2021 was a year full of impactful elections, historic anniversaries, and new challenges for the Middle East and North Africa.
Here’s a look back at some of the biggest moments of 2021 in the region and what our authors had to say about them:
January 3: One-year anniversary of Qasem Soleimani assassination
A US drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport assassinated Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani and the leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Days later, on January 8, 2020, in retaliation, Iran fired ballistic missiles at Al Asad base near Baghdad that caused traumatic brain injuries to more than one hundred US service members. Iran also shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner, killing all 176 people on board. “Though the world has completely changed since that day a year ago—and Soleimani’s death may now be an afterthought for most Americans—the Islamic Republic hasn’t forgotten, even with Trump’s 2020 presidential election defeat,” explained IranSource editor and nonresident senior fellow, Holly Dagres.
January 5: Gulf rift ends
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani traveled to the Saudi city Al-Ula, where he signed a declaration that ended a three-and-a-half-year blockade on his country by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt. The political rift, which had divided the region since 2017, was prompted after the four Arab countries alleged that Qatar supported terrorism and called on the country to adhere to thirteen demands to ease the embargo. However, the blockade failed to economically and politically isolate Doha. “This was a conflict that the United States did not need,” observed nonresident senior fellow Richard LeBaron. “Much like normalization with Israel, the emphasis should be on ‘normal’—this détente is nothing particularly special.”
January 8: One-year anniversary of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane (PS752) over Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. It took several days before the Islamic Republic admitted to shooting down PS752 and after international pressure from countries like Canada (138 victims were tied to the country). “While a case before an international tribunal has yet to be brought on PS752, a number of litigation efforts are currently pending or in the pipeline,” wrote director of the Strategic Litigation Project, Gissou Nia.
January 11: First year of Omani sultan’s rule
January 11 marked the first anniversary of Sultan Haitham bin Tareq’s rule. The next day, on January 12, Sultan Haitham announced his intent to designate a crown prince, thus, making his eldest son, Dhi Yazin bin Haitham—whom the sultan had appointed to be Minister of Culture and Youth in 2020—crown prince of Oman. According to nonresident senior fellow Marc J. Sievers, “By announcing the creation of the position of crown prince, Sultan Haitham has further consolidated his rule and remade Oman’s most powerful institution…The succession in Oman will thus become predictable and uncertainty that could lead to unrest will become less likely.”
January 20: US President Joe Biden takes office
On January 20, Democratic candidate Joe Biden was sworn in as the forty-sixth president of the United States. With a new president in the White House, nonresident senior fellow David Mack advised leaders of the Middle East and North Africa to “pay careful attention to shifting priorities and policy agendas if they aim to maintain or improve relations with Washington.”
January 25: Ten-year anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution
Egypt’s eighteen-day January 25 Revolution kicked off a decade ago, ousting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Much has happened since, including Egypt’s only democratic election that elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, a popular uprising that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, and the rise of strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. However, the unlikely success of Egypt’s 2011 uprising is that it revived the country’s women’s movement. “[W]hat distinguishes the past decade from other parts of contemporary Egyptian history is the growing interest in women’s rights among broader segments of Egyptian society, including non-ideological women with little to no experience in political or social activism,” noted Egyptian journalist Sara Khorshid.
February 16: Two-year anniversary of Algeria’s Hirak movement
Beginning on February 22, 2019, hundreds of thousands of protesters mobilized every week, calling for the ousting of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was seeking a fifth term. The mass protests movement, known as Hirak, pushed for his dismissal and a democratic transition. After weeks of protests, the longest-serving Algerian president resigned on April 3, 2019. As nonresident senior fellow Andrew G. Farrand pointed out, “Not even Bouteflika’s resignation, in April 2019, could quell the tide since Algerians of all stripes wanted to replace the system, not just its figurehead.”
February 17: Ten-year anniversary of Libya’s civil war
February 17 marked the ten-year anniversary of Libya’s revolution that ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011, successive NATO intervention, and a civil war in which its impact is still reverberating in the deeply-split country today. “The irony is that Libyans’ insistence on sovereignty and the world’s all-too-eager willingness to abide by it ten years ago, led to a reality in which the country has little if any sovereignty,” explained nonresident senior fellow Borzou Daragahi.
February 25: US airstrike in eastern Syria
The US military carried out airstrikes in eastern Syria near the border with Iraq targeting Iran-backed Shia militias. The first under the Joe Biden administration, the military action was in response to a rocket attack on February 15 near Erbil Airport in northern Iraq, which killed a US military contractor and wounded several, including a US service member. Nonresident fellow Abdulrahman al-Marsi believed that the response was “proportionate” and that it wouldn’t “lead to further escalation. Whether the strike establishes deterrence against future targeting of US and coalition posts is to be seen.”
March 23: Fourth Israeli Knesset elections
Israelis participated in parliamentary elections for the fourth time since April 2019. “Nothing is certain at this point other than the fact that Israel’s leadership is up for grabs,” said nonresident senior fellow Shalom Lipner at the time. Days later, the final election results put Israel in another political deadlock, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponents unable to form a parliamentary majority to form a government.
