Expect severe and widespread travel disruption in February.

The year 2020 started with the US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iran‘s military force the IRGC.

The reverberations around the region were immediate. It was a breach of international law, let alone precedent.

The image of the US in the Middle East has been irrevocably damaged, even for long-term allies. Washington is no longer seen as a reliable, stable or predictable partner – especially under Trump.

Dynamics

His recently signed “deal of the century” between the Israelis and, to a much lesser extent, the Palestinians, providing little satisfaction for the latter. It merely plays into the narrative that the US is to be vilified.

Amid this PR debacle, seemingly ignored by Washington, the balance of power has shifted in the region. America is on the wane, a trend only accelerated in the past four years. As the country pulls back (and in some cases is pushed back) expect greater regional influence from other key global players, including Russia, Turkey and China.

Already we are seeing Russia solidifying the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as Russian and Turkish influence growing in Libya. This will only become more obvious and evident in the coming years.

Prepare also for further Iranian retaliation against the US. Where Washington is bold and swift in its policy enactments, Iran can always play the long game. Tehran’s moves may therefore be served cold.

Election time

In the shorter term, however, Iran has domestic issues to focus on – at least for the coming month.

The country holds parliamentary elections on the 21st February. Expect a lower than normal turnout. Many are frustrated with the current leadership. Hasan Rouhani is a reformist but his hands are tied by conservatives in many of the other wheels and cogs of Iranian politics.

Furthermore, the Guardian Council has failed to approve a number of reformist candidates to take part. As such, many reformist voters will feel disenfranchised and will therefore be more likely to protest in the coming weeks – and indeed the coming electoral term.

Many want détente. Many want Iran to return to international markets. Most people just want more jobs, lower inflation and higher standards of living.

Instead, we are likely to see a more hawkish, anti-Western government emerge. International relations will be polarised further and Rouhani, despite all his efforts, will face an increasingly difficult tenure ahead of the next presidential elections due in 2021.

Mourning a great leader

At times of such tensions, the region has always been able to rely on the neutrality of Oman. The sultanate is the only member of the Gulf Co-operation Council to maintain stable relations with Iran. It has even hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an official capacity, demonstrating its unique diplomatic position in the Middle East.

This remarkable feat of international relations in the most fraught part of the world was down to one man: Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said. His passing earlier in the month leaves a cold void in the political arena. It also draws a close to the most dynamic era of this unique country.

So what happens next?

Basically, the cousin of Sultan Qaboos – Haitham was chosen as the successor. He will likely maintain stability in the country’s international relations. He will have to prioritise continued economic diversification away from the energy sector whilst also creating jobs. Oil is not likely to run out for at least 15 years but it still accounts for the biggest chunk of government revenue, whilst also employing a relatively low number of people.

Sultan Haitham may grant more powers to parliament and appoint new ministers (his predecessor held control over certain ministries himself). The country is likely to become a bigger player in tourism, shipping and bunkering (especially around the development at Duqm).

Nonetheless, the country’s debt service cost will remain high, GDP growth will remain modest, large bond maturities are expected in the coming five years and there are numerous concerns over the fine balancing act of the economy now falling to the new Sultan to deftly manage.

The stakes are high.

Crime on the high seas

For a few years a decade ago, Somali piracy was causing a concern in Omani waters. Development on the land, as well as effective counter-measures by international navies have largely mitigated this threat. The region is no longer the hotspot it once was.

Today, it is West Africa where the issue causes the most concern. Unlike Somalia, Nigerian and Cameroonian pirates are unable to hold captured vessels for months at a time. Instead, they take crew members ashore and hold them hostage there.

Dozens of crewmembers were abducted last year. Ransom settlements range from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Detention periods also appear to be far less than those experienced by hostages taken by Somali pirates in the last decade. With some exceptions, most victims appear to be held for just under a month.

The key drivers of piracy remain the same, be it in the Gulf of Guinea, East Africa or Straits of Malacca. Ships passing impoverished seafaring communities where security is lax will continue to face the risk of attack, be it by opportunistic individuals or more organised syndicates. Better economics and governance are therefore the most important mitigating measures. Support, partnerships and development in places like the Niger Delta should therefore be the main international priority for tackling the problem.

