2021 in pictures: Striking images that defined MENA

Header - The New Arabs Iconic moments of 2021
6 min read
01 January, 2022
From a Gulf reconciliation to a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, The New Arab puts together photographs from moments that defined a tumultuous year in the Middle East, North Africa, and across the world.

While 2021 began with a sense of guarded optimism, with a reconciliation between Gulf states, a transfer of power between two presidents in the US and news of the increased rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, the year slowly unravelled to prove to be another difficult and violent 12 months for the MENA region.

With photographers often on the scene to capture the tensions, crises and violence of a tumultuous year, The New Arab has put together the most striking images of the region's key moments in 2021.

1. Gulf reconciliation

A bitter political rift in the Gulf region, which led to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt imposing an air, land and sea blockade against Qatar for three and a half years, came to an end in January 2021.

Saudi Arabia and its allies signed a declaration to restore full diplomatic ties with Qatar and end the blockade following Kuwait-led negotiations, with White House adviser Jared Kushner helping broker the deal.

Gulf leaders met in the Saudi city of al-Ula, posing for a photograph to mark the end of the rift.

Gulf rift ends
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (L-2), Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (C), Deputy Prime Minister of Oman Fahd bin Mahmoud al Said (L-3), Salman, Crown Prince of Bahrain (R-3), Vice President of the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (R-2) and Emir of Kuwait Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (L) pose for a photo during the 41st Summit of Gulf Cooperation Council in AlUla, Saudi Arabia on January 05, 2021 [Getty]

2. US capitol riots

Violence in the US Capitol building marked an end to Donald Trump's four-year presidency after Joe Biden's election win.

The unprecedented scenes of chaos showing mobs forcing their way in to damage and loot the Capitol building quickly spread across the world. Videos of Arabic media coverage of the event quickly circulated online, with some gleefully mirroring the tone of Western media when covering events in the Middle East. 

Several Middle Eastern leaders voiced concern over the clashes, with Turkey's foreign ministry issuing a statement advising the US to deal with matter calmly, using law and democracy.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani highlighted that the events in the US showed "what a failure Western democracy is" and how Trump, as a "populist man", has "damaged the reputation of his country".

Capitol riots
Supporters of US President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol building on 6 January, forcing it into lockdown and causing several deaths [Getty]

3. Egypt's Suez Canal blocked by huge container ship

A giant container ship the length of four football pitches wedged itself across Egypt's Suez Canal, blocking one of the world's busiest trade routes. Dozens of vessels were subsequently stuck at the entrance of the canal as they waited for rescue boats to free the 400m-long (1,312ft) ship, which had first been knocked off course by strong winds.

The Ever Given, registered in Panama and operated by the shipping company Evergreen, had left China and was bound for the port city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands as it entered the Suez canal to pass northwards into the Mediterranean.

The blockage marked the latest blow in an already strained global-supply chain and sent oil prices climbing on international markets.

suez canal
Satellite imagery captured on March 23, 2021 showed the cargo container ship Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal in Egypt [Getty]

4. Sheikh Jarrah protests

The Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah became a scene of frequent violence and crackdowns by Israeli police against Palestinians protesting the threatened expulsion of dozens of families from their homes in favour of hardline Israeli settler groups.

Much of the protests turned violent, with Israeli forces using stun grenades and spraying skunk water on Palestinian protesters, injuring and arresting dozens.

Among those arrested were renowned Palestinian siblings Muna and Mohammed el-Kurd, who had been at the forefront of a campaign to stop the expulsion of Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood. 

"No matter what they do to terrorise and frighten us, no number of arrests will scare us off," Muna told reporters after her release in June.

Shiekh jarrah protests
Israeli forces violently arrest a Palestinian man during protests against the forced expulsion of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem in May [Getty]
Muna al kurd
Palestinian activist Mona el-Kurd, 23, talked to well wishers upon returning home following her released from an Israeli police station on June 6 [Getty]

5. Israeli war on Gaza Strip

In May 2021, the besieged Gaza Strip saw renewed bloodshed and destruction as Israel launched a devastating 11-day military offensive on the impoverished enclave.

It was the fourth major offensive launched by Israel on the Palestinian territory in 14 years, compounding the already dire living conditions and the high rates of poverty and unemployment in Gaza which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007.