March 24-30: Chinese foreign minister tours the Middle East
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a week-long trip to the region to visit Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain. As nonresident senior fellow Jonathan Fulton argued, “it makes more sense to look at the trip as a message to Washington rather than an intention of Beijing’s greater ambitions for the Middle East.”
April 3: Alleged coup plot in Jordan
On April 3, news broke of the Jordanian government accusing Crown Prince Hamzah and eighteen accomplices of an alleged coup plot against his half-brother, King Abdullah II. Just days later, on April 5, the Royal Court stated that Prince Mazah had declared his allegiance to his brother, thus, ending the dispute. However, the crown prince was later stripped of his title and reportedly put under house arrest. According to Tuqa Nusairat, the director for strategy, operations, and finance at the Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs, what took place wasn’t a coup. “It was, however, the manifestation of two trends the country’s leadership ought to be more proactive about addressing: the rising corruption and corresponding sense of injustice felt by Jordanians, and the increasingly vocal critiques of the role that said leadership plays in overlooking corruption and silencing calls for reform.”
April 11: Sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility
Iran reported a sabotage incident at its Natanz nuclear facility, south of the capital, Tehran. Just a day prior, President Hassan Rouhani revealed new centrifuges at the key nuclear site during a ceremony. The sabotage was widely thought to be orchestrated by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Nonresident fellow Sina Azodi believed that “the preparators sought to undermine the nuclear talks in Vienna,” given that “Iranian negotiators were already under domestic pressure to quit the talks before the attack on Natanz.”
April 6: First round of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna begin
Iran and the United States—albeit in separate rooms—began negotiations in Vienna almost three years after the US under President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The remaining signatories of the deal—Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—aim to bring Tehran and Washington back into full compliance of the nuclear accord. According to nonresident senior fellow Brian O’Toole, “The primary conundrum is over how to address sanctions imposed by the Donald Trump administration that are ‘inconsistent with the JCPOA’ and which the US acknowledges will have to be lifted.”
April 25: Audio recording of Iranian foreign minister leaks
A three-hour leaked audiotape of remarks made by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif confirmed his restricted role and showed friction between the government of President Hassan Rouhani and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It also demonstrated that Moscow, with the help of then Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, attempted to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal. “While Moscow now outwardly supports the revival of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] being pursued by the Joe Biden administration, the Russian logic of improved US-Iran relations being bad for Moscow suggests that the Kremlin will not be sad if this effort fails,” explained nonresident senior fellow Mark Katz.
May 10 – May 21: Eleven-day war between Hamas and Israel
After eleven days of cross-border fighting, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israel agreed to a ceasefire on May 21. The conflict, which was partly prompted by tensions in East Jerusalem—Hamas fired more than four thousand rockets into Israel, most of which were intercepted, while Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza—resulted in 219 Palestinians killed in Gaza, twenty-five in the West Bank, and twelve in Israel. Nonresident senior fellow Carmiel Arbit noted that “both sides proclaimed victory” and that, “while the situation continues to deteriorate, neither side has undertaken any meaningful reflection on how to stem the tide.”
June 12: Algerian parliamentary elections
Algeria held its parliamentary election and had an expected low turnout. The Hirak, a mass protest movement that ousted Algeria’s president in April 2019, boycotted the election. “The Hirak leaders’ refusal for any dialogue with the government unless their radical, unrealistic demand of the government’s departure is met has led to a dead end,” said nonresident senior fellow Abdelkader Abderrahmane.
June 13: Israel forms coalition government under Naftali Bennett
Right-wing politician Naftali Bennett became Israel’s new prime minister after an array of Israeli political parties—including those led by Bennett and centrist Yair Lapid—reached a deal to remove Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power after fifteen years. “Comprised of parties from the right, center, and left of Israel’s ideological spectrum, the new government will be fueled primarily by goodwill,” noted nonresident senior fellow Shalom Lipner.
June 18: Iranian presidential election
Hardline cleric and former judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi won the June 18 presidential election to no one’s surprise. The presidential election had the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s forty-two-year history. Raisi’s selection also brought attention to his bloody past, highlighted scholars Nasser Mohajer and Kaveh Yazdani, as the newly elected president “was among two of the most important state officials in charge of administrating the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners during the mass killings of July-September 1988.”
June 25: Syria’s Daraa province under siege
Since June 25, several neighborhoods in southwestern Daraa province, the birthplace of the 2011 Syrian revolution, have been under siege by the forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The events were prompted by the boycotting of the illegitimate May 21 presidential elections by Daraa locals in the provincial capital. Since late June, the Syrian army and Iran-backed militias have “encircled the city and cut off all roads leading to Daraa al-Balad in the south, preventing the entry of food and medicine as well as the entry or exit of civilians” and have “proceeded to cut off electricity, water, and communications,” explained Navvar Saban and Manaf Kuman of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies.
