Written by Hafssa Fakher Elabiari, Pablo Pastor Vidal and Luca Saviolo
At the start of 2023, the war in Ukraine, the Qatargate and the recent unexpected turn in the EU-UK deal on Northern Ireland were at the top of Western media coverage, as well as Brussels’ agenda. However, 2023 is expected to hold additional challenges for the European Union (EU)’s relationship with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), due to their geographical proximity and influence, and they deserve higher attention beyond and not exclusively tied to the conventional, mainstream public debate.
Here are the eight MENA countries to watch in 2023:
The 2023 outlook for Morocco includes both national and international challenges. At the domestic level, the crackdown on freedom of expression, manifested in arbitrary arrests of journalists and activists who criticise the regime, has intensified (Human Rights Watch, 2022; El Hamamouchi, 2023). Also, a large segment of society suffers from economic asphyxia due to the skyrocketing prices, low purchasing power, and the inauguration of projects that serve Morocco’s external image without necessarily benefiting the disadvantaged. Sparked by the lack of government response, 2023 will see occasional protests and strikes. This could already be seen with the latest protests against rising food prices and Morocco’s normalisation with Israel. However, it is uncertain whether they will trigger substantial change.
At the international level, the disputed territory of Western Sahara will continue to be a top priority on Morocco’s agenda. Hence, Rabat will continue filtering its foreign allies, including European ones, according to their stance on the Sahara file. Despite recent scandals harming cooperation with the EU, relations are likely to return to normality due to high interdependence in different fields such as trade and security (Telquel, 2023). Similarly, relations with France will record a slight deterioration due to a growing anti-French sentiment in the country caused mainly by seemingly unjustified visa rejections (Chik, 2022). However, the core of Rabat-Paris relations will remain intact because the two nations share countless political, security, and economic interests.
That being said, 2023 may present some opportunities for Morocco if the authorities release political prisoners and listen to the demands of marginalised Moroccans. Indeed, this is the only way for the regime to regain the trust of disenfranchised citizens, improve the country’s external image, and bolster its immunity vis-à-vis external challenges.
In 2023, Algeria is expected to continue working towards ending its regional and international isolation. Regionally, it will continue supporting Tunisia’s President Kais Saied to have some leverage on its neighbour and guarantee its support on the Western Sahara file (Bobin, 2022). With Morocco, the prospects of reestablishing diplomatic ties, which Algeria cut in 2021, are low, especially amid the quick development in Moroccan-Israeli relations.
Internationally, Algeria is adopting a degree of flexibility regarding its non-alignment foreign policy principle. Indeed, it submitted an application to join the BRICS bloc to position itself as an emerging economy. Also, Algeria will capitalise on its gas reserves to strengthen its standing in the region and position itself as a crucial partner for Europe, which might in turn decrease its economy’s dependence on hydrocarbons. This coincides with Europe’s quest for energy alternatives amid the war in Ukraine. In January 2023, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni made her first North Africa visit to Algeria, where officials from the two countries signed several sectoral agreements, notably on energy (Roggero, 2023).
2023 will be particularly challenging for Tunisia, politically and economically. Indeed, the forces that unleashed social unrest in 2011 have amplified. President Saied is creating a flashback to pre-2011 Tunisia through his tight power grip, repetitive dismissals of politicians, and reliance on the security apparatus to silence opponents. He is rolling back past democratic achievements.
At the foreign level, Saied’s one-man rule will continue to deepen Tunisia’s diplomatic isolation and reliance on donors. In this context, EU-Tunisia relations in 2023 will mainly revolve around financial assistance, while relations with EU member states like Italy will primarily address irregular migration. International donors, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, can no longer enthusiastically approve loan packages due to Tunisia’s sluggish economy (Latif, 2022).
At the regional level, Tunisia will maintain close relations with Algeria, but relations with Morocco will not improve because the country has abandoned its neutral position on the Western Sahara (Lmrabet, 2022). Moreover, Tunisia will continue monitoring the situation in Libya, but without necessarily taking a clear role to resolve the conflict. Finally, it remains to be seen whether Saied’s earthquake assistance for Syria is a mere humanitarian move or aimed at restoring ties with Bashar al-Assad.
