Coping with Coronavirus

COVID-19 in the Middle East

Creating Challenges and Opportunities

Conference Report

by Nikola Zukalová

As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sweeps around the world, the NATO Defense College Foundation and the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) co-organised an online, expert discussion titled ‘The Middle East after Coronavirus’ (21 April 2020) to discuss potential consequences on the geopolitics and internal political dynamics in the Middle East. The objective of this session was to anticipate what follows the COVID-19 crisis in this strategic region.

 

The experts were: Lina Aburous (Managing Director, Strategy, Euraffex), Ahmed Elbaz (Director, Early Warning Centre, UAE), Oded Eran (Senior Research Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies) and Umberto Profazio (Maghreb Analyst, NATO Defense College Foundation). The event was moderated by EGIC President, Mitchell Belfer. The underlying theme threading through the experts’ discussion was the Coronavirus’ ability to exacerbate economic, political and social tensions in the region and test international commitments to the Middle East while, simultaneously, creating a window of opportunity to develop regional cooperation in new fields crucial for regional development or potential transformation of political systems. 

Below are some key ideas raised by the speakers during the debate:

Speaking from Brussels, Lina Aburous provided an insider’s perspective on Euro-Middle East relations and the potential consequences of COVID-19. Globally, she anticipates ‘a deglobalised world’ and, specifically, in the Middle East, her key concern is the COVID-19 crisis’ effect on the European and international assistance to the Middle East as countries will be preoccupied with the pandemic’s domestic impact. The potential cuts in development aid and/or military assistance might negatively impact the region’s recovery from the crisis and lead to more turmoil. Another major factor will be the already high levels of unemployment, which can be expected to further increase due to the drop in foreign investment flows and decreased job opportunities. Aburous also expects change in the trust between citizens and institutions and rethinking the purpose of organisations, such as the Arab League. She highlighted Jordan’s response to COVID-19 as a model for other countries in the region. Pointing to the EU countries’ visible shift away from European values towards an inward-looking approach— such as during the refugee crisis and now the COVID-19 crisis — Aburous argued that before it can become a facilitator of regional cooperation in the Middle East, the EU needs to first reexamine its approach and rethink cooperation. Nevertheless, Aburous remained cautiously optimistic in her assessment of the repercussions. There might be a transformation of a relationship between the institutions, governments and citizens—the creation of new regional alliances that extend beyond military and security fields together with the possible emergence of ‘political systems that are more open and less afraid of radicalised groups and foreign interference.’

In his assessment, Oded Eran stressed the bleak economic forecast for the Middle East, where the IMF and the World Bank predict -4% negative growth and, for some countries, worse. Consider Lebanon, for instance, Eran reminded us that there will be a -12% economic retraction in 2020. This comes a decade after the so-called Arab Spring, whose consequences are still playing out across the region. He stated that ‘the double effect of both the Arab Spring and the Corona will linger with us for a long time.’ The falling price of oil adds to the unfavourable economic outlook: ‘Countries, which built [their budgets] on $60 a barrel have to contend now with somewhere between $20-$25 a barrel and this is serious trouble; not only for the producing countries but also for those who were helped through remittances from foreign workers, such as Jordanians, Egyptians [and] Palestinians who worked in the Gulf and won’t be able to go back to work.’ Since there will, likely, be less foreign direct investments flowing into the Middle East, it will be difficult for countries there to mobilise funds. Jumping to the EU dimension, since the Union has been unable to agree on financial support mechanisms to its own members to offset the damage of COVID-19, Eran reminded us that: ‘Europe will find it hard to mobilise funds for outside of Europe to assist countries that already are in an economic crisis, the same may apply to the international financial organisations.’ The consequences may be long term and not only in economic terms. Consider the prolonged suspension of religious rites—it is bound to produce a backlash, one that might further exacerbate social tensions and fuel extremism. Eran warned that ‘there is a danger of economic, social and religious unrest in the region.’ To overcome the COVID-19 crisis, Eran highlighted the need for regional cooperation and pointed to the current window of opportunity to extend the exchange of information and sharing experiences into new areas, beyond the military, such as water and the health sector, to ensure regional development. In this regard, the EU and NATO could provide the necessary umbrella even for states that do not have diplomatic relations, similar to the 1991 Madrid conference. This is not to say that the conflicts would simply be erased, however Eran sees regional collaboration on some key issues — re: water, agriculture, health — as necessary for the region’s development, overcoming COVID-19 and any future, possibly much more disruptive, crises.

