The climate, pandemic and tensions between states means the year ahead is likely to be as tumultuous as the last 12 months
Last modified on Thu 30 Dec 2021 13.35 GMT
On the brink of a new year, the world faces a daunting array of challenges: the resurgent Covid-19 pandemic, the climate emergency, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, humanitarian crises, mass migration, and trans-national terrorism. There is the risk of new inter-state conflicts, exacerbated by the breakdown of the rules-based international order, and the spread of lethal autonomous weapons. All in all, for most people on Earth – and a handful in space – 2022 will be another year of living dangerously.
Events in the Middle East will make global headlines again in 2022 – but for positive as well as negative reasons. A cause for optimism is football’s World Cup, which kicks off in Qatar in November. It’s the first time an Arab or a Muslim country has hosted the tournament. It is expected to provide a major fillip for the Gulf region in terms of future business and tourism – and, possibly, more open, progressive forms of governance.
But the choice of Qatar, overshadowed by allegations of corruption, was controversial from the start. Its human rights record will come under increased scrutiny. Its treatment of low-paid migrant workers is another flashpoint. The Guardian revealed that at least 6,500 workers have died since Qatar got the nod from Fifa in 2010, killed while building seven new stadiums, roads and hotels, and a new airport.
Concerns will also persist about Qatar’s illiberal attitude to free speech and women’s and LGBTQ+ rights in a country where it remains dangerous to openly criticise the government and where homosexuality is illegal. But analysts suggest most fans will not focus on these issues, which could make Qatar 2022 the most successful example of “sports-washing” to date.
More familiar subjects will otherwise dominate the regional agenda. Foremost is the question of whether Israel and/or the US will take new military and/or economic steps to curb Iran’s attempts, which Tehran denies, to acquire capability to build nuclear weapons. Israel has been threatening air strikes if slow-moving talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal fail. Even football fans could not ignore a war in the Gulf.
Attention will focus on Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose neo-Islamist AKP party will mark 20 years in power in 2022. Erdoğan’s rule has grown increasingly oppressive at home, while his aggressive foreign policy, rows with the EU and US, on-off collusion with Russia over Syria and chronic economic mismanagement could have unpredictable consequences.
Other hotspots are likely to be Lebanon – tottering on the verge of becoming a failed state like war-torn Yemen – and ever-chaotic Libya. Close attention should also be paid to Palestine, where the unpopular president, Mahmoud Abbas’s postponement of elections, Israeli settler violence and West Bank land-grabs, and the lack of an active peace process all loom large.
The eyes of the world will be on China at the beginning and the end of the year, and quite possibly in the intervening period as well. The Winter Olympics open in Beijing in February. But the crucial question, for sports fans, of who tops the medals table may be overshadowed by diplomatic boycotts by the US, UK and other countries in protest at China’s serial human rights abuses. They fear the Games may become a Chinese Communist party propaganda exercise.
The CCP’s 20th national congress, due towards the end of the year, will be the other headline-grabber. President Xi Jinping is hoping to secure an unprecedented third five-year term, which, if achieved, would confirm his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. There will also be jostling for senior positions in the Politburo and Politburo standing committee. It will not necessarily all go Xi’s way.
Western analysts differ sharply over how secure Xi’s position truly is. A slowing economy, a debt crisis, an ageing population, huge environmental and climate-related challenges, and US-led attempts to “contain” China by signing up neighbouring countries are all putting pressure on Xi. Yet, as matters stand, 2022 is likely to see ongoing, bullish attempts to expand China’s global economic and geopolitical influence. A military attack on Taiwan, which Xi has vowed to re-conquer by any or all means, could change everything.
India, China’s biggest regional competitor, may continue to punch below its weight on the world stage. In what could be a symbolically important moment, its total population could soon match or exceed China’s 1.41 billion, according to some estimates. Yet at the same time, Indian birth rates and average family sizes are falling. Not so symbolic, and more dangerous, are unresolved Himalayan border disputes between these two giant neighbours, which led to violence in 2020-21 and reflect a broader deterioration in bilateral relations.
The popularity of Narendra Modi, India’s authoritarian prime minister, has taken a dive of late, due to the pandemic and a sluggish economy. He was forced into an embarrassing U-turn on farm “reform” and is accused of using terrorism laws to silence critics. His BJP party will try to regain lost ground in a string of state elections in 2022. Modi’s policy of stronger ties with the west, exemplified by the Quad alliance (India, the US, Japan, Australia), will likely be reinforced, adding to China’s discomfort.
