March 20 – Syria / Yemen
The Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations releases the 2017 World Happiness Report. Using the following variables—social support, freedom of choice, generosity, honesty, health, life expectancy, income and perceived corruption— the study ranks 155 countries based on the happiness of their people. It also analyzes the findings to explain why some countries are happier than others. According to the study, the happiest place is Norway followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, and Canada. At the very bottom of the happiness list are countries from Sub-Saharan Africa and those hit by conflict, such as Syria and Yemen. Despite an improving economic performance and tripling incomes since 1960s, the U.S. happiness report fell from rank 3 in 2007 to 14. According to the study, rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust are the reasons for this decline.
Full World Happiness Report 2017
April 4 – Syria
Syrian government forces attack the town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib province with toxic gas including sarin, killing at least 70 people. Hundreds of others suffer from the effects of the toxic chemicals. Sarin is a nerve agent, 20 times as deadly as cyanide. During this chemical attack, the town was under the control of one of the anti-government rebel groups, Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government denies its involvement, but the international community says it has a proof of Assad’s involvement. (April 7): U.S. President Donald Trump orders a military strike on Al Shayrat Air Base from which Syrian government planes allegedly staged the attack. US warships launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, targeting aircraft, shelters and storage facilities. The U.S. strike is conducted without authorization from either the United States Congress or United Nations Security Council and it raises questions about its legality under the U.S. law as well as international law. Russia vetoes a proposed resolution that would condemn Syria for the chemical attack on its own people. Russia is President Bashar Assad’s ally.
For more on Syria’s gas attack.
April 16 – Turkey
Voters in Turkey’s national referendum narrowly approve changes to the constitution that give president unprecedented powers and change Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. The supporters of the changes, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party), say the new system will make Turkey more efficient and stable. The critics, such as the Council of Europe see Turkey’s proposed constitutional amendments as a “dangerous step backwards” for democracy. They express concerns about the separation of powers and checks and balances within the new system. The new powers of the president include the right to dissolve the Parliament, declare a state of emergency, and appoint vice presidents and ministers. The president will also have more powers in the selection of judges and prosecutors and will be allowed to be a member and even a chairperson of a political party. In this way, the president may control both the executive and legislative bodies.
April 25 – Yemen
During a pledging meeting in the Swiss city of Geneva, 48 countries, as well as a number of UN agencies, regional organizations, and non-governmental humanitarian organizations pledge $1.1 billion (out of $2.1 requested by the UN) for Yemen, which suffers from “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council Jan Egeland warns that Yemen is facing a “famine of Biblical proportions” towards the end of this year. One of the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen has been additionally devastated by a two-year conflict between Houthi rebels and the government supported by the Saudi-led coalition. According to the UN, of Yemen’s 25.6 million people, close to 19 million are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. More than six million people are at risk of famine.
Listen to more on the crisis in Yemen from NPR.
April 26 – Iraq
The Iraqi forces liberate the ancient city of Hatra from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who captured the city in 2014. The militants looted the ancient city and destroyed many sculptures and engraved images. However, it is reported that the site had suffered less damage than feared earlier, with most of the buildings, city walls, and towers still intact. During the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, Hatra was a large fortified city and religious and trading center in the Parthian Empire. Later, it became the capital of the first Arab Kingdom. Hatra withstood invasions by the Romans in A.D. 116 and 198 thanks to its high, thick walls reinforced by towers. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
May 29 – Yemen
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announces that since Yemen’s Ministry of Health has declared the state of emergency on May 5 to cope with an outbreak of cholera, the number of cases reached more than 55,000 and 500 people have died. Yemen’s health care professionals have hard time dealing with the outbreak because after two years of war the health care industry has been decimated and there are shortages of medicines and medical supplies.
More about cholera, including “Cholera: Q&A” video (2:05 min) from World Health Organization (WHO)
June 5 – Qatar / Saudi Arabia / Bahrain / UAE / Yemen
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Egypt, and Libya’s eastern-based government abruptly cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of funding terrorism and links to Iran. They withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar and impose trade and travel bans. Qatar denies the accusation. Turkey and Iran strongly back Qatar in this regional diplomatic crisis. The United States President Donald Trump praises the decision of the Gulf countries’ isolation of Qatar contradicting the existing U.S. policy, while the Defense and State Departments remain neutral. Qatar is home to the biggest US air base in the Middle East, Al-Udeid, with 9,000 U.S. troops and support personnel. With Qatar’s assistance, the base plays a key role in the US-led operations against Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. The root cause of this diplomatic crisis lies in the two-decade Saudi-Qatar rivalry, which has forces the countries in the region to take sides. About the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut, Qatar controls some of the world’s largest gas reserves, which expanded its economy from $8.1 billion in 1995 to an astonishing $210 billion in 2014. With the growing wealth, Qatar wants to play a bigger role in the region. (June 15): Qatar signs a $12 billion deal to buy F-15 fighters jets from the U.S. The deal is completed despite Qatar’s recent criticism by U.S. President Donald Trump for allegedly supporting terrorism. (June 23): Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain say they will lift sanctions if Qatar fulfills 13 demands in the next 10 days. These demands include closing Qatar’s Al Jazeera broadcaster, reducing relations with Iran, closing Turkey’s military base, and cutting its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Qatar rejects the demands.
