid and assets until the Taliban changes ideological course. Amid a severe drought and mass displacement, Afghanistan is heading for humanitarian disaster.

 

OCTOBER

Expo 2020 Dubai

The Middle East’s first World Expo kicked off in Dubai on Oct. 1. The opening ceremony took place in the visually stunning, 67 meter-high Al-Wasl Dome, and featured an international program of music and cultural performances.




Front view of the man-made EXPO 2020 lake in Dubai Desert, UAE. (AFP)

Expo 2020 Dubai brings together 192 nations for the first time in the 170-year history of World Expos. Each country has its own pavilion, under the Emirati hosts’ stated policy of “one nation, one pavilion.”

The six-month event has served as a platform for the unveiling of innovations. Courier service provider UPS, for instance, launched the world’s first solar-powered vehicle-charging point, which it will use to power a fleet of delivery vans.

Iraq election

Iraqis went to the polls on Oct. 10 to vote in parliamentary elections originally scheduled for June. The vote was marred, however, by the lowest turnout since the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.




An Iraqi Kurdish man shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote in Iraq's northern city of Dohuk in the autonomous Kurdish region during on Oct. 10, 2021. (AFP)

Although international observers praised the freedom and fairness of the elections, the country’s pro-Iran militias and party blocs have disputed the result, in which their share of parliamentary seats was slashed.

Analysts believe these militias were behind an attempt in November to assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi at his Baghdad residence, in retaliation for his attempts to reduce their influence.

Green initiatives

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy aims to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on fossil fuels. Riyadh went a step further in October with the launch of two major initiatives designed to show that it is playing a leadership role in the global campaign against climate change.




Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (SPA)

When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled the details of the Saudi Green and Middle East Green Initiatives during a special event in Riyadh, it was a landmark occasion for the region and committed Saudi Arabia to reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2060.

In addition, the Kingdom pledged to completely eliminate oil from domestic power generation by 2030, replacing it with cleaner gas and renewables. Multi-billion-dollar investment programs to plant trees in the Kingdom were also announced, among other environmentally sound strategies. 

Sudan coup

General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan staged a military coup in Sudan in late October, overthrowing the civilian government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and declaring a state of emergency. Al-Burhan claimed infighting between the military and civilian parties was threatening the nation’s stability.




Sudan's top army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. (AFP)

Pro-democracy groups, which toppled the regime of Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, took to the streets to demand a return to civilian rule. Following weeks of escalating violence, Hamdok was reinstated on Nov. 21 under a power-sharing arrangement with the military.

Although the international community backed the deal for the sake of Sudan’s stability, opposition groups continue to protest against the military’s involvement in government.

 

NOVEMBER

COP26

This year was the year when the effects of climate change got real for many people, with a spate of forest fires, flooding, droughts and storms wreaking havoc the world over. It was also the year when efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions began to be taken seriously.




A general view of the Action Hub is pictured during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 11, 2021. (AFP)

At the UN’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the world’s governments accepted a compromise deal aimed at maintaining a key global warming target of no more than 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, with a last-minute change that toned down commitments to eliminate the use of coal.

Several countries complained the deal did not go far enough. However, it did set out rules for international trading of carbon credits and called on big polluters to come back next year with improved pledges for cutting emissions.

Omicron

Experts have said governments were woefully unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic when it was declared by the World Health Organization in early 2020. Now, almost two years later, the world is still grappling with uneven distribution of vaccines and the emergence of new variants of the virus, the latest being omicron.




People wait in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a testing facility in Times Square on Dec. 9, 2021 in New York City. (Getty Images via AFP)

The variant was first identified in South Africa in late November and quickly became the dominant version in many countries. Studies suggest that the variant is not any more aggressive in terms of its effects than the alpha, beta, gamma and delta strains, but is more transmissible and potentially more resistant to vaccines.

Experts warn that persistent high rates of infection will continue to place a strain on countries’ health infrastructures and risks creating more-dangerous variants in the months ahead unless screening and vaccination rates in the developing world radically improve.

Although vaccination campaigns and precautionary measures in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states have been notably successful, other countries in the region have been less effective, leading to fresh spikes in cases.


Sudan’s military accuses Ethiopia’s army of executing 7 Sudanese soldiers, a civilian

Sudan’s military accuses Ethiopia’s army of executing 7 Sudanese soldiers, a civilian
Updated 28 sec ago

Sudan’s military accuses Ethiopia’s army of executing 7 Sudanese soldiers, a civilian

Sudan’s military accuses Ethiopia’s army of executing 7 Sudanese soldiers, a civilian

ADDIS ABABA: Sudan’s military accused Ethiopia’s army of executing seven Sudanese soldiers and a civilian who were captives, the Sudanese armed forces said in a statement on Sunday.
“This treacherous act will not pass without a response,” it added.