Elsewhere in Asia, violent repression in Myanmar and the desperate plight of the Afghan people following the Taliban takeover will likely provoke more western hand-wringing than concrete action. Afghanistan totters on the brink of disaster. “We’re looking at 23 million people marching towards starvation,” says David Beasley of the World Food Programme. “The next six months are going to be catastrophic.”
North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship may bring a showdown as Kim Jong-un’s paranoid regime sends mixed signals about war and peace. The Philippines will elect a new president; the foul-mouthed incumbent, Rodrigo Duterte, is limited to a single term. Unfortunately this is not the case with Scott Morrison, who will seek re-election as Australia’s prime minister.
It will be a critical year for Europe as the EU and national leaders grapple with tense internal and external divisions, the social and economic impact of the unending pandemic, migration and the newly reinforced challenges, post-Cop26, posed by net zero emissions targets.
More fundamentally, Europe must decide whether it wants to be taken seriously as a global actor, or will surrender its international influence to China, the US and malign regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The tone may be set by spring elections in France and Hungary, where rightwing populist forces are again pushing divisive agendas. Viktor Orbán, the authoritarian Hungarian leader who has made a mockery of the EU over rule of law, democracy and free speech issues, will face a united opposition for the first time. His fate will be watched closely in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and other EU member states where reactionary far-right parties flourish.
Emmanuel Macron, the neo-Gaullist centrist who came from nowhere in 2017, will ask French voters for a second term in preference to his avowedly racist, Islamophobic rivals, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. Polls put him ahead, although he also faces what could be a strong challenge from the centre-right Republicans, whose candidate, Valérie Pécresse, is the first woman to lead the conservatives. With the left in disarray, the election could radicalise France in reactionary ways. Elections are also due in Sweden, Serbia and Austria.
Germany’s new SPD-led coalition government will come under close scrutiny as it attempts to do things differently after the long years of Angela Merkel’s reign. Despite some conciliatory pledges, friction will be hard to avoid with the European Commission, led by Merkel ally Ursula von der Leyen, and with France and other southern EU members over budgetary policy and debt. France assumes the EU presidency in January and Macron will try to advance his ideas about common defence and security policy – what he calls “strategic autonomy”.
Macron’s belief that Europe must stand up for itself in a hostile world will be put to the test on a range of fronts, notably Ukraine. Analysts suggest rising Russian military pressure, including a large border troop build-up and a threat to deploy nuclear missiles, could lead to renewed conflict early in the year as Nato hangs back.
Other trigger issues include Belarus’s weaponising of migration (and the continuing absence of a humane pan-European migration policy) and brewing separatist trouble in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Balkans. The EU is planning a China summit, but there is no consensus over how to balance business and human rights. In isolated, increasingly impoverished Britain, Brexit buyers’ remorse looks certain to intensify.
Relations with the US, which takes a dim view of European autonomy but appears ambivalent over Ukraine, may prove tense at times. Nato, its credibility damaged post-Afghanistan, faces a difficult year as it seeks a new secretary-general. Smart money says a woman could get the top job for the first time. The former UK prime minister Theresa May has been mentioned – but the French will not want a Brit.
The struggle to defeat Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s notorious rightwing president, in national elections due in October looks set to produce an epic battle with international ramifications. Inside Brazil, Bolsonaro has been widely condemned for his lethally negligent handling of the Covid pandemic. Over half a million Brazilians have died, more than in any country bar the US. Beyond Brazil, Bolsonaro is reviled for his climate change denial and the accelerated destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Opinion polls show that, should he stand, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president who was jailed and then cleared on corruption charges, would easily beat Bolsonaro. But that assumes a fair fight. Concern is growing that American supporters of Donald Trump are coaching the Bolsonaro camp on how to steal an election or mount a coup to overturn the result, as Trump tried and failed to do in Washington a year ago. Fears grow that Trump-style electoral subversion may find more emulators around the world.
Surveys in Europe suggest support for rightwing populist-nationalist politicians is waning, but that may not be the case in South America, outside Brazil, and other parts of the developing world in 2022. Populism feeds off the gap between corrupt “elites” and so-called “ordinary people”, and in many poorer countries, that gap, measured in wealth and power, is growing. In Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela, supposed champions of the people have become their oppressors, and this phenomenon looks set to continue. In Chile, the presidential election’s first round produced strong support for José Antonio Kast, a hard-right Pinochet apologist, though he was ultimately defeated by Gabriel Boric, a leftist former student leader, who will become the country’s youngest leader after storming to a resounding victory in a run-off.
Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, faces a different kind of problem in what looks like a tough year ahead, after elections in which his Peronists, one of the world’s oldest populist parties, lost their majority in Congress for the first time in nearly 40 years. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will face ongoing tensions with the US over trade, drugs and migration from Central America. But at least he no longer has to put up with Trump’s insults – for now.
All eyes will be on the campaign for November’s mid-term elections when the Democrats will attempt to fend off a Republican bid to re-take control of the Senate and House of Representatives. The results will inevitably be viewed as a referendum on Joe Biden’s presidency. If the GOP does well in the battleground states, Donald Trump – who still falsely claims to have won the 2020 election – will almost certainly decide to run for a second term in 2024.
Certain issues will have nationwide resonance: in particular, progress (or otherwise) in stemming the pandemic and ongoing anti-vax resistance; the economy, with prices and interest rates set to rise; and divisive social issues such as migration, race and abortion rights, with the supreme court predicted to overrule or seriously weaken provisions of the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision.
The Democrats’ biggest problem in 2022 may be internal party divisions. The split between so-called progressives and moderates, especially in the Senate, undermined Biden’s signature social care and infrastructure spending bills, which were watered down. Some of the focus will be on Biden himself: whether he will run again in 2024, his age (he will be 80 in November), his mental agility and his ability to deliver his agenda. His mid-December minus-7 approval rating may prove hard to turn around.
Also under the microscope is Kamala Harris, the vice-president, who is said to be unsettled and under-performing – at least by those with an interest is destabilising the White House. Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary who sought the Democratic nomination in 2020, is a man to watch, as a possible replacement for Harris or even for Biden, should the president settle for one term.
Concern has grown, meanwhile, over whether the mid-terms will be free and fair, given extraordinary efforts by Republican state legislators to make it harder to vote and even harder for opponents to win gerrymandered congressional districts and precincts with in-built GOP majorities. One survey estimates Republicans will flip at least five House seats thanks to redrawn, absurdly distorted voting maps. This could be enough to assure a Republican House majority before voting even begins.
Pressure from would-be Central American migrants on the southern US border will likely be a running story in 2022 – a problem Harris, who was tasked with dealing with it, has fumbled so far. She and Biden are accused of continuing Trump’s harsh policies. Belief in Biden’s competence has also been undermined by the chaotic Afghan withdrawal, which felt to many like a Vietnam-scale humiliation.
Another big foreign policy setback or overseas conflagration – such as a Russian land-grab in Ukraine, direct Chinese aggression against Taiwan or an Israel-Iran conflict – has potential to suck in US forces and wreck Biden’s presidency.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to push new policy initiatives on affordable childcare and housing after winning re-election in September. But in 2021’s snap election his Liberals attracted the smallest share of the popular vote of any winning party in history, suggesting the Trudeau magic is wearing thin. Disputes swirl over alleged corruption, pandemic management, trade with the US and carbon reduction policy.
As befits this giant continent, some of 2022’s biggest themes will play out across Africa. Among the most striking is the fraught question of whether Africans, still largely unvaccinated, will pay a huge, avoidable price for the developed world’s monopolising of vaccines, its reluctance to distribute surpluses and share patents – and from the pandemic’s myriad, knock-on health and economic impacts.
This question in turn raises another: will such selfishness rebound on the wealthy north, as former UK prime minister Gordon Brown has repeatedly warned? The sudden spread of Omicron, first identified in South Africa, suggests more Covid variants could emerge in 2022. Yet once again, the response of developed countries may be to focus on domestic protection, not international cooperation.
The course of the global pandemic in 2022 – both in terms of the threat to health and economic prosperity – is ultimately unknowable. But in many African countries, with relatively young populations less vulnerable to severe Covid harms, the bigger problem may be the negative impact on management of other diseases.
It’s estimated 25 million people in Africa will live with HIV-Aids in 2022. Malaria claims almost 400,000 lives in a typical year. Treatment of these diseases, and others such as TB and diabetes, may deteriorate further as a result of Covid-related strains on healthcare systems.
Replacing the Middle East, Africa has become the new ground zero for international terrorism, at least in the view of many analysts. This trend looks set to continue in 2022. The countries of the Sahel, in particular, have seen an upsurge of radical Islamist groups, mostly home-grown, yet often professing allegiance to global networks such as al-Qaida and Islamic State.
