As the region's perennial conflicts burn on, other emerging trends and turns of events will grab our attention this year
EYES INSIDE - THE MIDDLE EAST
The US-Iran showdown, the terminally unresolved Palestinian question, Egyptian elections and the ongoing fallout from the Wikileaks cables are sure to generate many of the headlines coming out of the Middle East this year. But here are five other stories buzzing just below the radar that you ought to look out for:
1. Saudi succession: With more than 20,000 male members of the Saudi royal family, there is no shortage of potential pretenders to the throne. As King Abdullah, 86, undergoes a lengthy treatment and rehabilitation in New York for herniated disks in his lower back, the royal palace issues regular health bulletins about the monarch. But the more palace statements seek to reassure the public that the king will recover, the more intense the speculation becomes about who will replace him.
Crown Prince Sultan himself is ailing from a long battle with an unknown illness believed to be cancer. Many observers seem to agree that Interior Minister Prince Nayef, a hardline conservative and one of the most feared and powerful men in Saudi Arabia, will likely take the throne. Among other indications of his worldview, the prince, 76, once charged that "Zionists' were behind the 9/11 attacks. In March 2009, he also stated that he saw no need for elections in Saudi Arabia or female members of Parliament. He believes in ruling by fiat, with all government officials appointed by the royal family. With Prince Nayef on the throne, look for a country already struggling with the modern age to go back even further in time.
2. Hariri indictments: Arabic papers this week arereporting high-level Lebanese sources as saying that the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon will issue indictments very soon, perhaps as early as this month for the February 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Members of the heavily armed militia and powerful opposition party Hezbollah are expected to be convicted for carrying out the bombing in downtown Beirut that killed 22 people.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been issuing contradictory statements, stoking and then calming fears of civil war in Lebanon. But he has consistently denounced the tribunal as a stooge of Israel and Western powers. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq, has repeatedly said he will stand by the tribunal's findings. Ultimately, there are two key unknowns in play: how far Hezbollah will go to prevent its members from being hauled before an international criminal court, and how far Hariri's government will go to try to arrest them.
3. Qatar's ascendance: Sitting on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, the emirate of Qatar is using its seemingly bottomless natural-gas revenues to raise its profile around the world. Last month, Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, the first Arab country to host the tournament, but it was just one of many achievements in 2010. Leaked Wikileaks cables sent from the American embassy in Doha reveal Qatar to be stubbornly independent in pursuing its national interests, even at the expense of relations with its Arab neighbors. Whether its courting Iran, setting up a financial hub designed to surpass Dubai, mediating in Yemen and Lebanon or cleaning out the international Islamic art market for its new museum, Qatar appears poised in 2011 to break out as a regional powerhouse.
4. Jordanians targeting Americans: The Associated Press reported last month on a growingJordanian presence in Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, with eight Jordanians killed or arrested in recent weeks in Iraq, Yemen (for throwing a small bomb at a U.S. embassy vehicle) and Afghanistan. All had attacked or were planning to kill American diplomats or soldiers. In the most recent incident, medical school dropout Haitham al-Khayat, 26, who ran an online jihadi forum, was reportedly killed in an American airstrike in Afghanistan before Christmas. At the end of December 2009, a double-agent recruited by Jordanian intelligence to inform on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan detonated himself after entering Camp Chapman in Khost, killing his Jordanian handler and seven CIA agents. While Jordan remains a vocal American ally, certain Jordanians seem to have a different opinion.
5. Growing Sectarian hostility in Egypt: Last weekend's bombing of a church in Alexandria, Egypt just 15 minutes into 2011 was an inauspicious beginning of the year for Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt. Last year began with a drive-by shooting of a church during the Coptic Christian celebrations in early January. Six people were killed, and the accused, three young Muslim men, are standing trial in security court. Other instances of sectarian tension marred the year, including riots in a village following rumors of a young Christian-Muslim couple meeting secretly at night in the local cemetery. Christians scuffled recently with authorities when the government stopped the building of a church, and controversy ensued after a court ruled that Christian couples could divorce, a ruling expressly forbidden by the Church. With Al-Qaeda now involved in targeting Christians, things might get even worse, fast.