The Middle East in 2023: Five Areas for the UK and Europe to Focus On

Rallying cry: Iranian fans hold up an anti-regime protest banner during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November 2022. Image: PA / Alamy

Following a relatively quiet year in the Middle East from Europe’s perspective, 2023 is likely to bring significant challenges in the region – and governments in London and other European capitals will need to be prepared.

In 2022, the Middle East seemed to drop down the list of priorities for governments in the UK and across Europe. Policymakers in London, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere were understandably consumed with Russia’s war against Ukraine, while trying to maintain a long-term focus on China and the Indo-Pacific. They turned to Middle Eastern oil and gas producers to alleviate Europe’s energy crisis, but did not have to deal with any major crises in the region – the protests in Iran notwithstanding. This could well change in 2023, forcing European governments to again think seriously about how to engage with the continent’s southern neighbourhood.

A Quiet 2022

The reduced focus on the Middle East by European governments this past year may have been primarily a matter of bandwidth, but it was also enabled by dynamics in the region. The general trend of de-escalation and rapprochement among regional powers, which had started during the COVID-19 pandemic, continued.

The Gulf monarchies concentrated on economic matters rather than their political differences, benefiting from high oil and gas prices, and looking to make the most of the global attention and influx of tourism coming with the World Cup hosted by Qatar at the end of the year. Similarly, a conciliatory atmosphere also prevailed between Turkey and various other regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel. Even tensions between Iran and the Gulf monarchies appeared to abate, partly due to conscious efforts to achieve a degree of détente on all sides, but also because Tehran was increasingly occupied with a persistent protest movement at home.

In general, while none of the various conflicts and drivers of instability in the region were resolved or even meaningfully addressed in 2022, they did not reach the threshold at which European governments would have been forced to devote substantial attention and resources to dealing with them.

At the beginning of 2023, this state of affairs appears unlikely to continue. There are at least five sets of issues that should give policymakers in London and other European capitals reason to focus on the Middle East.

Potentially Explosive Energy Politics

The main reason the Middle East remained on the radar of European governments in 2022 was energy. Scrambling to replace Russian oil and gas imports, even countries like Germany – hitherto relatively absent from the Middle East’s energy politics – started courting producers in the region. A flurry of deals was signed and major new initiatives were launched, with new bilateral relationships between European and Middle Eastern states being forged, and old ones being reinvigorated.

This trend is set to continue in 2023 as the Middle East’s vast fossil fuel reserves remain Europe’s best hope of overcoming its ongoing energy crisis and finding a way to guarantee its short- to medium-term energy security. However, as should be clear once and for all from the experience of Russia’s war against Ukraine and Moscow’s attempts to leverage oil and gas exports to undermine European unity, energy relationships can never be reduced to mere commercial transactions. They must be understood as inherently strategic undertakings that are inseparable from political and security considerations.

Expanding Europe’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil and gas is hardly less fraught with geopolitical complexity than the old dependency on Russian supplies. The Gulf monarchies, while happy to see their share of European energy markets grow, are also concerned about losing ground elsewhere and maintaining stable – and, ideally, high – global prices. They continue to see Asian countries as their most important customers, rather than European states that might need their oil and gas now, but ultimately aim to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible. Saudi Arabia and its fellow oil producers are also eager to keep Russia inside the OPEC+ tent to maximise their ability to influence prices, and fear that new US and European instruments, such as the price cap on Russian oil exports, could reduce their power or even one day be turned against them.

The situation is no less complicated in North Africa. Libya’s hydrocarbon industry has enormous potential, but is undermined by the country’s chronic political and socioeconomic crisis of the past decade. Meanwhile, oil and gas exports from the region’s leading producer, Algeria, are at least indirectly tied to the longstanding dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the status of the Western Sahara. This was demonstrated in 2022 by the crisis in Algerian-Spanish relations, and Algiers’ decision to cut gas supplies through the Maghreb–Europe pipeline to put pressure on Rabat.

Expanding Europe’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil and gas is hardly less fraught with geopolitical complexity than the old dependency on Russian supplies

Finally, while ever-more gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean hold enormous promise for new supplies for Europe, the region is also intersected by several geopolitical fault-lines. There may be potential for developing win-win production and export arrangements that bring the region’s states closer together, but more competitive dynamics could just as well fuel escalation in conflicts between Turkey and Greece and Cyprus, or between Israel and Lebanon.

For European governments, all this means that energy deals – whether concluded by politicians or private companies – must be underpinned by strategic approaches to the region that integrate commercial activities with sensitive diplomacy and effective defence and security engagement.

Iran and the Old/New Nuclear Question

Towards the end of 2022, the women-led protest movement against the Iranian regime and the deployment of Iranian drones by Russia in Ukraine dominated the debate about Iran in London and other European capitals. At the same time, while the negotiations between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) to revive the Iran nuclear agreement were nominally just stalled, there was an emerging – albeit not officially acknowledged – consensus that the deal is likely dead in the water.

At the beginning of 2023, the UK and its European partners must therefore confront a set of enormously difficult questions with regard to Iran. Can the Iranian nuclear programme still be contained in the absence of a viable international agreement, and if not, what does this mean for proliferation dynamics – and stability and security writ large – in the wider region? What can be done to counter the burgeoning Iranian-Russian relationship, as well as the continuing transfer of Iranian drone and missile technology to hostile states and non-state actors in the Middle East and beyond? And finally, how best to respond to the Iranian regime’s ongoing crackdown on a protest movement that appears to embody precisely the kind of ideals and values that the West claims to hold dear?