Frankly Speaking: Saudi Arabia and UAE could lead world in clean renewable energy, says adviser to UAE climate envoy Dr. Adnan Amin

Frankly Speaking: Saudi Arabia and UAE could lead world in clean renewable energy, says adviser to UAE climate envoy Dr. Adnan Amin
The countries that contribute the most to carbon emissions must contribute more to solutions, says Adnan Amin. (AN photo)
Updated 26 min 46 sec ago

Frankly Speaking: Saudi Arabia and UAE could lead world in clean renewable energy, says adviser to UAE climate envoy Dr. Adnan Amin

Frankly Speaking: Saudi Arabia and UAE could lead world in clean renewable energy, says adviser to UAE climate envoy Dr. Adnan Amin
  • Green energy initiatives in the UAE and Saudi Arabia could serve as examples for countries seeking to embrace renewables
  • Climate change is already wreaking havoc across the globe, developed countries must do their part to cut carbon emissions

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the potential to be trailblazers in renewable energy as the devastating effects of climate change become more apparent, according to Adnan Amin, the former director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency and senior adviser to Sultan Al-Jaber, the UAE’s special envoy for climate change.

Amin told Katie Jensen, host of “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News talk show that features interviews with leading policymakers and business leaders, of the radical changes in the UAE’s push toward green energy and their implications for a regional push toward renewables.

The UAE has the lowest-cost solar energy and one of the largest solar plants in the world, and aims to triple or quadruple its solar energy capacity by 2025. While the country will continue to export fossil fuel products, it is projected to become a leader in renewable energy alongside the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and produce “the lowest carbon intensity oil in the world,” Amin said.

Critics have pointed out that the UAE still has a large per-capita carbon footprint, and that oil and gas make up one-third of the country’s annual gross domestic product. Amin said that this is partially due to extremely high temperatures in the region, and added that the country still contributes less than half a percent of global carbon emissions.

“The commitment of the UAE government on decarbonizing has not been doubted, and they’ve seen carbon intensity decreasing year on year,” he said.

Amin predicts that the UAE’s strides in clean energy infrastructure will encourage other Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, to take similar measures. He called NEOM, a planned smart city and independent economic zone in the Kingdom’s north that will run entirely on renewable energy, “a low carbon city.”

“All of the new investments that you’re seeing in renewables generation in Saudi Arabia are huge. The scientific and technological investment that is taking place in research and development in Saudi Arabia is very impressive. You see Saudi Arabia testing a range of technologies so, you know that green energy, geothermal, new types of solar, new types of construction materials, all kinds of innovation is taking place there.”

Despite a global commitment to turn toward clean energy, complex domestic and international politics has often seen governments forced to scale back their promises of climate-based legislation. US President Joe Biden, who is due to visit the Middle East next month, previously pledged to halve carbon emissions by 2030.

However, increasing fuel costs have forced Biden to call for increasing production of fossil fuels. “High gas prices at the pump are poisonous for the electoral chances for any party in power,” Amin said, alluding to the upcoming US midterm elections in November.

He added that while it is no easy task for governments to move forward with serious action on climate change, “there is an expectation from many that we would love to see more … commitment and serious action from the US on this both domestically and internationally.”

With the world gripped by skyrocketing fuel prices, many countries are ramping up production of fossil fuels and the infrastructure required to produce them. However, this infrastructure has an expiration date, according to Amin.

“There’s a real risk of locking of fossil assets for a longer term in countries that, frankly, have the technological and financial ability to move very fast on clean energy,” he said, adding that states must make an effort to find more clean and advanced solutions to the growing global energy crisis.

“We would expect governments to start focusing much more on that opportunity, not on doubling down and replicating the problems of the past, but looking for the solutions of the future,” he said, clarifying that investment in new infrastructure, clean energy, climate-resilient agriculture, and water security “are the areas where I think there’s really a risk in the future.”

The push to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian oil and gas amid the war in Ukraine and the fuel crisis may have a detrimental effect on the world’s carbon emissions, though Amin explained that on the positive side, this may push countries to embrace renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power. 

“We need to grow the investment for renewable energy, and we need to start to adopt the infrastructure that will enable it. Part of that is investing in innovation and technology,” he said. While a foundation exists for growth in the renewable energy sector, Amin added that digitalization, ultra-high voltage grids, grid stability, and smart metering must be developed further.

