16 April 2020

COVID-19 – impact and effects in the Middle East

Claudiu Nebunu

There are less chances for any part of the world to stay, now, untouched by the COVID-19 virus… Even if, so far, China, Italy, US, Spain and Iran were the most affected states, this does not mean that, when the pandemic will be over, the situation will stay the same. In fact, there are many experiences suggesting that the peripheral zones of global economy tend to be more affected during unexpected crisis periods and are also the ones to record most of the pandemic’s deaths…A great part of the Middle East states is dependent on products’ global prices, tourism and the foreign political and monetary support. This is where the regimes’ fragility, unemployment among the youth and the Islamic radicalism meet. Economies are not strongly integrated, but migrants, jihadists and foreign workers are continuously transiting the region.

Image source: Profi Media

The coronavirus hit the Middle East when the region was already affected by multiple issues, including a series of long-term conflicts, sectarian tensions, economic crises and extended political turbulences. Which are/ will be the impact and effects of this crisis on the region?

Iran – a country experiencing serious economic issues, became the COVID-19 epicenter in the Middle East

Until April 8th, Iran announced 64.585 infected people and 3 993 deaths, but the real numbers are much bigger. Although the Iranian authorities tried to control the virus’s outbreak, they were both internally and externally criticized for the delayed response and lack of transparency. The crisis revealed, also, the devastating consequences of the American sanctions against Tehran, which blocked the medical equipment flux and the necessary humanitarian goods for the population. But, despite the European requirements to ease these measures, Washington introduced additional sanctions.

Internally, the problem the Iranian leadership is facing is imposing a national blockade, as some medics and local authorities suggested. The authorities limited the access in the most affected cities and provinces quite late, they closed the sacred places, launched a campaign promoting social distance and elaborated an online national poll for the virus (completed by around 18 million citizens). Iranian leaders are concerned with the economic effects of the measures that would restrict the access in the country even more. As a reaction to the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, many neighbor states the country was relying on for trade have closed their borders. Therefore, the Tehran government wants to minimize any damages…

While it asked US to raise the sanctions, Iran also made the first request, in 60 years, to the IMF, asking for a 5 billion dollars emergency loan. This last movement reveals the dangerous situation Iran faces, as it must pay the imported goods when the American sanctions have blocked the access to foreign currency.

The political leadership asked for unity and evoked a national resistance spirit against what the Iran’s supreme leader called “biological attack”, but it seems that there is a certain competition between different autochthonous power centers.  The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, criticized in the local media and social media for his absence, in the first days of the outbreak, has denied the idea of a national blockade (maybe to avoid getting additional power from the Armed Forces). Rouhani’s announcement came shortly after the chief of Staff of the Army, Mohammad Bagheri, talked about “cleaning the road and streets” in 24 hours, according to Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Directive was underlining that the Armed Forces should coordinate in these efforts with the Rouhani government and the Ministry of Health, which may be an attempt of the supreme leader to confirm the control both on the state’s response and the prevention of confrontations during a national emergency moment.

Meanwhile the Iranian health sector fights with infection, UN and US asked for the immediate liberation of Iranian political prisoners. In the second half of March, the Iranian judicial system announced the temporary liberation of 85. 000 prisoners and the pardon of 10. 000 people, including politically convicted people, to reduce the virus’s spread. Therefore, the crisis could create a constrained opening for the states to have prisoners in Iran (including Great Britain, France, US) to intensify the diplomatic efforts and permanently liberate the prisoners).

Another possibility of diplomatic opening created by the crisis is the clear expression of solidarity with Iran, coming from some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar has delivered urgent medical aid to Iran. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has eased the flights for the World Health Organization to offer support to Iran. Kuwait has announced a 10 million dollars donation for the fight for health in Iran. Although less likely, a similar move from the Saudi Arabia and maybe a dialogue between the GCC – Iran to coordinate the medical and scientific efforts to combat the coronavirus, could open a path to reduce the tensions between Tehran and Riyadh.