More polling

Elsewhere in the Gulf of Guinea, Faure Gnassingbé of Togo will stand in the presidential election on the 22nd of February.

He has been in power since 2005 (when he took over from his father who himself came to power in a coup in the 1960s). Last year parliament ruled that a president could not stand for more than two terms, but this will not apply to Gnassingbé’s current term. As a result, if he wins this month, he could legally remain president until 2030 given the country’s five-year terms.

Recent years have seen a clampdown on opposition politicians and their supporters. Expect tensions to provoke demonstrations in Lomé in the coming weeks. These will likely continue if Gnassingbé – who is the current frontrunner – wins the election.

Horizon gazing

Elsewhere in West Africa, Cote d’Ivoire is not holding elections until October, but already tensions are building. The polls are likely to be more volatile than those held in 2015 and while we do not foresee a return to the political violence of 2010-2011 expect turbulence and unrest nonetheless.

Sri Lanka recently saw the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president. The brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was the head of the military during the highly controversial defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

Partly as a result of this, he is respected in his own right. He is not as much in the shadow of his brother as other nepotistic appointments elsewhere in the world might be perceived. Nonetheless, he is likely to take a similar stance on issues such as community integration (or lack thereof), civil liberties and interventionist, often damaging economic policies.

Brexit

We haven’t been able to issue a monthly forecast without a mention of Brexit for quite some time now. This month will be no exception. The UK has formally left the union and entered an 11 month transition during which time Boris Johnson is to secure some sort of deal on the terms of the country’s departure.

We maintain that this is a terrible idea from the grounds of economics, politics, safety and global influence but the process has been set in motion. Companies and travellers simply need to be prepared for logistical and economic disruption, which in turn will likely cost jobs and generate public disquiet, eventually in the areas that voted most strongly in support of Brexit. Good luck everyone.

Ireland election

Ireland holds a general election on the 8th of February. Irish unification and Sinn Fein have gained popularity, not least amid the chaos facing Northern Ireland and cross border trade as a result of Westminster.

It is expected to be a close race between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. However, if measured sentiment is correct, neither party will be able to form a government without the coalition support of Sinn Feinn. This could generate some challenging dynamics for Northern Irish politics in the year ahead at the very least.

Slovakia and Azerbaijan polling

Slovakia also votes this month. The polls on the 29th of February are contentious, with a possible rise in support for right-wing parties. Many Slovaks are frustrated with corruption and looking for change. No single party is currently forecast to win outright, so a coalition will need to be formed. However, this could be a difficult exercise given some of the contrasting demands of different groupings.

Azerbaijan holds parliamentary elections on the 9th February as well. Recent reforms have allowed for more candidates to stand, but the controlling government remains the dominant force and is not likely to tolerate any sharp dissent from the country’s current political trajectory.

Outbreak

Last but not least, we will mention novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), also known as Wuhan coronavirus.

The disease is concerning for two reasons. One is its infection rate – higher than SARS. The other is its infectiousness before symptoms present, making it hard to predict forthcoming infections until it is too late.

The mortality rate is relatively low. More people will die of flu, malaria or car accidents this year (as ever) but this will not have anything near the same impact on travel plans or government policies.

One point that we have mentioned before is the impact of better infrastructure on the spread of disease. This time last year we warned that improving transport links in places like Central Africa could facilitate future outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola (far more terrifying than Wuhan coronavirus). As such, world governments should not panic over this latest outbreak, but use it as a stress test for existing precaution measures. Lessons learnt in 2020 could save countless lives in future outbreaks.

Of all the countries for this disease to occur, China is probably the best prepared to respond. Shutting down transport and keeping people indoors in a city larger than London during the biggest holiday of the year is one feat. Constructing a new hospital in a matter of days is another. Improving PR, communications and crisis response measures significantly since the SARS outbreak is also worthy of note. The next step would be to use the public consciousness of this latest outbreak as a reason for shutting down wild and illegal animal sales around the country. The benefits of this would be much more than just medical. The environmental and animal welfare benefits would also be significant.

For the time being, however, those in at-risk areas should adhere to strict hygiene measures, pay attention to official notices and avoid crowded areas.

February travel safety forecast
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