News Timeline: Middle East 2021

January 5 – Qatar / Saudi Arabia

Regional relations: Qatar and its neighbors

Qatar and Saudi Arabia agree to a Kuwait–U.S.–brokered deal that restores full diplomatic relations between the two countries three years after four Arab states cut ties with Qatar accusing it of supporting terrorism and imposing an embargo. Both countries will reopen their land, air, and sea borders and restore trade. The blockade has been very damaging to both Qatar’s economy and to the notion of Gulf unity.

Background: In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut all diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar accusing it of supporting Islamist organizations and having close ties with Iran. They presented Qatar with conditions for ending the embargo, but Qatar refused to comply, insisting the embargo violated international law and established new trade deals with Iran and Turkey.[1]

February 4 – Yemen / Saudi Arabia

U.S. President Joe Biden announces an end to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen’s civil war, saying it has “created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”. His Administration is also reviewing U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia approved by the Trump Administration. Biden is appointing a special envoy for Yemen and plans to revive stalled peace talks.[2] The six-year war in Yemen has left 11,000 people dead and put millions to the brink of starvation.[3]

Foreign policy and U.S. diplomacy under the Biden Presidency

Background of the war in Yemen

February 26 – Saudi Arabia

Murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

A declassified report from the US intelligence on the 2018 killing of Saudi activist and journalist Jamal Khashoggi who worked for Washington Post says Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved the operation to kill him. The United States announces visa restrictions for 76 Saudis involved in his killing. However, no sanctions are applied to the crown prince.[4]

Background: Jamal Khashoggi used to be an adviser to the Saudi government and close to the royal family but he fell out of favor and went into self-imposed exile in the U.S. in 2017. He wrote a monthly column in the Washington Post that was critical of Prince Mohammed policies.

Link to the declassified report

More about Jamal Khashoggi

About Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

May 21 – Israel / Palestinian Territories

Israeli-Gaza conflict

Pressured by the international community, including the United States and United Nations, Israel and Hamas agree to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt after two weeks of deadly fighting and rocket launching onto each other’s territories.   This crisis began when Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem in response to several police raids on the Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites for Muslims, and the planned evictions of several Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem.   Israeli airstrikes into Gaza kill more than 200 Palestinians, including over 60 children, and forces tens of thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes.  They also cause extensive damage to homes, schools and medical facilities in Gaza.   Hamas launched over 4,000 rockets at southern Israel killing 12 people.  Most of these rockets were intercepted by Israel with some landing in unpopulated areas.[5]

In pictures: Destruction in Israel and Gaza due to recent conflict

Israel-Gaza conflict explained

Life in the Gaza Strip

May 26 – Syria


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is announced to have won 95 percent of the vote in the country’s presidential election, with the turnout of over 78 percent.  His contenders, Abdullah Salloum Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmed Mari, won 1.5 percent and 3.3 percent of the vote respectively.  The election was only held in the area controlled by the Assad government.  Syria’s opposition dismiss the vote as a farce, while the US and European countries say it could not be free and fair without international monitors.  Assad has been president since 2000 when he succeeded his late father, Hafez, who had ruled Syria for more than a quarter of a century before that.  This will be Assad’s fourth term in office.[6] 

Why has the Syrian war lasted 10 years?

Syria: a failed state or narco state? BBC Radio

June 2 – Israel

Politics: Elections

Members of the Israeli Knesset select Isaac Herzog to be the country’s next president.  He will assume office on June 13.  The presidency in Israel is a largely ceremonial position and presidents serve only one seven-year term.[7]

June 13 – Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party and Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid political party are sworn-in as Prime Minister of Israel and as Alternate Prime Minister respectively.  Each of them will serve two years in office.  The change comes after an unprecedented power-sharing coalition government was formed with a main purpose to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in power and approved by 60 to 59 votes in the parliament.  The coalition contains parties, which have vast ideological and social policy differences, and includes the first independent Arab party, Raam.  Benjamin Netanyahu remains head of the right-wing Likud party and becomes leader of the opposition.[8]   

Who is Naftali Bennett

June 19 – Iran

Presidential election

Iran’s top judge and a hardliner Ebrahim Raisi loyal to Iran’s ruling clerics wins Iran’s presidential race in an election that is seen as engineered for him to win.  He is currently under US sanctions for grave human rights abuses; he has been linked to past torture and executions of political prisoners.  Voter turnout was only 48.8 percent, the lowest ever for a presidential election in Iran. 

