We are less than a week into 2021, but if what has happened so far is an indicator of things to come (and I hope it is) we are in for a good year.
The impressive rollout of the coronavirus vaccines, regardless of the maker, shows what humanity can achieve when we decide to collaborate for the greater good. COVID-19 won’t be the last killer disease to sweep the world, kill the vulnerable, destroy our businesses and separate us from our loved ones — but it is now safe to say that in this global battle that began in Wuhan just over a year ago, we are close to declaring victory. While of course credit must first and foremost go to the frontline workers, medical researchers and developers of the vaccine, one must also credit Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G20, which has helped coordinate and focus efforts among the world’s biggest 20 economies on finding a way out of the crisis.
The Kingdom’s unique leadership abilities were also displayed at AlUla, where a historic reconciliation took place ending the 42-month rift with Gulf neighbor Qatar. Critics who until Tuesday were calling for an end to the boycott will now begin questioning the merits of the resolution that ended it — as if resorting to diplomacy were a bad thing. The truth is, you can always do more with an open palm than a closed fist, and if we put aside the comments of those so-called “Middle East experts” in the US and Europe, who milked the crisis for their own benefit, writing books and speaking at conferences, we would realize that a unified Gulf front represents a great global opportunity from both a security and a business perspective.
Yes, the dispute was real, and the boycotting countries had genuine grievances, many of which have been quietly addressed by Qatar over the past three years and communicated through the large number of go-betweens and envoys they sent to patch the rift with the Kingdom.
Will we now live happily ever after with the Qataris? Of course not. Just look at the European Union; who would have thought that after nearly five decades we would see something like Brexit? There will always be differences between neighbors, and perhaps one of the few good things that came out of the recent rift was that it forced those issues to the surface. Not all of them have been addressed, but at least there are no more hidden agendas or emotions, which hopefully means that from here the only way is up.
Saudi leadership was also on display in what Russia’s deputy prime minister called a “new year gift to the market.” After this week’s meeting of the OPEC+ producers alliance, the Kingdom is voluntarily cutting oil production by a million barrels a day for two months. The price is now stable at just above $50 a barrel for the first time since last February, and energy market stability is crucial for a global economy desperate to recover after a crippling coronavirus year.
However, all of this positivity should not distract us from the dangers that remain. As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned at AlUla, there are still “threats posed by the Iranian regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile program and its plans for sabotage and destruction.” As if to illustrate his point, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces seized a South Korean tanker in the Strait of Hormuz and forced it into the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas — an example for the South Koreans of the sort of malign behavior by Iran that we in the region have endured for so long.
One would hope that with a new US administration assuming office in two weeks’ time, the Iranians would take this opportunity to behave better, to renounce their commitment to destabilizing the region and to join the rest of us in recognizing, with the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and a number of Arab states, a genuine opportunity for peace and prosperity.