According to Umberto Profazio ‘Coronavirus can be a watershed moment in contemporary history, uniting the Global North and Global South in the multi-faceted challenge of the pandemic.’ The COVID-19 resulted in the strengthening of states’ powers, increased use of technology for citizens’ surveillance, limiting civil liberties and sometimes also political rights. Accordingly, the restrictive measures might lead to a shift in relations between the authorities and the public, especially in the Middle East and North Africa: ‘In North Africa in particular, states are at high risk due to the fact that there’s a prevailing authoritarian model [with the exception of Tunisia], significant economic constraints and popular pressure.’ In the short run, the pandemic will likely reinforce the pro-status quo authoritarian model, however ‘discredited institutions would be increasingly scrutinised by the disenfranchised population and this could lad in the long run to a new wave of mass protests.’ From the international perspective, external powers, such as China, are making inroads into North Africa by slowly filling the vacuum left by the withdrawing United States and France. With COVID-19, Beijing is using its ‘mask diplomacy’ to expand its soft power into North Africa—as in Europe. However other external actors are also present such as Moscow and Ankara which project their power into the region, Europe’s ‘soft underbelly,’ this is particularly visible in the Libyan conflict. The conflict itself was not affected by the pandemic and contagion has been largely underreported due to the fighting, however it might take a high toll on civilians, especially those in the overcrowded Libyan detention centres. Profazio argued that the EU has to reexamine its approach to Libya and migration, pointing to the new EU Operation Irini off the Libyan coast, whose mandate is only to enforce the arms embargo in the Eastern part of Libya. However, Profazio sees that with the exception of Libya, ‘the internal factors would be more important than the geopolitical ambitions to shape the Middle East and North Africa after the pandemic.’ Profazio anticipates the weakening of state structures in the Sahel to the advantage of armed groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State, which will further fuel instability. Similar to Aburous, Profazio foresees the need to rethink the role of international organisations, including the United Nations, in dealing with major crises and conflicts worldwide.

Also Ahmed Elbaz stressed the coming economic issues in the Middle East following the pandemic, stating that there will bee a ‘a sharp economic slowdown in 2020, especially in tourism and the oil sector.’ Many countries will now seek ways to cut their spending and the Gulf will be no exception. This will, accordingly, particularly affect countries that receive financial aid from the Gulf, including Lebanon and Jordan. In his intervention, Elbaz focused on the Arab Gulf countries, particularly the UAE, and the response to the pandemic, looking at the high level of preparedness, the rapidness of recognising health as a security issue, the quality of healthcare systems and the role of Big Data in limiting the spread of the COVID-19 among the population by monitoring the residents infected with the virus. Mitchell Belfer (moderator) added that the recognition of health as a security issue was manifested in the Gulf by the introduction of free healthcare to all nationals, all residents and also to all illegal migrants infected by the virus without any legal repercussions. According to Elbaz, armed groups in Libya, Syria or Yemen might seize the opportunity and exploit the COVID-19 crisis to try to expand their influence over more areas. Returning to the repercussions of the COVID-19 for the Middle East, Elbaz suggests that the crisis unveiled the weaknesses in many countries’ infrastructures and he expects a general tendency to reinforce national sentiments that benefit all citizens regardless of tribal, ethnic or sectarian divisions when it comes to dealing with crises: ‘there will be more general interest to focus on the society as a whole.’ 

***


While this session only opened up debate on the role COVID-19 will play in shaping states in the Middle East and, indeed, the wider international community for years to come, the speakers provided important clues for what may lay ahead. Since this is an ever-evolving situation, it is important to remain abreast of developments, continue to monitor the situation while keeping an open mind in relation to the changes ahead.

 

12 May 2020
 

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