As the New Year gets into its stride it's clear these are turbulent times and that the world is over-burdened with trouble spots. Some of the worst of them, such as Syria, are, sadly, obvious candidates to remain mired in misery during 2016. The risk of the Syrian tragedy spilling over into its neighbours also remains. Other existing flashpoints like Libya, Yemen and Eastern Ukraine appear doomed to continue in crisis too.
But where else should we be worried about? Here are a few predictions that I fervently hope to be wrong about:
The Saudis are already involved in proxy wars in both Syria and Yemen with their great regional rival (and long-established trouble-causer) Iran. The Saudis could all too easily be dragged into a direct conflict by the Iranians, which would spark a full scale Sunni-Shia war in the Middle East.
Some of the risk on the Saudi side is caused by the passing of their cautious old guard of rulers. The headstrong and inexperienced 30 year old Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is now the most influential figure in the Kingdom and currently charging around like a bullock in a china shop. Prince Muhammad bears much responsibility for mishandling the war in Yemen and for the recent execution of a cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, which has enraged Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority. He appears to have plenty of scope for further miscalculations in him and his professed plans for radical economic reform may also cause domestic ructions.
Saudi Arabia also carries the long-standing risk that the poisonous Wahhabi interpretation of Islam with which it indoctrinates its citizens and proselytises around the world might come back to bite the country violently.
China analysts keep telling us that the country’s economy and political system are robust. But the authoritarian Beijing regime is clearly having huge problems in guiding China’s adjustment from being the world’s cheap workshop to a higher value economy. Given the scale of China’s role in the globalised economy, any misstep could be calamitous for a world that has failed utterly to learn the lessons of the last economic crisis and protect itself from a repeat.
The Chinese government has previously shown itself all too willing to fall back on aggressive nationalism as a distraction from its failings. It is already behaving belligerently in the South China Sea and a credibility-challenging economic crisis could lead it into further provocative military escapades. This would pose a serious challenge for the US, which has close defence alliances with most other countries in the region.
The Godfather meets Bond villain regime of Vladimir Putin will cause continued problems whatever happens. It will, though, become more dangerous the more it is allowed to succeed. If it achieves its objective of salvaging the Asad regime in Syria and is allowed to get away with its occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, then it will be emboldened to launch further attacks, particularly on its neighbours in the Baltics.
As in the Cold War, containment through strength and push back where possible is the only viable protection against Russia. Putin has the mentality of a playground bully and compromise, which he sees as weakness, only encourages him to commit further violence. Enhanced, not loosened, sanctions are essential to put pressure on Russia by exploiting its economic fragility. And forget any notion that it could be an ally against ISIS. Whatever propaganda it may spout in public, Russia’s actions in Syria have made clear that it has no intention of taking on the terrorists. Rather, it sees ISIS as a useful distraction for the Syrian opposition and the West, which helps Russia to achieve its aim of propping up Asad.
No two countries are exactly alike, but the central African nation of Burundi is flirting horribly with re-enacting the 1994 genocide that took place next door in Rwanda. It is a similar size, has a similarly unstable past and the same colonial inflicted Hutu-Tutsi social faultline. It also has a brutal and corrupt ruling elite that is determined to hold on to power at all costs, whilst the outside world is again distracted by seemingly bigger crises elsewhere (it was Yugoslavia, amongst others, at the time of the Rwandan genocide).
After the horrors of its experience in Rwanda, the United Nations is, at least, more alert to the risks and doing what it can to mitigate them in conjunction with the African Union. But these international organisations desperately need the leading powers in the world to provide them with the backing and resources they need to prevent a repeat.
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan
Both of these Central Asian nations are deeply repressive dictatorships. The former is run by Emomali Rakhmonov, who is neither charismatic nor particularly cunning. His country is corrupted by and economically dependent on the heroin traffic from neighbouring Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, is controlled by the craftier and even more ruthless Islam Karimov, who has been in fading health and has no obvious successor. The already feeble finances of both countries are suffering the effects of the loss of remittances from citizens working in the ailing Russian economy.
At some point this concoction of repression, corruption, economic failure and unfortunate geography is likely to explode horribly. Indeed, if you were to design a factory to produce desperate young men prone to recruitment by Islamist extremists, it would look something like Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.
South Africa does not really belong anywhere near this chamber of horrors because its society and democratic political system remain strong. But the current crooked and incompetent President, Jacob Zuma, is undermining the structures put in place during the glorious post-apartheid Mandela years. Coupled with the slow speed of spreading wealth and opportunity to the majority of South Africans, this could lead to a difficult year and long-term social strife if Zuma’s wings cannot be clipped soon.
The UK and Europe
The world, not least our part of it, is awash with more hatred and overblown petty grievances than at any time since the 1930s. We know how that ended for Europe and if we continue in this vein, it will happen again. It is also exactly what the nationalist little Hitlers emerging all over the place and the Islamist extremists want. The rest of us are much more alike than different in what we seek from life. So, let’s be kinder to each other. At the risk of sounding like an old hippy, what exactly is so wrong about peace, love and understanding?
(I was going to write more on this topic but Channel 4 News’ Paul Mason has just done it better…)
Paul's first book, "The Accidental Diplomat" is available from the usual outlets and via Scratching Shed Publishing.