How the Qatar, Saudi Arabia Rivalry Help Inflame the Middle East: Video (3:43 min) from The New York Times.
August 30 – Saudi Arabia
Two millions of Islamic pilgrims from all over the world arrive at the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage of Hajj, which will last until September 4. They started at sunset by circling the Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site. The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam. Every adult Muslim is required to undertake it at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it and is physically able. Saudi Arabia has prepared 100,000 security personnel to protect the pilgrims.
Video (1:45 min): What is the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca?
More about Hajj, its activities, statistics, and photos
September 25 – Iraq / Turkey / Iran
Ninety-two percent of Iraqi Kurds who voted in a controversial referendum on independence support the idea of becoming a separate state. There are 3.3 million ethnic Kurds in Iraq, about 23 percent of Iraqi population. Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani says that the Kurds will not automatically trigger a declaration of independence, but want to start negotiations on secession with the Iraqi government. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rules out such talks, saying the referendum was unconstitutional. Governments in Iran and Turkey also voice strong opposition to the referendum, fearing the impact it might have on their own Kurdish minorities (Kurds make up 13 percent of population in Iran and 19 percent in Turkey). Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatens to close borders and impose sanctions on the Iraqi Kurds’ vital oil export pipeline. Overall Kurdish population is estimated at around 30 million in the world. They have been pushing for their own statehood for decades.
Who are Kurds
Video (4:21 min) Iraqi Kurdish leader: “Our right to seek independence”
September 26 – Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issues a decree that ends a ban on women to drive cars. The move is a great victory for women and reformers. However, the religious conservatives accuse the government of “bending the verses of Sharia.” Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that did not allow women to drive. Those who defied the rule risked being fined and imprisoned. Families had to hire chauffeurs to drive Saudi women to their destinations. However, women in Saudi Arabia still face many restrictions such as strict dress codes, gender segregation, and written permissions from male guardians to travel, work, or access healthcare.
Restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia and around the world
October 4 – Saudi Arabia
King Salman of Saudi Arabia is the first sitting Saudi monarch to ever visit Russia, where he meets with President Vladimir Putin. Both sides sign investment deals worth several billions dollars. Saudi Arabia will invest in Russian energy industry and will purchase Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missiles (diversifying it from the U.S. and UK markets). Russia, on the other hand, will build a petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia. Both sides also agree to continue their cooperation in the area of oil industry. Although Russia is not part of the intergovernmental oil cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), it cooperated with OPEC members to suppress oil production in an effort to increase oil prices. This economic cooperation provides Russia with much needed investment as its revenues have been hit by falling oil prices and Western sanctions after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. In terms of the conflict in Syria, where Russia and Saudi Arabia are on the opposing sides, with Russia supporting the Syrian regime and Saudis supporting Syrian opposition, the two countries agree to cooperate in fighting terrorism.
October 9 – Iraq
The UN’s Humanitarian Office reports that due to continued fighting between Iraqi government forces and Islamic State (IS) more than 5.4 million Iraqi civilians have been displaced since 2014. The Agency is also worried about “incidents of collective punishment, restrictions on free movement, evictions, forced returns and sexual exploitation and violence, including in emergency sites and camps.” The statement continues that “hundreds of thousands of people, including very young children, have been exposed to extreme danger, stress, and trauma and will require years of specialized support and care.”
October 12 – Israel
The United States and Israel are withdrawing from the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO citing anti-Israel bias as a reason. Both are planning to exit as of December 2018 and establish observer missions instead. UNESCO is a body of the United Nations that promotes international cooperation in education, science, culture and communication. It is especially known for its designation of World Heritage Sites, locations with particular cultural significance.
“Here’s what UNESCO is and why the Trump administration just quit it” from Vox
November 4 – Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son and top adviser of King Salman, initiates a sweeping campaign of anti-corruption arrests that includes the country’s 10 other princes as well as current and former government ministers. Among the detained is the prominent billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal who controls the investment firm Kingdom Holding and has major stakes in companies such as Citigroup, Apple, and Twitter. The arrests send shock waves throughout the country. The campaign is seen as part of Crown Prince’s consolidation power. Thirty-two-year old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is not only head of the anti-corruption department, but also the minister of defense and in charge of the interior ministry’s troops, which acts as a second armed force. He is highly popular especially among younger Saudis who see him as a reformer.
What it happening in Saudi Arabia? (Video 03:47)
Corruption in Saudi Arabia is widespread. Transparency International gives the country a score of 46 (on a scale from 0 to 100 where 0 is “highly corrupt” and 100 is “highly clean”). Saudi Arabia’s attorney general estimates that about $100 billion has been misused through systemic corruption and embezzlement over a few decades.