The situation in Libya continues to be unpredictable due to internal divisions and poor governance. United Nations-led talks have so far failed to produce tangible outcomes as far as elections are concerned, and one of the reasons is foreign meddling which continues to erode Libyan sovereignty and inhibit the prospects of unity (Williams, 2022). Powerful foreign actors like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey capitalise on the situation to advance their economic and geopolitical agendas. For example, Turkey, which first intervened in 2019 to counteract Khalifa Haftar’s territorial advances, ended up signing several maritime and security agreements. Since then, its involvement has been adapting to shifting foreign alliances, as marked by the recent developments in Turkish-Emirati relations and the hosting of Aguila Saleh in 2022.
Libya will be a priority for the EU, particularly for Italy. Meloni’s Italy has been taking the lead in diversifying Europe’s energy supply amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; first with Algeria and then with Libya. Italy signed an $8 billion gas deal despite the fact that Libya might not be a reliable supplier due to its fragile security situation. Finally, the EU-Italy-Libya migration policy which aims to reduce irregular arrivals to Europe exposes repatriated people to a myriad of human rights abuses, including torture, sexual violence, and killing inside and outside detention centres (OHCHR, 2022). In 2023, this will continue unless the EU takes hard measures to ensure compliance with human rights from Libyan authorities.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine will continue to cast its shadow over 2023, with serious consequences for the MENA region and its states. This is particularly relevant for non-oil producing countries, such as Egypt, that have been already hard hit by rising energy and food prices. Additionally, the country has been struggling with supply-chain disruptions and reduced access to finance deeply affecting the country and its economy (European Commission, 2022). These negative externalities are matched by internal structural imbalances (low competitiveness, high public debt, non-transparent monetary policy, negative current account balance) and an increased military presence in the socio-economic structure of Egypt that favours patronage networks and stymies foreign capitals (Sayigh, 2023). The IMF-agreed loan and the consequent national currency devaluation have exacerbated an already dramatic economic strain (Sayigh, 2023). After almost a decade, Al-Sisi’s promises to improve the economy have not been fulfilled yet and 2023 represents a crucial challenge for both the country and its regime. Egypt, therefore, needs to address and reduce the state’s footprint in the economy to meet IMF expectations and re-attract Gulf investments to the country to tackle the current economic turbulence.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan aspires to win the 2023 presidential elections, but Turkey’s sluggish economy (Lira depreciation, high living cost, high unemployment rate) and the lack of government response have inflicted a heavy blow on his popularity (Alderman, 2023). Recently, the earthquake that has so far killed thousands, placed Erdoğan in a difficult position because many of the collapsed properties did not respect seismic codes, and the arrest warrants issued against building contractors will not bolster his image (Hürriyet, 2023). However, it remains to be seen how he will begin handling the post-earthquake crisis.
In this context, the EU is keeping a close eye on the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for mid-May 2023. Erdoğan’s potential loss might signal a change in Turkish foreign policy, particularly regarding Syria, the war in Ukraine, and NATO membership of Sweden and Finland. Specifically, a victory of the opposition would likely bring Ankara closer to Europe and the United States, and thus closer to Ukraine. Thus far, Erdoğan has supported Kyiv without losing Moscow by playing a cautious balancing game (Kumar, 2023). A new president would capitalise on the rising anti-refugee and anti-Arab sentiment among some Turks to modify the country’s migration policy. Nevertheless, Turkey will likely continue cooperating with the EU regardless of who wins the presidency.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently experiencing one of the worst and most challenging periods since its establishment. Besides the economic depression and rampant corruption, the protests which started after the death of Mahsa Amini and the violent reaction of the national authorities have further eroded the legitimacy of the regime, leading experts and scholars to question the future of the Islamic Republic (Kozhanov, 2022). Such a pressure is exacerbated by increased international isolation caused by the Western sanctions against the regime (Kozhanov, 2022).
2023 is expected to be a crucial year for Iran. On the national level, the current wave of protests needs to be structurally addressed, but they only play a minor role as far as the health of the regime is concerned. In contrast, these revolutionary sparks functioned more as a stress-test for key players in Iranian politics, with the strengthening of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its societal ramifications, but also with the rise of senior voices that seem to be more open to dialogue and concessions. On the international level, Russia and China are unlikely to provide sufficient momentum to circumvent Western sanctions, and nuclear talks with the West are far from being resumed. Re-positioning the country in the international arena will therefore be a key issue in the regime’s 2023 agenda.
Despite IMF’s global growth projections predicting a rise for 2023, concerns for economic slowdown and inflation remain vivid in Saudi Arabia. In the past few years, the country has acted as a hegemonic investor in the Middle East, promoting and financing both national and regional projects mainly through the Public Investment Fund. Targeting tourism, infrastructure and Foreign Direct Investment, Saudi finances have become a source of growth, support and, in certain cases, survival for the region.
