Bashar al-Assad

Position: President, Syria

Biography: As 2012 gets under way, there appears no solution in sight for Syria’s uprising that began in February 2011. President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators has left more than 5,000 dead. The 46-year-old British-trained ophthalmologist assumed power in July 2000, following the death of his father Hafez al-Assad. He was seen as a modernist and reformist by many in Syria and the outside world. His reforms have not been enough for the country’s Sunni majority and, encouraged by the protests in North Africa, thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets demanding improved social and economic conditions. The lifting of emergency rule and promise of further reforms did nothing to appease them and violence has escalated. The international community has responded to the crackdown by issuing sanctions on Syria. On 19 December, Al-Assad agreed to allow Arab League observers into the country. But the crackdown continues.

Khalid al-Falih

Position: President and chief executive officer (CEO), Saudi Aramco

Biography: Khalid al-Falih is head of the world’s largest national oil company, Saudi Aramco and its ambitious investment programme is expected to make Saudi Arabia the most active market in the Middle East for hydrocarbons projects in 2012. Key schemes due to move ahead this year include $20bn Sadara petrochemicals project at Jubail and the $5bn PetroRabigh integrated petrochemicals project. Al-Falih was appointed head of Saudi Aramco in January 2009. He has worked in Aramco’s oil and gas division since 1979, including exploration and production, and international operations. In December 2011, the US increased its sanctions on Iran, but stopped short of targeting oil exports for fear of triggering a surge in oil prices. If sanctions are imposed on Iran’s oil exports, Al-Falih would be the man responsible for ensuring Aramco provides an extra 4 million barrels a day of output to global consumers.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa

Position: Prime minister, Bahrain

Biography: Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa has been prime minister of Bahrain since 1971 and is the world’s longest serving unelected prime minister. Since 1978, he has also been head of Bahrain’s Supreme Defence Council. He has been criticised for last year’s brutal crackdown on predominantly Shia pro-democracy protesters. Born in 1935, he is the second son of Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the former ruler of Bahrain and the uncle of the King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. In November, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry concluded “excessive force” had been used during the crackdown and that security forces had been guilty of abuse and torture. The opposition has repeatedly called for Sheikh Khalifa’s resignation. Fresh violence broke out in Bahrain in early January, as police used tear gas to break up demonstrations following the funeral of a 15-year-old protester.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum

Position: Chairman, Emirates Group

Biography: Already a key figure in Dubai over the past few years, Sheikh Ahmed’s sphere of influence has grown of late. In addition to being chairman of Emirates Group, he has also been appointed chairman of local lender Emirates NBD, chairman of debt-laden developer Dubai World and is chairman of the Supreme Fiscal Committee, the body charged with helping distressed government-owned companies resolve their debt problems. Over the next year, his influence is expected to grow further. Dubai has about $10bn of debts to repay or refinance in 2012. Sheikh Ahmed is to play a major role in the emirate’s plan to use public-private partnerships for the procurement of future infrastructure projects. The continued aircraft purchases by Dubai-based Emirates airline, along with a potential initial public offering of the carrier, will also make him one of the most influential figures in the business community in Dubai.

Nouri al-Maliki

Position: Prime minister, Iraq

Biography: Within weeks of the US military leaving after eight years of occupation, Iraq looks set to descend into sectarian chaos once again. In late December, Nouri al-Maliki accused his Sunni vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi of using his office to aid terrorism. Shortly after, he moved against his Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, calling for a no-confidence vote in parliament. Al-Hashemi has fled to Kurdistan, where he joins a rising number of Sunni exiles. The escalating tensions threaten to destabilise Iraq and delay its much-needed reconstruction. In 2006, Al-Maliki became Iraq’s first democratically elected prime minister, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Despite his party narrowly losing out to nationalist Iraqiya party in the most recent election, Al-Maliki was invited by President Jalal Talabani to form a coalition government in November 2010, ending nearly nine months of political deadlock.

Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed al-Nahyan

Position: Vice-chairman, Executive Council of Abu Dhabi

Biography: Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed al-Nahyan was appointed to the Executive Council of Abu Dhabi in December 2010. He has been instrumental in leading a strategic review of government infrastructure spending in the emirate. As a result, construction activity in Abu Dhabi has slowed down and several projects formerly regarded as key to its development plans have either slowed, or ground to a halt. These include the Mafraq-Ghweifat highway and the development of Saadiyat Island. As one of the chief figures approving projects in Abu Dhabi, he will hold great influence over spending plans in 2012. Since 2006, Sheikh Hazza has been chairman of First Gulf Bank and also national security adviser. He is the full brother of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and half-brother of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud

Position: Crown prince, Saudi Arabia

Biography: In October 2011, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was named heir to the Saudi throne and first deputy prime minister. The 78-year-old had been interior minister since 1975. Prince Nayef is one of the six surviving members of the Sudairi seven, the sons of the kingdom’s founding monarch Abdulaziz Ibn Saud and his favoured wife Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi. Prince Nayef was governor of Riyadh from 1953-54 and deputy interior minister from 1970. He also serves as chairman of the Supreme Committee for Hajj and is also responsible for liaising with the Mutawa (religious police). Prince Nayef is known for his traditional and conservative views. There are fears that he will bring to a halt to the reforms that King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has been introducing in recent years. Prince Nayef has played a leading role in suppressing dissent in the kingdom over the past year.

Hassan Abdullah al-Thawadi

Position: Secretary-general, Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022

Biography: Hassan Abdullah al-Thawadi is secretary-general of the Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022, the body that was set up in April 2011 to oversee Qatar’s preparations for hosting the 2022 Fifa World Cup. In its bid document, the government committed to building a $35bn rail network, nine new stadiums and some 60,000 hotel rooms for the competition. With just 10 years left to develop the infrastructure, this year is expected to see a pick-up in tender activity in Qatar. The committee is in the process of awarding a management contract to oversee construction projects related to the event. The programme manager will coordinate government agencies and appoint consultants, contractors and suppliers. Al-Thawadi was formerly CEO of the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid. He is director of the legal department at the Qatar Investment Authority and sits on the board of Hassad Food Company.

Tony Hayward

Position: CEO, Genel Energy

Biography: Tony Hayward’s multibillion-dollar acquisition of Turkey’s Genel Enerji in November 2011 represented a vote of confidence in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. The former head of the UK’s BP led the acquisition by London-listed Vallares and now heads the rebranded Genel Energy. Hayward has made no secret of his plans to make further acquisitions, with more than $2bn in cash available. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has signed production sharing agreements with more than 40 international oil companies, mostly small firms. Genel Energy will be at the forefront of the region’s consolidation of its oil assets in the years ahead. The company has already shown interest in a possible takeover of Norway’s DNO, which is also active in Iraq. Hayward was chief executive of BP from May 2007 to October 2010, when he was replaced after his handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the US.

Abdel Rahim el-Keib

Position: Interim Prime Minister, Libya

Biography: Abdel Rahim el-Keib was elected as prime minister in late October 2011, after predecessor Mahmoud Jibril followed through on his promise to step down. El-Keib won more than half the 51 votes in the National Transitional Council (NTC) to take up the position. He saw off competition from three other candidates and has said human rights will be a priority. During the civil war, he helped to fund the NTC. Born in Tripoli in 1950, he is a US-trained electrical engineer. El-Keib taught at the University of Alabama in the US during the 1980s and later moved to the UAE, where he was director of electrical, electronics and computer engineering at the American University of Sharjah. El-Keib  is now leading the NTC’s efforts to restore security to Libya and to prepare the political framework for elections to be held in June. In the year ahead, the NTC will begin repairing infrastructure damaged by the nine-month long civil war.

Ali Abdullah Saleh

Position: Nominal president, Yemen

Biography: On 23 November 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement to step down as president of Yemen on 21 February 2012 in an effort to end months of protests. The deal also granted him immunity from prosecution and saw his powers transfer to Vice-president Abdrabbu Mansour al-Hadi. Saleh has led northern Yemen since 1978 and the entire country since unification in 1990 with a tight grip on power. The protests began in February 2011, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. After being injured in a rocket attack on his presidential palace on 3 June, Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for treatment. Many hoped it would mark an end to his rule, but he returned to Yemen in late September. Protests have continued to escalate since then. In December, Saleh said he would travel to the US to allow the situation in Yemen to calm down and to allow the unity government to prepare the presidential election. However, he said he intended to return as an opposition figure.

Mohamed Hussein Tantawi

Position: Chairman, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), Egypt

Biography: Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi became the de facto ruler of Egypt in February 2011, when President Hosni Mubarak resigned, following weeks of violent unrest and handed power to the army. Tantawi is head of the Scaf and had been defence minister since 1991. After months of relative calm following the overthrow of the former regime, violence flared up again in November, ahead of parliamentary elections. Opposition groups accuse the army of clinging on to power. It had been revealed that the Scaf was attempting to ensure the military retained extraordinary privileges, including placing its budget above parliamentary scrutiny. Protesters are demanding a clearer timetable for the transition of power, calling for elections to be held no later than May 2012. Others have called for Tantawi’s immediate resignation. The Muslim Brotherhood has said ending military rule sooner could lead to even greater chaos.