Background: Iran’s president is the second-highest ranking official in Iran after the supreme leader, the top religious cleric, currently Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.[9]

More about Ebrahim Raisi and what his win means for Iran and the world

Iran elections: To vote or not to vote? Video 04:05 min

August 7 – Israel / Iran

An investigation led by explosives experts into a July 30th drone attack on an Israeli MT Mercer Street merchant tanker that killed the ship’s captain and a security guard concludes that the drone was Iranian made.  The ship was sailing past the Omani island of Masirah when it was attacked by a drone loaded with a military grade explosive.[10]

Iran and Israel’s shadow war explained

December 13 – Israel / United Arab Emirates / Iran

Diplomatic relations and Iran’s nuclear program

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the leader of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), making him the first Israeli leader to visit the UAE.  Last year, the UAE was only the third Arab country to fully recognize Israel, and since then the two states have exchanged ambassadors, and signed trade deals and agreements on defense and arms development.  But PM Bennett’s main reason to visit the UAE is to encourage it to take a tougher stance on Iran and its expanding nuclear program. The UAE tries to balance these concerns while maintaining good relations with Iran.  Iran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, but it is known that it now enriches uranium to a purity just below the level needed for a bomb.[11]


[1] “Qatar crisis: Saudi Arabia and allies restore diplomatic ties with emirate.” BBC News. January 5, 2021 and “UAE to restore Qatar trade and travel links ‘within a week’ after row ends.” BBC News. January 7, 2021.

[2] Michael Crowley and Lara Jakes. “Biden announces the end of U.S. support to Saudi war in Yemen and a tougher line on Russia and China.” The New York Times. February 4, 2021. Accessed April 7, 2021.

[3] “Yemen war: Joe Biden ends support for operations in foreign policy reset.” BBC News. February 5, 2021. Accessed April 7, 2021.

[4] “Jamal Khashoggi: US says Saudi prince approved Khashoggi killing.” BBC News. February 26, 2021. Accessed March 14, 21.

[5] Patrick Kingsley, Katie Rogers and Marc Santora. “Israel and Hamas Begin Cease-Fire in Gaza Conflict.” The New York Times. Updated May 25, 2021. Accessed June 3, 21 and

Patrick Kingsley, Katie Rogers and Marc Santora. “Cease-fires can be fragile, and short-lived, with underlying disputes unresolved.” The New York Times. Updated May 25, 2021. Accessed June 3, 21 and

Iyad Abuheweila and Adam Rasgon. “Hamas supporters in Gaza and West Bank celebrate ‘victory.” The New York Times. Updated May 25, 2021. Accessed June 3, 21.

[6] “Assad wins Syrian election dismissed as farce by critics.” BBC News. May 27, 2021.  Accessed June 5, 21.

[7] “Israel profile – Leaders.” BBC News.  Updated July 9, 2021. Accessed July 27, 21.

[8] “Israel’s new PM Naftali Bennett promises to unite nation.” BBC News. June 14, 2021. Accessed July 27, 21.

[9] “Iran election: Hardliner Raisi will become president.” BBC News. June 19, 2021. Accessed August 6, 21.

[10] Frank Gardner. “Mercer Street: Tanker blast evidence points to Iran, says US.” BBC News. August 7, 2021. Accessed September 20, 21.

[11] “Israeli Prime Minister Bennett in first trip to UAE as Iran threat looms.” BBC News. December 13, 2021. Accessed April 4, 2022.