Look at corruption index and map to compare corruption levels across countries
November 4 – Lebanon / Saudi Arabia
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri abruptly announces his resignation in a televised address from Saudi Arabia. He says that he left Lebanon because his life was in danger. The move, however, leaves Lebanon in shock and fuels speculation that the Saudis coerced him to step down and hold him hostage. The Saudis deny the accusations. A few days later, in another televised interview, Hariri says he will rescind his resignation if Hezbollah pulls out from conflicts in the region. The incident is seen as part of the larger Iran–Saudi Arabia conflict. Hezbollah is an Iran-supported militia, but also is an important Lebanese political group that is part of a unity government in Lebanon. The group is involved in the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia insists that Lebanon remains neutral in these wars, which would also curb the influence of its regional rival, Iran. (November 15): Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, accuses Saudi Arabia of aggression towards Lebanon and demands Hariri’s safe return. France and other countries step in to mediate between the two sides. (November 21): Prime Minister Saad Hariri returns to Lebanon and withdraws his resignation.
More on Why Lebanon’s prime minister resigned
The conflict between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon explained (video 03:21)
November 6 – Saudi Arabia / Yemen
Saudi Arabia tightens its blockade on Yemen by closing air, land, and sea access preventing food, water, medicine, fuel, and other necessities from entering Yemen. The move follows the Saudis intercepting a ballistic missile near its capital, Riyadh fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Saudi Arabia defends the blockade saying it is needed to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Yemen. However, the blockade is creating a humanitarian crisis for the civilians in Yemen who are dying from the lack of food and medicine. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock warns that the blockade is creating the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims. The Red Cross is unable to provide chlorine tablets, vital to combating a cholera epidemic that has so far affected more than 900,000 Yemenis. (December 2): Saudi Arabia partially lifts the blockade on Yemen, allowing humanitarian organizations to bring some life-saving supplies. However, the UN says that this is not enough to prevent the humanitarian crisis. Without the urgent resumption of commercial imports, especially food, fuel and medicines, millions of Yemenis risk mass hunger, disease and death. Nearly 400,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition. With 90 percent of the country’s food imported, more than 8 million people face the risk of starvation. The UN warns that threat of widespread famine is a matter of months.
November 8 – United Arab Emirates (UAE)
The United Arab Emirates opens a $1.2-billion Louvre Abu Dhabi art museum. In cooperation with France and with a permission to use the name “Louvre”, both countries aimed at creating a new kind of cultural institution that brings different cultures together. As it celebrates the cultural achievements of all mankind, the museum displays art from a variety of countries and cultures, while galleries are not separated by geography, but in chronological order highlighting comparisons, influences, and ideas across civilizations and cultures. The Louvre Abu Dhabi extraordinary structure was designed by the Pritzker-winning French architect Jean Nouvel. The centerpiece of the structure is a geometrically complex silvery dome that appears to float above the entire museum-city. The dome is designed to filter the sun’s light in such as way that it creates an effect within the museum known as “the rain of light.’ The new Louvre holds 600 artworks permanently, 300 loaned from France, as well as art loaned by other Arab countries.
Abu Dhabi just opened their Louvre museum – take a look inside – Video 2:03 min
December 6 – Israel / Palestinian Territories
United States President Donald Trump announces the United States recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing nearly seven decades of American foreign policy of neutrality on the matter. He also orders the preparations to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel welcomes the move, saying Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for thousands of years. However, the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, as the capital of the future Palestinian state. The move leaves the United States isolated as it is criticized by majority of international leaders, including the European Union, which says that its stance on the neutrality of Jerusalem will remain unchanged. According to the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace accords, the final status of Jerusalem is supposed to be discussed in the latter stages of peace talks. This unilateral decision of the U.S. sparks protests across the globe. (December 13): Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announces that the latest unilateral move by the United States disqualifies it from serving as peace broker in the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. He also suggests the United Nations should take over as a mediator. (December 21): The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly passes a motion — 128 to 9 with 35 abstentions — condemning the unilateral decision by the United States to recognize the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Among the countries that voted in favor of the resolution are many traditional U.S. allies, such as the United Kingdom and France. Canada and Australia abstained.
How the U.S. lost its ability to mediate peace in the Middle East
Why Is Jerusalem a Controversial Capital? Video (01:47)
Jerusalem: Three religions, three families | Faith Matters: video (26:06)
December 28 – Iran
People in the second most populous Iranian city of Mashhad come on to the streets to express their economic grievances: rising fuel and food prices. The protests quickly spread to other cities across Iran turning into anti-government demonstrations. People protest the government policies that contributed to years of economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, and involvement in the Middle East conflicts.  Many of the demonstrators are young Iranians who resent the lack of economic opportunity because of rising unemployment, which is especially high at 27 percent among the youth (ages 15-24). The protests also challenge the rule of the Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei who represents the system that was supposed to deliver justice to the people after the revolution of 1979 and it has failed.  Some protesters chant “death to the dictator!” (January 2): About 21 people have been killed and hundreds arrested as a result of continued protests and clashes with police. The government restricts people’s access to social media apps and accuses Iran’s enemies of inciting the protests.