“We need to make this transition happen as a matter of urgency for political leadership because everything we see in terms of projections of climate impacts, it’s becoming more and more severe every year.”

While the UAE recently invested $50 billion in clean energy projects, not every country is doing its part to fight climate change. Developed nations which have been largely responsible for producing the carbon emissions which have devastated the world’s climate have often balked at taking responsibility, Amin said.

“Climate is a global issue and it requires every country in the world to do its part. But what it requires most, and this is the issue that was being discussed in Bonn in the intersectional meetings, is that we share responsibility,” he said, referring to the Bonn Climate Change Conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Germany earlier this month.

The countries that contribute the most to carbon emissions, Amin added, must “contribute to the solution, and contribute to the most vulnerable countries which are now facing very severe climate impacts.”

During the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow in 2021, world leaders stressed the seriousness of addressing climate change immediately. At the time, Saudi Ambassador to the UK Prince Khalid bin Bandar told Arab News that “Saudi Arabia is ready, willing and able to take its position among the international community to solve the problem and do what it can.”

The Kingdom pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2060 as part of the Saudi Green Initiative during the conference. With the next conference set to be held in Egypt this year and the subsequent COP28 to be held in the UAE next year, Amin explained that future conferences aim to begin to transition climate promises from mere pledges to on-the-ground implementation.

“We’ve talked about the situation with the global energy crisis. We’ve talked about the constraints from many countries. We’ve talked about the fact that financing is not being made available. We have the next COP in Egypt that’s going to be a very important COP. It’s the first COP since Glasgow, that is the implementation COP. This is how the Egyptian government and the rest of the world wants to see it, that we’re moving to implementation and away from negotiations.”

Developed countries which are the largest contributors to climate change are putting up “huge resistance” to helping vulnerable and developing countries deal with the impacts, Amin said. However, he remains optimistic that by the time of the COP28 conference in the UAE, countries will be able to take stock of the world’s efforts in terms of climate action, “and out of that will come a program for what the next five years should look like.”

In addition to being a global issue, Amin pointed out that climate change is an intersectional issue that will have far-reaching and catastrophic effects on the entire world.

“My fear is that we will have multiple crises happening periodically in different parts of the world, which will begin to impact global food chains. We already have vulnerability on food security. We’re seeing a climate-vulnerable agriculture in many, many poor countries where, frankly, you could face very serious food deficit situations in the future.

“We’re facing a situation where we’re seeing an urgent need for water management. Freshwater resources are declining, and there is potential for conflict over resources like food and water.”

He added that drought, rising sea levels, melting ice, the degradation of resources and other effects of climate change have the potential to create massive waves of migration as people are forced to move to other regions for their survival.

“If we allow climate impacts to continue unchecked, all of these multiple crises coming together would create a level of instability in this world that will be almost impossible to manage,” he said.

 


Turkey arrests Greek on spying charges

Turkey arrests Greek on spying charges
Updated 27 June 2022

Turkey arrests Greek on spying charges

Turkey arrests Greek on spying charges
  • Mohamed Amar Ampara was caught in the southeastern city of Gaziantep near Turkey’s border with Syria

ISTANBUL: Turkey arrested a Greek citizen on Sunday on suspicion of espionage activities, a day after seizing him in an operation coordinated with its spy agency, local police said.

Mohamed Amar Ampara was caught in the southeastern city of Gaziantep near Turkey’s border with Syria.

“The agent, named M.A.A., was detained by the judicial authorities after he was discovered to have connections with the Greek National Intelligence Organization ... compiled information about our country’s border security and transferred it to Greek intelligence,” the police department in Gaziantep said in a statement.

Turkish media reported at the weekend that Ampara operated disguised as a businessman during his trips to Turkey.

The Greek Foreign Ministry said in the meantime that Ampara’s disappearance had been reported to the Greek Embassy in Ankara a few weeks ago.

The embassy had repeatedly raised the subject with the Turkish authorities but the latter had never provided any answers, it added.

Turkey and Greece are allies within NATO but are embroiled in a number of disputes.

Tensions have escalated in recent weeks, with Ankara accusing Athens of stationing troops on islands near its maritime border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month that he would no longer hold bilateral meetings with Greek leaders.


Rich heritage buried under impoverished Gaza Strip

Rich heritage buried under impoverished Gaza Strip
Updated 27 June 2022

Rich heritage buried under impoverished Gaza Strip

Rich heritage buried under impoverished Gaza Strip
  • In the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas and repeatedly ravaged by war, people are more familiar with burying the dead than digging up their heritage

JABALIYA, Palestine: While workers labored on a large construction site in the Gaza Strip, a security guard noticed a strange piece of stone sticking out of the earth.

