17 December 2019

Informer - 2020 Forecast

We published 44 articles in 2019, serving corporate travellers and decision makers around the world. As the year comes to an end, we look towards key global risks affecting travellers in 2020.

For a second consecutive year, Riskline analysts will forecast global security risks in our year-end Informer article.

There is an inherent futility in attempts to predict the future in any domain of human activity. Doing seems even more futile in our age, as we witness the apparent absence of rationality that once appeared to explain human behaviour, from the interpersonal to the international. 'Voting in one's own interests' or 'maximising utility' — whatever that might have been — no longer seems to explain what is happening around us. While we search for explanations, events seem to be gathering pace, accelerating to some unseen end or grim conclusion.

Without trying to predict individual events, it is worth highlighting two currents that I believe will underpin the most dangerous security threats in 2020: the ongoing effects of climate change and the potential final year of the Trump administration. In the case of the former, it will be the mostly unseen, long-term effects that are the greater danger, as things like record droughts or recurring 'once-a-century' floods destroy land and livelihoods and become the catalysts for new violent conflicts and forced migration.

Meanwhile the prospect that 2020 could be the final year of the Trump presidency bodes ill for international peace. Both allies and antagonists of the United States may feel that the level of impunity they have enjoyed in foreign affairs since 2016 may be coming to an end. Why not try to achieve a dream foreign policy goal before the November election? Likewise, US policy makers could 'sneak in' an action to deal with the "Axis of Evil" or other government that opposes US hegemony while Trump is still in office.

Though predicting what will happen in 2020 is a fool's errand, we believe that a careful examination of ongoing and emerging trends by experienced security analysts is a worthwhile endeavour. We hope you agree, and we hope that this year-end Informer will aid your thinking and inform your planning for the coming year.

Happy New Year, Adam Schrader, Director of Operations, Riskline


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1. Climate Change and its impact on travel

Climate change has led to abnormal patterns of torrential rainfall, devastating floods, severe storms, prolonged heat waves and increased temperatures causing, among multiple hazards, growing water scarcity, droughts and dangerous wildfires. With the increase in the frequency of these natural disasters – for example, Typhoon Prapiroon in Japan which left over 200 people dead in July 2018 and Hurricane Dorian which caused massive destruction across the Bahamas in September 2019 – fatalities, business and travel disruptions and power and communication outages are becoming recurrent. In recent years, Puerto Rico, Honduras and Myanmar were most affected by extreme weather events, while countries like Haiti, the Philippines and Pakistan are on a path of gradual deterioration of weather exposure. Efforts to reverse the damage caused by climate change is insufficient as the United States, the second-largest carbon emitter, plans to withdraw from the landmark Paris Agreement in 2020 if Trump wins another term in office.

2. Islamist Terrorism

Islamist terrorism will remain a risk for travellers in 2020 as former members of the weakened Islamic State (IS) who returned home and other IS-inspired radicals will be looking to carry out reprisal attacks following the death of former IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US-led raid in Syria in October 2019. Though defeated militarily in the Middle East, IS has reconstituted itself through scattered underground sleeper cells and spawned various offshoots and radicals in other parts of the world via strong social media propaganda. Former IS fighters and IS-inspired individuals will look to carry out lone-wolf attacks in any country with large numbers of foreign visitors; at-risk targets include government and diplomatic infrastructure, transport hubs, hotels, parks and religious gatherings especially during popular religious festivals.

3. Far-right terrorism

Far-right politicians and media organisations will gain further prominence in the Western world in 2020, particularly as United States (US) President Donald Trump intensifies his campaigning for the presidential election in November. Attacks similar to the deadly March 2019 shootings at a mosque and an Islamic centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the August 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, remain possible. Similar mass shootings, motivated by racism, xenophobia, homophobia and opposition to immigration, are likely to pose a risk in public spaces, including LGBT nightlife venues, places of worship, schools and shopping centres, particularly in the US, as right-wing groups gain more appeal and expand their presence in mainstream American politics.

4. Infectious disease outbreak amid ongoing migration

Large and highly mobile populations, increasing urbanisation, weak government responses and deprived healthcare infrastructure, as well as attacks on healthcare workers in conflict zones, coupled with the effects of climate change are all making outbreaks of diseases like Ebola, cholera, yellow fever and other mosquito-borne diseases more frequent. In 2019, vicious outbreaks of dengue fever were reported in Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, Nicaragua, Thailand, Malaysia and Colombia, with locally acquired cases also reported in Spain and France. Scientists predict an 80 percent chance of an El Niño weather pattern occurring in 2020, bringing disastrous heavy rainfall and long droughts to countries around the Pacific Ocean and paving the way for an increase in mosquito breeding pools and, therefore, mosquito-borne diseases. Together with growing vaccine hesitancy, particularly in Europe and North America, diseases once eliminated are thus returning and transforming into vaccine-resistant strains while a looming influenza pandemic and antibiotic resistance further increases the risk of large outbreaks.

