SIM REPORT: MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA, ISSUE 3

MIDDLE EAST: COVID-19 EXACERBATING PRE-EXISTING REGIONAL PROBLEMS, SIGNIFICANT LONG-TERM CHALLENGES TO COME

The COVID-19 pandemic has been making its way across the Middle East. Some countries such as Iran and Turkey have seen a large number of cases, while many Gulf countries have recorded relatively fewer cases. Others, such as Yemen, are just starting to officially confirm cases amid concerns that the disease could spread rapidly and exponentially.

A number of trends can be noted to date suggesting that rather than fundamentally reshaping the region, the pandemic will primarily serve to exacerbate pre-existing problems including conflicts, economic crises, and political unrest. As this downward trend line is strengthened, various strategic regional dynamics look set to worsen.

One of the foremost issues is the economic toll the virus has taken. The shock of the health crisis has been particularly severe for countries such as Lebanon, which was already in a difficult economic situation. Confinement measures and nightly curfews have further hit the struggling economy. Anti-government protests resumed in mid-April despite movement restrictions, and a second influx of infections could overwhelm the health sector, which is already plagued by medical equipment shortages due to dwindling foreign currency reserves. The situation cannot be resolved without substantial aid, although the public has been critical of an International Monetary Fund aid package that would likely bring unpopular austerity measures. Difficult days are likely ahead for the country as the pandemic has accelerated the level of public discontent and the likelihood for an explosion of riots and violent unrest has increased.

The pre-existing sectarianism that pervades in the Middle East has been strengthened by the onset of the virus, which has sparked waves of fear, stigma and racism. With Iran reporting the first spike in cases in February, a popular conspiracy theory suggests that the virus is a Shiite plot aimed at infecting the Sunni communities. The crisis seems to have amplified anti-Shiite prejudice and discrimination in a region where Shiite populations are often already marginalised. In Saudi Arabia, the predominately Shiite eastern region of Qatif was put under quarantine and officials urged individuals who had travelled to Iran, which is a crime in Saudi, to declare themselves to authorities. A growth in racism and xenophobia has also been reported in many countries with large expatriate workforces, such as the Gulf. Expat labourers often live in crowded conditions conducive to the easy spread of the virus, and they have made up large proportions of COVID cases in countries likely Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

Countries that are currently suffering from conflict will likely pay the highest price in the coronavirus crisis, emerging from the pandemic even weaker and with even more chaos. The virus will most likely be a conflict-multiplier as various groups take advantage of the situation to expand territorial control including access to vital medical supplies. Governments will have trouble implementing a strong response due to fragmented authority, political violence, and low trust in leadership. Examples include Yemen and Syria, where large-scale outbreaks would be devastating given the severely degraded state of health care. As pre-existing public health crises are exacerbated by the virus, other medical crises  are very likely to re-emerge, such as renewed cholera outbreaks.

The terror threat will also be exacerbated. In Iraq, the Islamic State has exploited the situation and ramped up its attacks in the north as the pandemic has hurt the ability of security forces to continue their war against the group. IS has already mastered social distancing and shelter-in-place measures with its network of sleeper cells, and therefore probably not suffer a significant loss of its ranks. The group likely aims to revive itself and recreate funding mechanism and smuggling networks while simultaneously pursuing a campaign of intimidation against the local population and undermining state authority where possible.

As the pandemic is causing a deep schism between governments and their societies across the region, various long-term challenges will emerge. A number of trends are likely to be seen in the post COVID-19 period. Gulf countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia will probably see long term recovery hampered by the loss of millions of dollars in the economy as events such as the UAE’s Expo 2020 and the hajj are cancelled. Any prolonged disruption to the free movement of expatriate workers will threaten economies. Simmering tensions between Sunni rulers and Shiite communities may also come to the fore as economic rewards dwindle.

Countries such as Lebanon and Iraq that had already seen years of instability and social mobilisation before COVID will suffer as the virus has worsened the very socioeconomic challenges that caused their respective  protests in the first place. Delays to any promised reforms will lead to increased grievances and anger that will explode once social distancing is no longer needed. Meanwhile, some countries will emerge post-COVID more securitised, as leaders use the virus to crack down on legitimate protests and speech under the guise of security and public health. Israel has repurposed sophisticated technologies to track the mobile phones of their citizens, ostensibly to trace the spread of the virus. The Turkish government has been accused of cracking down on journalists and controlling information related to the virus. Increasingly rebellious populations across the region mean civil unrest is likely to be a heavy feature in this scenario as well, which will shake the foundations of many of these political entities in the longer term.

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