To have any hope of answering these questions, European governments must develop a new approach to dealing with Iran. The old sequential, nuclear-first-everything-else-second policy must be retired, however painful that may be to admit.

Israel’s Hard-Right Government

On 29 December 2022, Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel’s new prime minister, his triumphant return to power made possible by an unprecedently right-wing coalition. Less than a week later, one of Netanyahu’s new allies, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a notorious religious firebrand and settler who now holds the office of minister of national security, appeared to set the tone for the new government with a highly controversial visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque, inflaming tempers across the Middle East and beyond. Just over two decades ago, in 2000, a similar stunt by then-candidate for prime minister Ariel Sharon sparked the Second Intifada.

For the moment, Ben-Gvir’s Temple Mount visit has only prompted angry statements from across the Palestinian political spectrum (as well as regionally and internationally), but the move has raised fears that 2023 could see renewed major violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The security situation in the West Bank, in particular, has already been growing increasingly tense in recent months, with dozens of Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces and several attacks by Palestinian assailants against Israeli security personnel and civilians. Further escalation in the coming months, both in the West Bank and Gaza, cannot be ruled out, particularly if Ben-Gvir and other members of Netanyahu’s government follow through on their hard-line anti-Arab rhetoric.

Regionally, the formation of Israel’s hard-right government also raises questions about the future of the normalisation dynamics between Israel and Arab states. Netanyahu was a key architect of the Abraham Accords that have thus far included agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. However, Netanyahu’s new allies at home may make it politically all but impossible for other Arab leaders to follow suit.

Turkey’s Pivotal Election

In 2023, Turkey marks the centennial of its foundation as a modern republic, but the most pivotal event geopolitically is set to be the national elections scheduled for June. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are set to face their most serious political challenge since coming to power two decades ago.

While the US may be able to deprioritise the Middle East as it concentrates on countering Russia and competing with China, Europe does not have that luxury

In recent years, Erdogan’s government has resorted to ever-more authoritarian behaviour to stay in control as the Turkish economy – once the area in which the AKP distinguished itself – has slid further and further into crisis. Few observers believe that Erdogan will quietly retire should he lose the elections, and there are already plenty of signs that he may be prepared to sacrifice what is left of Turkey’s democracy to stay in his presidential palace.

European governments may also have to be prepared for the prospect that Erdogan will turn to foreign political posturing and adventurism if he sees opportunities to bolster his standing at home. Northern Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya are just three areas in which Turkey might flex its muscles and cause headaches for policymakers in London and Europe. Further Turkish capriciousness on Swedish and Finnish NATO membership also appears probable.

Longstanding Conflicts Continue

Finally, the UK and European governments cannot afford to lose sight of the three long-standing conflicts still brewing in the region in Syria, Libya and Yemen. 2022 may have been a relatively quiet year in all of these conflicts, at least in terms of how much they directly affected European interests, but there are no guarantees that it will remain this way in 2023.

In Syria, there is plenty of potential for (re)escalation: between the regime and what remains of the opposition, between Turkey and the Kurds in the north, and between Israel and Iran and its proxies. Islamic State also remains a threat, having claimed responsibility for more than 750 attacks in its old heartland in Syria and Iraq over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, the regime in Damascus may find that its key security partners, Russia and Iran, are more distracted with other matters than in the past.

In Libya, a stalled political process seems unlikely to come unstuck through negotiations any time soon. Armed groups have carved the country up into fiefdoms, some running flourishing criminal enterprises that are involved in everything from drugs and arms smuggling to human trafficking via the Central Mediterranean migration route from Africa to Europe. Many of them have patrons among regional powers or maintain close ties with Moscow and the Russian Wagner Group, which retains a presence in Libya.

In Yemen, a fragile truce has held for much of the past year, but a sustainable settlement is not in sight. Even if Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels are able to come to an agreement that could bring an end to the eight-year-long Saudi-led military intervention, the country’s civil war appears likely to continue.

Furthermore, there are also big questions about Lebanon, which is going through a protracted but devastating economic collapse; Iraq, which appears near ungovernable as it staggers from one political and socioeconomic crisis to the next; and Tunisia, where the region’s only new democracy following the Arab Uprisings seems to be in the process of dying, with another major economic crisis looming.

No Alternatives to Real Engagement

In 2023, Russia and the war in Ukraine will inevitably remain the number one priority for governments across London and other European capitals, and the long-term focus will remain on the Indo-Pacific. But while the US – which has once again solidified its status as Europe’s indispensable partner in response to the Ukraine war – may be able to deprioritise the Middle East as it concentrates on countering Russia and competing with China, Europe does not have that luxury. As Europe’s southern neighbourhood, conflict and instability in the region will always more immediately affect European countries’ interests. Policymakers must think about the sets of issues outlined in this article in order to – at the very least – be prepared should a significant crisis break out at some point over the coming year. The dynamics that could precipitate a major eruption of violence and/or trigger a humanitarian disaster on Europe’s doorstep, or deepen the continent’s energy security anxieties, are evident enough already. Engaging with them in a proactive manner may also make it easier to deal with as yet unforeseen events in the region that will inevitably require European governments’ attention.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Tobias Borck

Senior Associate Fellow

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