Iraq, Syria, Lebanon – already affected the conflicts, political and economic crisis, will be facing soon the brutal reality of coronavirus…

Although the number of infected people is, for now, low (Syria – 19 infected, 2 deaths; Iraq – 1202 infected, 69 deaths; Lebanon – 576 infected, 19 deaths/ April 8th), the virus seems to get spread largely in the region, due to the strong connections Syria, Iraq and Lebanon have with Iran and also because these countries do not have the capacity to manage disease’s spread. Although the governments have forbidden citizens’ dislocation and have cancelled the international flights, the perspectives are quite serious due to a series of deep, long term crises, which have already affected these states’ capacity to manage such a crisis.

The civil war in Syria and the de facto failure of the state in Iraq and Lebanon have stopped this country from having strong and legitimate political leadership and the necessary institutional structure to have the global pandemic threat, as well as medical assistance systems.  Even if Damascus denies virus’s spread, Syrians will have to go through this crisis under the leadership of a regime that was, for a long time, unconcerned with their faith and that can see the international community concern with this crisis as a welcomed coverage to launch a new military offensive in Idlib province, now controlled by rebels.

A serious factor of this situation will be the economic collapse, whose effects will be intensified due to the coronavirus, as the activity will stop. The dynamic threatens to push these countries towards a harmful circle. The Lebanese and Syrian currency have suffered a lot in the past months, meanwhile the Lebanese deficit has blocked the medical materials imports. Iraq goes through an intensified decrease of hydrocarbon exploitation incomes, due to the oil prices war, recently launched by Saudi Arabia. In Syria, corruption and the bad economic management come along with international sanctions, which are limiting the medical equipment flux.

And, not least, these countries are facing a huge number of refugees and displaced people. Currently, there are 5, 5 million Syrian refugees and over 6 million displaced people internally. Iraq hosts, currently, more than 1,5 million refugees. They all live in over-charged camps, with minimum hygiene facilities and limited medical ones, which make them vulnerable to coronavirus.

The Gulf Cooperation Council/ GCC took early measures, and Yemen… has one case only?

Once the number of COVID-19 cases increased (Saudi Arabia – 2 932 cases, 41 deaths, UAE – 2 659 cases, 12 deaths, Qatar – 2 210 cases, 6 deaths, Kuwait – 855 cases, 1 deaths, Oman – 419 cases, 2 deaths, Bahrain – 823 cases, 5 deaths/ April 8), the GCC monarchies started to apply strict measured to combat the pandemic spread. These countries have their own medical assistance systems, some of the most effective in the region, free for all citizens. Therefore, the GCC monarchies will be able to manage the COVID-19 from the medical assistance point of view, given the strict social distance measures they have applied during the crisis. Still, the infection risk stays high in the foreign employees’ communities, because many of them do not have access to medical assistance and live in conditions wherein social distance is not an option.

A major concern for the GCC authorities is determined by the effects of the coronavirus crisis on international tourism and the big events in the region. UAE are concerned with the crisis’s impact on the Expo 2020, an event that’s planned to begin in Dubai in October. Saudi Arabia is concerned with the possible impact of the virus on the current presidency of G20, a crucial role for country’s leadership. Oman, whose budget is mostly relying on international tourism, already expects major losses due to the crises.

The connection between the pandemic and the oil market collapse is extremely important for the GCC countries. The demand’s decrease from the Chinese economy, the main export destination for the Saudi Arabia oil, was the first reason why Riyadh sought to get to an agreement with other producers of oil products to reduce the production. Russia’s refuse to follow this process made Saudi Arabia to unilaterally reduce the export prices with almost 10%. This strategy, along with the economic slowdown, provoked by the pandemic, determined even more the oil price reduce, negatively affecting all GCC monarchies, which rely on these incomes for most of their budgets. The situation is a great challenge for the countries whose public finances are now in a serious condition, like Bahrain and Oman. These two states do not have stimulation packages to combat the crisis, unlike Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE, which allotted billions of dollars to support the private enterprises.

Meanwhile the borders stay open to products and trade, even in the countries which stopped all air and land international trips for natural persons, any additional trade turbulence would damage the GCC countries more. This is mostly available in terms of food security, given that these countries rely on imports of food products. Saudi Arabia, which is the only food consume. Saudi Arabia, which is the only to have food industry, is lately facing locust invasions.

