Year of disasters, disappointment and drama for the Middle East

For the people of the Middle East, it’s been a year dominated by disasters, disappointment and drama.

The disasters were numerous and included the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to the Islamic State (IS) in June, continuing humanitarian atrocities in Syria, the disintegration of Libya, chaos in Yemen and a new Israeli assault on Gaza.

The principal disappointment came in the form of misplaced hopes that nuclear negotiations between the West and Iran would clear the way for a compromise agreement and the return of normal trading relations with the Islamic republic. The expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem was a depressing confirmation of the increasing intractability of Israeli public opinion. The regime of President Al-Sisi, who secured 96 per cent of the votes cast in Egypt’s May presidential poll, is repressing most forms of open political dissent, not just the Muslim Brotherhood.

The drama, and possibly the key Middle East event for more than a decade, was the sharp and unforeseen crash in oil prices. It will affect practically everyone on earth and could permanently change the shape of global energy markets. For low-cost oil producers, principally Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, allowing prices to fall by almost half since June is costly and a gamble. But what were the options?

Every year seems to be a turning point, but 2014 looks like it will permanently alter the course of Middle East history.

The rise of IS has decisively rewritten the narrative that emerged from the events of 2011. The idea of swift political reform in the region is now seen as delusional and potentially dangerous.

The era of rapid growth driven by rising Middle East oil production and high oil prices has come to a close. It will have consequences for most of the region’s economies, much of it unwelcome. For the leading Middle East oil exporters, growth from now on will have to come from securing increasing efficiency from what they have and more productivity from their people.

Developments in Tunisia where peaceful polls produced majorities for moderate secularist parties and a new president were perhaps the most encouraging of the year. There’s, nevertheless, little to celebrate as 2014 ends.

No one’s been a winner but a different future can be discerned in developments at the end of 2014. The GCC, seen by some to have been terminally divided by their response to events in 2011, settled their main differences in December. They appear to agree there’s no alternative to an oil market-share battle with non-OPEC and high-cost producers. It’s one they must win and probably will.

It’s always fanciful to write off Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners. They’ve shown again in 2014 that they count, and not just in oil. They will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.