July 15 – 27: Water shortage protests in Iran’s Khuzestan province
Protesters took to the streets in over a dozen towns and cities in southwestern Khuzestan province to protest water shortages. The province faces severe drought, exacerbated by water mismanagement and poor environmental planning. The oil-rich province is home to 80 percent of the country’s oil and an ethnic Arab minority, who have faced neglect and discrimination over the decades. “The scale of the deadly state violence in Khuzestan province, which is predominantly populated by Iran’s Arab ethnic minority, once again revealed that the Islamic Republic perceives minorities as second-class citizens,” said Iranian journalist Sahab Bahar.
July 25: Tunisia’s president freezes parliament and sacks prime minister
Tunisian President Kais Saied invoked Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution to freeze parliament and dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, giving himself full powers. “This crisis is long in the making,” noted North Africa Initiative director and assistant director Karim Mezran and Alissa Pavia. “After almost perfectly handling the first wave of COVID-19 in mid-2020, the country fell into a deep political, economic, and later health crisis.”
August 4: One-year anniversary of Beirut port blast
An explosion at the Beirut port caused by nearly 2,750 metric tons of explosive chemicals rocked Lebanon’s capital, killing two hundred people and injuring thousands. Just two days prior to the port blast, twenty-seven newly qualified web developers graduated from a six-month coding and leadership course at the Codi offices in Beirut, wrote Sarah Page, a communications manager at SPARK, an international development NGO in Lebanon. “Their sector may be one of the only fields of employment that has been relatively unaffected by the country’s political and socio-economic crisis.”
August 13: One-year anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords
The Abraham Accords, an achievement of the Donald Trump administration, normalized ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and later Morocco and Sudan. “While the general direction of engagement remains positive, even such obstacles as the eleven-day war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in May and maritime confrontations with Iran haven’t derailed the latest Middle East peace train,” argued nonresident senior fellow Jonathan H. Ferziger.
August 15: The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan
While the United States and other western countries evacuated their embassy personnel in Kabul as the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August, the Iranian embassy remained “fully open and operational,” according to the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman. “Iran’s relatively sanguine stance toward the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan demonstrates, above all, the strides Tehran has made in improving its relations with the armed insurgent network that was once considered a mortal enemy of the Islamic Republic,” observed nonresident senior fellow Borzou Daragahi.
September 11: Twenty-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks
September 11 marked the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and Pentagon in Washington, in which nearly three thousand lives were lost. Caroline Donnal, a Captain in the US Air Force advised that, to honor service members and those who died on 9/11: “America should be humble about its shortcomings, let its failures and successes be didactic, and commit to crafting deliberate policies that give unprecedented thought to reducing the long-term likelihood of future protracted overseas engagements, thereby ensuring that there is no ‘[Global War On Terror] ribbon 2.0.’”
September 17: Death of former Algerian president
On September 17, Algeria’s longest-serving former president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, passed away. Bouteflika survived the 2011 Arab Uprisings, but was later ousted in April 2019 after Hirak, a mass protest movement, pushed for his dismissal. Unlike many of his ministers and allies, Bouteflika didn’t die in exile, “but peacefully in a state-financed villa, having never faced justice for his role in squandering the country’s vast potential,” explained nonresident senior fellow Andrew G. Farrand. “Mourned by some, cursed by others, and regretted by so many more, Bouteflika left Algeria ill-prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead.”
October 10: Iraqi parliamentary elections
Iraq held its fifth parliamentary elections. Iran-backed Shia political parties—that share ties with militia groups and have long dominated Iraqi politics—lost more than half their seats. The Sadrist Movement, led by populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, made the biggest gains, winning a total of seventy-three seats in the 329-seat body—the largest bloc in parliament. Iran-backed parties and militias decried the election as fraudulent. “The final election result announced on November 30 has been interpreted to suggest that the Sadr bloc has increased its popularity while Fatah’s support declined, but the vote total reveals a different story,” argued an anonymous analyst based in Iran.
November 7: Assassination attempt on Iraq’s prime minister
Two explosive-laden drones attacked the residence of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. The assassination attempt, which Iran and the United States condemned, took place after violent unrest over the Iraqi parliamentary election results, in which Iran-backed Shia militias lost more than half their seats. No one claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt and preliminary findings from the Iraqi investigation reported that the drones were domestically made. The Iraqi political system “has earned a good reputation for holding regular elections,” noted Iraq Initiative Director Abbas Kadhim, which is why “this assassination attempt cuts deep into the core democratic principles that Baghdad has been struggling to establish and consolidate since 2003.”
November 29 – December 3: The recommencement of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna
After a five-month hiatus that started before the Iranian presidential election in June, a new nuclear negotiating team from the Ebrahim Raisi administration sat down with the remaining signatories of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). At the seventh round of talks during November 29-December 3, Iran walked back a proposal agreed upon by the previous administration of Hassan Rouhani and offered less for less: more sanctions relief than what was promised in the 2015 accord and less nuclear compliance. As Future of Iran Initiative Director Barbara Slavin explained, “Some in Iran are understandably ambivalent about reviving the JCPOA given the ease with which the Trump administration quit—when Iran was in full compliance—and the fact that no US administration can guarantee the actions of its successor.”