The virus can affect the political dimensions and sectors of the GCC countries' confrontation with Iran. Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE have sent millions of dollars in medical and humanitarian aid to Iran. However, humanitarian cooperation will not necessarily eliminate the political tensions, especially through the pressure position adopted by Saudi Arabia, the most influential player of the GCC. There is a current of opinion spread in all GCC countries, according to which the virus was brought from Iran, the regional epicenter in crisis, or from Iraq, through Shiite citizens.

Yemen has not reported any official cases of coronavirus (however, a first case was announced on Twitter, on April 10, in the southern province Hadramout). However, many Yemeni people doubt that their country is not affected by the virus, because there is open air traffic and migrants’ traffic as well. Yemen does not only have a huge number of displaced people, but is hosting close to 300.0000 refugees (mostly Africans). As such, it seems less likely that the country can isolate itself from the crisis. Over the past four years, a cholera outbreak affected at least 2 million people and has revealed Yemen’s vulnerability to infectious diseases. A major COVID-19 outbreak would be devastating, given the conflict in Yemen, the already damaged humanitarian situation and the dysfunctional medical assistance system.

Israel- the Palestinian Territories

Covid-19 reveals the way the Israelis live in Israel, the colonists from West Bank are economically and socially, and now medically, interconnected with the Palestinians from West Bank and Gaza. When the political tensions are increasing, the virus forces Israel, the National Palestinian Authority and Hamas to cooperate in order to prevent a larger spread, with severe consequences for the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Israel (9 404 cases, 72 deaths/ April 8th) made one of the hardest measures against the coronavirus. Along with the isolation measures adopted by other states as well, Israel authorized, similar to China and Iran, the Internal Security Service to track the mobile phones of the people infected with coronavirus, both confirmed and possibly infected. And it happened without Knesset’s approval. Meanwhile many Israelis can feel that prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu does a great job in managing the crisis, they are concerned that his actions may violate the civil liberties and may affect the Israelis democracy. Using this opportunity, Netanyahu used the virus to postpone his corruption process and break the opposition by getting his enemy, Benny Gantz, on his side.

In West Bank, the PNA responded with many of the measures taken by Israel and other countries. When PNA is seen by many Palestinians as a burden for their national movement, there is still a strong support for managing the crisis by prime-minister Mohammad Shtayyeh. And, despite the Israeli-Palestinian relations’ tention, determined by the peace process deterioration, the Israeli government and PNA have cooperated effectively to combat the virus’s spread. However, the medical assistance system from the West Bank could face difficulties in managing an increase with the COVID-19 cases.

In the Gaza Strip, the virus is the biggest challenge. Although, until now, there were reported only 13 cases (mostly thanks to the restrictions in the area and the limited testing number) the more than 1, 8 million residents are extremely vulnerable. As there is a populated area, Gaza is already affected by a prolonged humanitarian crisis, it has a fragile health infrastructure, and the electric energy provision is limited as well.

Both for the Palestinians and the Israeli, the virus is also an economic threat. A total collapse of tourism will affect both Israel and the Palestinian cities with a religious history, like Bethlehem (which is quarantined) and Nazareth. The Palestinian economy relies on 95. 000 Palestinian workers who are commuting in the now blocked Israel. The access to the cheap labor force is important for the Israeli economy as well.

Looking towards the future…

During these times, the international order is facing challenges that can turn into long-term ones, due to the lack of a coherent vision on the global leadership… And the virus will not but increase this already existent tendency. It can hardly be speculated the causality relations during good times, but now this moment gives even more uncertainty, because of the challenges against the global order and the development of the COVID-19, which is equally uncertain.

It is difficult to state which how much coronavirus will extend both geographically and in terms of duration… For now, the Muslim pilgrims hope to be present when the Great Mosque prayers will start in the sacred city of Mecca, during the annual Haji pilgrimage (July 28th  - 2 August, this year)… More than two million people did the Haji in 2019 – a challenge for social distance restrictions in Middle East! And this would not be the first time when infections spread in such occasion…

English version by Andreea Soare