Western efforts to counter this upsurge in jihadist violence may become more organised in 2022. This follows a cooperation agreement between the US and French presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron, who had wound down French military operations in Mali for lack of support. Western governments are watching with alarm the spread of radical Islamist ideas from key countries in west Africa, such as Nigeria, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and energy-rich Mozambique. The failed state of Somalia, where the al-Shabaab group is active, is a cautionary tale of what may befall a country when terrorism is uncontained.
In a year when the US is due to convene a second “summit for democracy”, the issue of global democratic governance – of the lack of it – will also loom large. In Africa, which experienced several coups in 2021, most recently in Sudan, this issue is especially pressing. Inextricably linked to it are the challenges posed by extreme poverty.
According to the International Rescue Committee charity’s 2022 emergency watchlist, 12 of the 20 countries at greatest risk of worsening humanitarian crises are in Africa. They are Ethiopia, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Mali, Niger and Cameroon. (The most vulnerable, non-African countries are Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, Haiti, Honduras, Lebanon and Venezuela.)
In the Horn of Africa, what the IRC calls Ethiopia’s “perfect storm” of problems is being exacerbated by a worsening civil war that threatens the break-up of the country amid increased meddling by neighbouring Eritrea’s violently Stalinist regime. Meanwhile, the UN is warning a rapidly worsening drought will put 7.7 million Somalis at extreme risk by April.
Unicef, the UN children’s charity, has launched a record $9.4bn worldwide funding appeal for 2022 to help more than 327 million people, including 177 million children, affected by humanitarian crises and Covid.
These emergencies provide the context for another great challenge of 2022: international migration, whether it involves refugees from conflict, politically persecuted asylum-seekers, or economic migrants forced out of their homes by climate change, famine and drought. The UN’s International Organisation for Migration says a record 281 million people, or 3.6% of the global population, were classified as international migrants in 2020. This figure is climbing despite pandemic restrictions on movement across international borders.
These extraordinary population shifts have yet to produce a coordinated, or even rational, response from most governments, notably in wealthy North America and Europe. Maybe this will change in 2022. But don’t hold your breath.
Cop27, the follow-up to the Cop26 Glasgow climate crisis conference, will be held in Egypt in November. It will provide progress reports on the Glasgow pledges to reduce carbon and methane emissions, halt deforestation, “phase down” coal production, cut fossil fuel subsidies and provide finance to mitigate the loss and damage suffered by poorer countries.
It’s unrealistic to expect any swift improvement in the global climate heating outlook in the coming year. Extreme weather events of the type seen across the world in 2021 – fires, droughts, floods, storms and record temperatures – are almost certain to be repeated. As before, these effects will be particularly felt in the world’s more sensitive environments, not least the Antarctic and Arctic.
Both polar regions will see increased human activity in 2022 – not necessarily a happy prospect. In Antarctica, for example, mass tourism is taking off with the advent of ice runways accommodating wide-bodied jets. More problematic still is the growing interest of China, with other countries, in tapping into Antarctic’s resources and establishing military facilities there.
Likewise the melting ice of the Arctic has opened up commercial and naval sea-lanes across the top of the world, currently being developed by Russia in heated competition with several other countries. Long neglected Greenland is a new El Dorado for mineral and mining companies, and also of growing interest to defence planners – but local people’s resistance to issuing licences is growing.
It will be a busy year in space in terms of exploration and military competition. Nasa is preparing 18 separate missions in 2022 as it gears up to resume manned flight to the moon. A new space station – Gateway – is planned. Russia, South Korea, India and Japan will launch lunar spacecraft. The European Space Agency plans to send a mission to Mars. China is said to be hoping to have a fully functional orbiting space station by the end of the year. Meanwhile space tourism organised by Russia and private companies such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is taking off.
More sinisterly, a nuclear arms race in space will also accelerate. The US, Russia and China are all experimenting with new weapons, such as orbiting hypersonic glide vehicles capable of launching nuclear missiles from anywhere in the heavens. Russia caused anger in late 2021 with its reckless test of an anti-satellite missile. Others will follow suit, potentially threatening global communications. Not to be outdone, Nasa is planning to knock a giant asteroid off course in September by orchestrating a head-on collision, using a spacecraft launched on a rocket built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The US calls this “planetary defence” – but the technology plainly has offensive applications. Some will deem this progress, others a giant backward step for mankind.