5. Internet outages and the increasing cost of business

In 2018 and 2019, internet blackouts aimed at stopping the spread of anti-government protests cost Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, Chad, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Venezuela, billions of dollars in lost economic activity. This tactic will continue to prevail in 2020 as governments prefer to contain, rather than address, discontent expressed online. But these controls are focused more on denying digital communication for citizens rather than shielding sensitive infrastructure from malign actors - some state-sponsored, most of them criminal - who extort public and private entities by seizing data and holding it for ransom. This phenomenon, recently seen in France, the UK, Ukraine, Germany, Indonesia, India, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, the United States (US), Canada and other countries, has and will continue to cost governments and companies billions of dollars while imposing a growing inconvenience on internet users.

6. Anti-systemic protests: democracy and nationalism

This year witnessed a considerable rise in anti-systemic protests across the world, notably in Latin America, parts of Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. As popular discontent with governments grows in many countries due to economic and social issues - including increased income inequality, unemployment and lack of civil liberties - expect these protest movements to grow in volume and frequency in 2020. In addition, nationalist sentiments have also been on the rise across Europe, highlighted by mass protests for independence/self-determination in Catalonia, while the rise of broad anti-corruption fronts has pressured incumbents in places like Serbia, Romania, Hungary and Moldova. Many of these protest movements have the potential to escalate to violence, especially as elites routinely appease protesters without actually accommodating any of their original demands. Places that are particularly susceptible to violence include Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, Russia and France, where the "Yellow Vest" movement continues to demand systemic reforms. Other countries to look out for include the United Kingdom as Brexit looms and Indonesia, where economic inequality in an increasingly divided society could be the spark for large-scale protests.

7. A collapsing world order: US 2020, Brexit, US-China trade war

The results of the 2015 Brexit referendum in the UK and the 2016 United States (US) presidential election continue to upend long-standing domestic political norms in both countries. The long-term outcome of both events is unclear at present, but a return to the status quo is unlikely in either country even if Brexit does not happen or US President Donald Trump is not re-elected. The pro-Brexit and pro-Trump coalitions that won in 2015 and 2016 have mobilised social forces that will remain on the scene for years to come, including the broad coalitions that formed in opposition to them. Yet even if these coalitions should obtain power, a host of issues including immigration and trade will continue to follow the patterns already set down. Despite progress towards a limited deal, no major developments are expected in 2020 vis-a-vis the ongoing US-China trade war that has disrupted economic growth in both countries, and slowed foreign direct investment globally. However as the UK leaves the EU, this will lead to major economic changes in the trading bloc and at the same time, EU members will face further economic disruptions from the US-China trade war fallout as, so far, none of President Trump's Democratic rivals have promised to remove the tariffs imposed by his administration.

8. MENA Geopolitics: the role of Russia

Since 2015, Russia has stepped up its military and economic engagements in the Middle East, primarily in Syria and Turkey, but also expanding ties with Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, at the expense of the United States (US). Russia will 'only' continue to play a spoiler role in the region in 2020, however, unless it is prepared to jettison Iran as a partner in the Middle East because for most of these countries, Iran and its proxies' influence is something to be rolled back, not accommodated. It would also take many sustained years of effort by US-allied countries in the region to fully move their military and economic infrastructure out of a US sphere of influence that they have long benefited from membership in.

9. International sporting events

Major sporting events like the Summer Olympics in Japan, the UEFA Euro, the Copa América in Argentina and Colombia and the three cycling Grand Tours are likely to pose risks to travellers in 2020. Potential risks include targeted terrorism, including lone-wolf attacks, due to large crowds and the global coverage these events attract. Protesters or activists could also use the extended media coverage to their advantage and cause disruptions, for example in France during the Tour de France, in Hungary or Russia for the UEFA Euro or in Spain during the Vuelta a España. Cyber risks can also pose a threat to attendees and drone use has been restricted near sporting venues and airports during the Olympics in Tokyo; similar measures are certain to follow. Petty crimes like pickpocketing and risks to health may also pose a threat to travellers given the presence of large groups of visitors in public spaces. Natural risks are also likely to cause disruptions during the Olympics and Copa América as they coincide with the rainy season in Japan and Colombia. Furthermore, disruptions to air travel across Europe are also possible if any of the tournament should coincide with prolonged labour strikes in the air sector. Finally, possible risks may well extend to the whole of the European Union as visitors travel across the continent.

10. Water shortage

As heat waves increase in intensity and duration, protests over water scarcity are likely to multiply in 2020, particularly in water-stressed nations like India and Pakistan, and in Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, where demonstrations, partially or wholly triggered by the issue, have been reported in recent years. Violent clashes over increasingly scarce water and land resources can be expected to flare up in countries like Mali and Nigeria between farmers and herders, while public discontent is also likely to extend to pockets of extreme water scarcity in under-developed regions of Italy and Spain as well as the US states of New Mexico and California or Western Cape in South Africa, among other regions. The majority of the most vulnerable countries are densely populated and suffer from economic problems and corruption, which severely limits their ability to address the problem and which, in turn, runs the risk of exacerbating public discontent and increasing the likelihood of violent unrest.