The economic downturn, supply-chain shortages and rising inflation are likely to affect the country’s budget in the medium to long term, steering Saudi rulers to consider more efficient international means of engagement. This understanding is strengthened by the “Saudi Vision 2030”, which represents a crucial transformation for Saudi Arabia and whose seeds have been already planted. Riyadh has already hinted at the introduction of a new pragmatic and austere approach at the World Economic Forum in Davos that might have serious consequences for regional and neighbour countries (Khatib, 2023). The economic projections and figures for 2023 will therefore play a key role in guiding and shaping the Saudi approach in a pattern of either continuity or discontinuity.
Alderman, L. (2023, February 19). Turkey’s Reeling Economy is an Added Challenge for Erdogan. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/19/business/turkey-earthquake-economy-erdogan.html
Bobin, F. (2022, September 16). L’Algérie enrôle la Tunisie dans son conflit avec le Maroc. Le Monde. https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2022/09/16/l-algerie-enrole-la-tunisie-dans-son-conflit-avec-le-maroc_6141850_3212.html
Chik, L. (2022, June 3). Refus de Visas pour la France : “C’est du Jamais Vu, et c’est surtout contre-productif.” Telquel. https://telquel.ma/2022/06/03/visas-pour-la-france-aujourdhui-nous-avons-la-consigne-de-refuser-70-a-80-des-dossiers_1770250
Depremde yıkılan binalarla ilgili tutuklu sayısı 188’e yükseldi. (2023, February 26). Hürriyet. https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/depremde-yikilan-binalarla-ilgili-tutuklu-sayisi-188e-yukseldi-42225832
El Hamamouchi, A. (2023, January 17). The Deterioration of Human Rights in Morocco. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/88817
European Commission. (2022). Egypt Economic Monitor, December 2022: Strengthening Resilience through Fiscal and Education Sector Reforms. https://knowledge4policy.ec.europa.eu/publication/egypt-economic-monitor-december-2022-strengthening-resilience-through-fiscal-education_en
Human Rights Watch. (2022). Morocco and Western Sahara: Events of 2021. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2022/country-chapters/morocco-and-western-sahara#:~:text=Human%20rights%20violations%20against%20migrants,arbitrary%20detention%20of%20migrants%2C%20including
Khatib, L. (2023, January 24). Saudi Arabia Used the Davos Spotlight to Project a Pragmatic Image. World Politics Review. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/saudi-arabia-yemen-war-foreign-policy-world-economic-forum-davos/
Kozhanov, N. (2022, October 17). The Economic Backdrop of Iran’s Protests. Middle East Institute. https://www.mei.edu/publications/economic-backdrop-irans-protests
Kumar, N. (2023, January 19). What an Erdogan Loss in Turkey’s Presidential Election would mean for the Country and the World. Grid. https://www.grid.news/story/global/2023/01/19/what-an-erdogan-loss-in-turkeys-presidential-election-would-mean-for-the-country-and-the-world/
Latif, M. (2022, December 12). Tunisia: Caught between the IMF and International Isolation. Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/tunisia-caught-between-imf-and-international-isolation
Le Maroc et L’UE signent 5 programmes de Coopération d’un total de 5,5 MMDH. (2023, March 2). Telquel. https://telquel.ma/instant-t/2023/03/02/maroc-ue-signature-de-5-programmes-de-cooperation-dun-total-de-55-mmdh_1803340/
Lmrabet, A. (2022, August, 29). La crise entre le Maroc et la Tunisie n’augure rien de bon. Middle East Eye. https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/opinion-fr/tunisie-maroc-algerie-sahara-occidental-brahim-ghali-crise-espagne
Roggero, C. (2023, March 1). Entre l’Algérie et l’Italie, le gaz consolide la lune de miel. Orient XXI. https://orientxxi.info/magazine/entre-l-algerie-et-l-italie-le-gaz-consolide-la-lune-de-miel,6252
Sayigh, Y. (2023, January 23). Sisi Cannot Ignore the Egyptian Military’s Economic Role Forever. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/1e715e32-c89d-44cb-9cfa-c996cecdb072
United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. (November 2, 2022). Nowhere but Back: Migrants in Libya Compelled to Accept ‘Voluntary’ Return. https://www.ohchr.org/en/stories/2022/11/nowhere-back-migrants-libya-compelled-accept-voluntary-return
Williams, S. T. (2022). Two Years on from the Ceasefire Agreement, Libya still Matters. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/FP_20221103_libya_ceasefire_williams.pdf