Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

A Year of Decisions and Choices

We are now sailing in a new year. From the very first moment, we sense the need to fasten our seatbelts. The issue is greater and more dangerous than turbulence. 

The past year left us with a minefield and festering wounds that demand taking difficult and painful decisions. 

US President Joe Biden is confronted with a number of worrying questions: For how long can his country pump weapons and billions of dollars in Ukraine that has so far lost some territory and a lot of its infrastructure? 

Can he truly prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from claiming victory without humiliating him and pushing him to expand the war? Can he pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accept an demeaning peace that includes conceding some regions that were seized by the Russian army? Will Europe back this option? 

Can Putin be rewarded in Ukraine without rewarding Xi Jinping in Taiwan? What remains of the US if it leaned this way or that and acknowledged that the coup launched by Putin through the war on Ukraine was somewhat successful? 

Of course, we mustn't forget the domestic division, the results of the midterm elections and the launch of the race for the presidency. 

Biden is aware that Putin is acting like a man on a mission that he needs to see through, no matter the cost. He is seeking vengeance against the western model that succeeded in demolishing the Berlin Wall without a single drop of blood being shed. The model that succeeded in breaking up the Soviet Union without firing a single bullet. The model that embraced the colored revolutions and turned NATO’s weapons towards Russian borders. The model that believes the dollar to be the top and fiercest general. 

Putin paces in his vast office at the Kremlin. Difficult decisions are now his daily bread. He went to war and it is impossible to back down. He recalls that returning armies to the maps is more difficult than pulling them out. 

He pauses in front of the mirror. He is a man faced with a single choice: Victory or victory. Every other choice is suicide. He knows that this is not a “special military operation”. He knows that it is the most dangerous war since World War II. 

He smiles. Peter the Great was lucky when he managed to expand the map in the absence of the venomous western media. Stalin was lucky when he completed his wars in the absence of the greatest spy in history, the smartphone. 

He realizes that the West has forgotten how to smile. His strikes bring darkness in Ukraine and produce waves of refugees. He returns to his seat. He criticizes his generals. He will have to tarnish his image to erase their setbacks. The decision is victory. 

Europe, whose fragility and reliance on Russian gas was exposed by the Ukraine war, finds itself confronted with painful questions and difficult decisions. What remains of European progress if the power were to go out in France, Germany and elsewhere? What remains of its stability if the elderly and children die from the cold? 

Macron, Scholz and others are confronted with unprecedented questions. Can Europe pay the price of Zelenskyy’s insistence on “fighting until victory”? Can it relent and agree to changing borders by force to appease the tzar? Can Europe remain united amid a wave of inflation, strikes, rising prices and growing unease? 

Xi is also confronted with difficult decisions. Putin’s defeat may postpone the dream of reclaiming Taiwan. Putin’s victory may drown the world and its economy in crises that will not be easy to resolve.  

The Chinese leader succeeded in walking the tightrope of the past year. But what about the new year? He definitely covets stripping the US of its title as the world’s top major power. He also dreams of ending the monopoly of the dollar. But his country has massive interests with the US and Europe. They cannot be compensated by Russia throwing itself in China’s lap. 

Xi has tough choices to make. He must also may attention to the neighboring Indian giant and to Japan, who just like Germany, discovered the fragility of the economy without fangs to protect it 

In the miserable Middle East, several countries, including Arab ones, need to take difficult and dangerous decisions brought about by the Ukraine war. The region is also holding its breath with the return of Benjamin Netanyahu to power with a rightwing government. 

Iran has welcomed another new year with protests in spite of its efforts to quell them and threats of executions. This crisis has even brought about dissenting voices from within the regime itself. These voices, although timid, have said that the current unyielding model of rule is a threat to Iran’s stability. 

Some children of the revolution are aware that the infiltration of the maps of others has not led to the fortification of Iran against the winds of the age and of change. They know that fortresses collapse from within. The manufacturing and selling of drones do not eliminate the need to reach an understanding with those who were born in the shadow of the revolution and access the world through their smartphones, not official media. 

Türkiye, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken difficult decisions in past years, finds itself confronted with pressing decisions. Erdogan, who tangoed with Putin while still keeping a foot in NATO, is ready to take major decisions that would extend his stay in the presidential palace. 

It is a year of elections and decisions. Erdogan offered several gifts to Putin, to which the master of the Kremlin responded with a Syrian gift. In all likelihood, Erdogan will hold a meeting with Bashar al-Assad in the new year, to close the chapter in which he opened Türkiye’s borders to everyone seeking to oust the Syrian president, who is also demanded to make difficult decisions. 

People who visited Riyadh during the last week of 2022 sensed that it is not demanded to make difficult decisions. Perhaps because it already did so when it adopted Vision 2030, when it chose the path of openness, reform and total renaissance and when it changed approaches and mentalities. The vision was spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and fully backed by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz. 

The results of the vision have been evident in the economy, culture and diplomacy. Saudi Arabia bolstered its position at the G20 summit and diversified its strategic partnerships with major economies when it welcomed the American president and later the Chinese one. 

These decisions allowed Saudi Arabia to transform into a hub of progress in the region, offering a model of Arab ability to become engaged with the age and build strong relations. 

We are sailing in a new year, a year of decisions and choices.