“I thought it was a tunnel,” said Ahmad, the young guard, referring to secret passages dug by the militant group Hamas to help it battle Israel.

In the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas and repeatedly ravaged by war, people are more familiar with burying the dead than digging up their heritage.

But what Ahmad found in January was part of a Roman necropolis dating from about 2,000 years ago — representative of the impoverished Palestinian territory’s rich, if under-developed, archaeological treasures.

After the last war between Israel and Hamas in May 2021 left a trail of damage in Gaza, Egypt began a reconstruction initiative worth $500 million.

As part of that project in Jabaliya, in the north of the coastal enclave, bulldozers were digging up the sandy soil in order to build new concrete buildings when Ahmad made his discovery.

“I notified the Egyptian foremen, who immediately contacted local authorities and asked the workers to stop,” said Ahmad, a Palestinian who preferred not to give his full name.

With rumors on social media of a big discovery, Gaza’s antiquities service called in the French nongovernmental group Premiere Urgence Internationale and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem to evaluate the site’s importance and mark off the area.

“The first excavations permitted the identification of about 40 tombs dating from the ancient Roman period between the first and second centuries AD,” said French archaeologist Rene Elter, who led the team dispatched to Jabaliya.

“The necropolis is larger than these 40 tombs and should have between 80 and 100,” he said.

One of the burial sites found so far is decorated with multi-colored paintings representing crowns and garlands of bay leaves, as well as jars for funereal drinks, the archaeologist added.

Archaeology is a highly political subject in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and discoveries are used to justify the territorial claims of each people.

While the Jewish state has a number of archaeologists reporting on an impressive number of ancient treasures, the sector is largely neglected in Gaza.

Authorities periodically announce discoveries in the territory, but tourism at archaeological sites is limited.

Israel and Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza, tightly restrict the flow of people in and out of the enclave administered by Hamas since 2007.

“However, there is no difference between what you can find in Gaza and on the other side of the barrier” in Israel, Elter said. “It’s the same great history.”

“In Gaza, a lot of sites have disappeared because of conflict and construction, but the territory is an immense archaeological site which needs many teams of experts,” he added.

Stakes and fences have been erected around the Roman necropolis, which is watched over constantly by guards as new buildings go up nearby.

“We are trying to fight antiquities trafficking,” said Jamal Abu Rida, director of the local archaeological service tasked with protecting the necropolis and which hopes to find investors for further excavation.

“The image of Gaza is often associated with violence, but its history is bursting with archaeological treasures that need to be protected for future generations,” said Jihad Abu Hassan, director of the local Premiere Urgence mission.

Demographics add to the pressure. Gaza is a tiny, overcrowded strip of land whose population in 15 years has ballooned from 1.4 million to 2.3 million. As a result, building construction has accelerated.

“Some people avoid telling authorities if there is an archaeological discovery on a construction site out of fear of not being compensated” for the resulting work stoppage, Abu Hassan said.

“We lose archaeological sites every day,” which shows the need for a strategy to defend the enclave’s heritage, including training local archaeologists, he said.

Over the last few years, his organization has helped to educate 84 archaeological technicians. Doing so also offers employment prospects, in an impoverished territory where youth joblessness exceeds 60 percent.


Lebanese politicians urged to form government

Lebanese politicians urged to form government
Updated 26 June 2022

Lebanese politicians urged to form government

Lebanese politicians urged to form government
  • Lebanon’s Najib Mikati was nominated premier for a fourth time on Thursday after securing the support of 54 of parliament’s 128 lawmakers

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s top Christian cleric urged fractious politicians on Sunday to speed up the formation of a government to allow authorities to prepare for presidential elections due before the end of October.

Lebanon’s Najib Mikati was nominated premier for a fourth time on Thursday after securing the support of 54 of parliament’s 128 lawmakers, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah, in consultations convened by President Michel Aoun.

But with splits running deep among Lebanon’s ruling elite, it is widely believed Mikati will struggle to form a government, spelling political paralysis that could hamper reforms agreed with the International Monetary Fund to unlock aid.

“Again I demand speeding up formation of a national government with the country’s pressing need for it and so that the focus can immediately be on preparations to elect a president who saves the country,” Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai said at a sermon on Sunday.

“We call on all parties to cooperate with the premier designate ...,” he added.

Analysts and politicians expect the process of forming a Cabinet to be further complicated by a looming struggle over who will replace Aoun, the Hezbollah-aligned head of state, when his term ends on Oct. 31.