The assault in May killed at least 260 people, including 39 women and 67 children, and wounded more than 1,900. The bombardment also destroyed 1,800 residential units, including the Jala Tower which housed Palestinian and international media outlets.  Israeli air strikes also partially destroyed at least 14,300 other units.

jala tower
Smoke billows as an air bomb is dropped on the Jala Tower, which housed media outlets, during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza city on May 15 [Getty]
Gaza girl
A Palestinian girl stands amid the rubble of her destroyed home on May 24 in Beit Hanoun, Gaza [Getty]

6. Taliban takeover Afghanistan

A Taliban offensive in May 2021 took Afghanistan by surprise, bringing down the government based in Kabul and marking an end to the nearly 20-year-old war in Afghanistan, which begun with the US invasion of the country.

Some of the most striking images to emerge from the country during the Taliban takeover included a photograph from inside a US evacuation flight, which showed Afghans crammed aboard and illustrated the desperation felt as the Taliban took full control of Afghanistan.

Another shocking scene to emerged amid the chaotic takeover included a video of two stowaways plummeting to their death from a US airborne plane leaving Kabul airport and Taliban militants taking over a glitzy Kabul mansion of former vice-president Abdul Rashid Dostum.

afghan
Inside a US Air Force C-17 plane that left Kabul for Qatar on August 15 [Getty]
taliban takeover
Taliban fighters sit inside the home of Abdul Rashid Dostum in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul on September 11 [Getty]

7. Beirut gripped by deadly street violence

At least six people died in Beirut’s worst street violence in 13 years, as hundreds of armed militia men took to the streets and much of the city was forced into lockdown by heavy fighting. The bloody violence took on a sectarian tone that invoked images of the Lebanese civil war and alarmed residents who had long feared that the multiple crises ravaging the country could spark a deadly conflagration.

The trigger for the clashes in neighbourhoods near the law courts, which left dozens more injured, was a protest by members of Amal and Hezbollah, two predominantly Shia political parties, against a judicial probe into the massive blast in the city’s port last year.

beirut violence
Shia fighters from Hezbollah and Amal movements take aim with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher amid clashes in the area of Tayouneh, in the southern suburb of the capital Beirut, on October 14 [Getty]

8. Sudanese protest coup

On 25 October, the Sudanese military led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan took control of the government in a military coup.

Civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok refused to declare support for the coup and on 25 October called for popular resistance. The country's Sovereignty Council was dissolved, a state of emergency was put in place and a majority of the Hamdok cabinet and a number of pro-government supporters were arrested. As of 5 November, the list of those detained included government ministers, members of political parties, lawyers, civil society activists, journalists, human rights defenders and protest leaders.

Key civilian groups including the Sudanese Professionals Association and Forces of Freedom and Change called for civil disobedience and refusal to cooperate with the coup organisers. Protests started on 25 October against the coup and have since become a weekly occurrence amid internet outrage and police crackdown.

Sudan protests
A Sudanese protester draped with the national flag flashes the victory sign next to burning tyres during a demonstration in the capital Khartoum, on October 25 [Getty]

9. Poland-Belarus migrant crisis 

In November, thousands of mainly Middle Eastern migrants camp out in freezing temperatures on Belarus' border with Poland seeking to cross into the EU. The West accuses Minsk of engineering the influx in response to sanctions imposed after the brutal repression in 2020 of a protest movement against "Europe's last dictator", Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. 

Belarus and Russia deny stoking the crisis, and lash the EU for not taking the people in.

At least a dozen migrants die on both sides of the border, according to aid organisations.

Belarus
Migrants stand in front of Belarusian servicemen as they gather in a camp near the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on November 14 [Getty]

10. Covid not going away

More than five million people die from the virus despite eight and a half billion vaccine shots being given, with poor countries still struggling to get their hands on doses. The world saw a resurgence of the pandemic late in the year, as the highly infectious Omicron strain spreads at an unprecedented rate. 

With initial vaccine immunity wearing off, Middle Eastern nations try to counter the virus with booster shots and a return to restrictions.

saudi arabia
Rows of worshippers pray at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, on December 30, following the imposition of new restrictions due to a surge in Covid-19 cases [Getty]