Covid-19 in the Middle East: Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the PA

Assessment of the various Middle Eastern countries' responses to the corona pandemic, and the diplomatic and defense implications. Opinion.

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Map of the Middle East
Map of the Middle East
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The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security JISS offers security expertise for a strong Israel.

For part I of this article reviewing Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Israel, click here.

Iraq

The arrival of coronavirus in Iraq put an end to the protests and demonstrations against the existing political order in the country that began in October 2019. The government is supported by Iran. The demands for political reform, for a war against corruption, and for better access to housing and places of work have dissipated as the number of corona patients has risen.

However, the political crisis – reflected in the failure of the new government to receive approval from the parliament – is not over. Iran has had to compromise on a candidate for prime minister who it had previously opposed, the former intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi. (He is known to be committed to expanding state control over the various armed factions.) The virus also has not decreased the attacks of pro-Iranian militias against the US military presence in the country.

Syria

Like other authoritarian regimes, Bashar Assad’s government has concerned itself with projecting stability and control over the 70% of Syrian territory that remains under his control.

Syrian health services are underdeveloped and have been severely affected by the ongoing civil war. In any case, it is hard to get a true picture of the impact the virus has had in the country. The first case of corona was only reported on March 22, but the low numbers that have been reported are highly questionable.

As a result of the protracted civil war, Syria is in a very difficult financial state, and without foreign aid, it will not be able to recover. The majority of the country’s oil resources are not controlled by Damascus, and the coronavirus crisis has made the situation even more taxing for Syrian society.

Of course, Assad’s priority remains, first and foremost, the re-occupation of all Syria. But due to Turkey’s resolute stance, the advancement of the regime’s forces in the province of Idlib has been halted, and a tense (and most likely temporary) quiet has prevailed there.

Jordan

Jordan responded very quickly to the emergence of corona in the country, imposing a general lockdown. More than 2.5 million refugees (out of a population of 10 million) live in high-density areas without proper access to medical services. Nevertheless, as far as can be judged, the public in Jordan has accepted the government’s actions, which have been executed with the help of the Royal Jordanian Army. Recently, Jordan has begun to take steps to ease the lockdown and restore economic activity.

The Jordanian economy is predicted to shrink this year, but the IMF expects recovery and growth by 2021.

Palestinians

The Palestinian Authority has been monitoring and copying the way Israel has been dealing with the epidemic, and has been receiving wide-ranging assistance from Israel. But the PA’s economy, always weak, has deteriorated further because of restrictions on the entry of Palestinian laborers into the Israeli market.

Gaza is poorer than the PA, its economic ties are limited, and it is isolated. Therefore, it has suffered less from the coronavirus to date, although the potential in Gaza for mass infection is high due to the dense living conditions (especially in the refugee camps).

Most Palestinians are in favor of cooperation with Israel regarding the coronavirus crisis, although almost half of them believe that a foreign agent is responsible for the spread of the disease. Both official and non-official Palestinian sources even have accused Israel of spreading the coronavirus, echoing worldwide anti-Semitic tropes.

Hamas has already made the blatant threat that “six million Israelis will not be able to breathe” if Hamas does not receive funding and equipment needed to confront the coronavirus. A particularly sensitive issue has been the health of Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons, with calls being made for their release. (Perhaps there is also an opportunity arising to resolve the ongoing MIA issue.)


Comparison of the treatment of corona patients by the Palestinian Authority with those in Israel has affected Arab-Israeli attitudes towards the Jewish state. Surveys show that the Israeli dimension of Israeli-Arab identity has been strengthened...
The corona pandemic appears to have contributed to the continued unravelling of the connection between the Palestinian Authority, which represents nationalist aspirations, and the Arabs living in Israel. Comparison of the treatment of corona patients by the Palestinian Authority with those in Israel has affected Arab-Israeli attitudes towards the Jewish state. Surveys show that the Israeli dimension of Israeli-Arab identity has been strengthened because it is clear to them that the healthcare provided within Israel is preferable, as is the social security system offered to Arab citizens of the Zionist state.

This trend is also evident among the Arab residents of Jerusalem, some of whom, following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, have stopped “sitting on the fence” and now acknowledge the fact that dividing the city is not a viable political option.

Lebanon

The coronavirus most likely reached Lebanon via Iran, and it hit Lebanon during a major economic crisis. As early as March 2020, Lebanon announced its inability to repay a $1.2 billion debt that was due. Its economy will continue to shrink in 2020. More than a million people in Lebanon are refugees from Syria who are not always eager to contact the authorities for fear of being deported. National infrastructures suffer from long-term neglect.

Hezbollah claimed the Ministry of Health for itself in the last round of cabinet appointments as a means of securing income for its people and allies in event of reduced aid from Iran. It is not clear whether Hezbollah’s position is strengthening or weakening in the current situation. While the virus has disrupted the protests in the streets, large portions of the public are nagged by the sense that subordination to foreign (read: Iranian) interests is what has brought Lebanon to the edge of the precipice.

Gulf States

These countries have abundant resources, and over the years have invested in healthcare infrastructures and quality manpower. In general, these countries have reacted relatively quickly and effectively to the virus, which reached them mainly from Iran, because of pilgrimage to Qom.

Still, the situation in the Gulf States appears to be better than in other corona-affected countries in the region. The robust economies and large sovereign wealth funds boasted by Gulf states will allow them to withstand the major decline in oil prices and the financial fallout of dealing with the corona crisis, for a longer period of time than most other countries in the region.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia closed its doors to foreigners early on and even banned the “Umrah” (a secondary Islamic pilgrimage). It also hinted that the Hajj, which is scheduled to be held in July, is likely to be canceled as well.

The closure of the kingdom to pilgrims comprises a significant loss of revenue. Revenue also has been lost because of the decline in oil prices, following the Saudi-Russian price war (which ended in an agreement favorable to Saudi Arabia, but still did not result in a rise in oil prices).

The shrinking of the energy sector, and of non-oil-based industries, will make it difficult to implement Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plans for fundamental changes in the Saudi economy. The struggle over oil prices also has revealed frictions between Riyadh and Washington, which has contributed to the decline of Saudi Arabia’s international standing, especially in the Moslem world.

Assessment and Forecast

The dimensions of the coronavirus crisis in the Middle East are yet unclear. It is difficult to obtain reliable data for several reasons. Countries do not know the true statistics because of deficiencies in data collection and difficulties in identifying patients with mild symptoms. Furthermore, some states in the region do not feel obliged to publish actual data, and instead have sought to conceal the severity of the spread of the virus, which they see as liable to damage the legitimacy of their regimes.

Decisions taken by Middle Eastern governments in their fight against the coronavirus reflect differences in their administrative capacities, medical infrastructures, and their values ​​and political preferences. In any case, the pandemic has both short and long-term implications. In the short term, all governments are focusing on survival of the existing state and societal systems and the minimization of human and economic loss. They have the ability to handle great pain and dislocation, since most of the regimes are not democratic and their sensitivity to the suffering of their citizens is limited.

It is likely that the experience gained in dealing with the epidemic will improve the organizational and medical mechanisms in many countries, depending on the ability of individual governments to adapt and learn.

A difference can also be expected in ability of governments to learn lessons for the long-term. Presumably, with the end of the COVID-19 crisis, immediate and short-term needs will continue to receive preference over investments for the long-term future (such as how to prepare for another epidemic). This is most likely true for Israel too. In the end, the demand that a state invest in preparations for every possible disaster is unrealistic.

In some cases, a regime’s failure in dealing effectively with the virus – alongside the harsh economic realities in some countries (such as Egypt, which is facing the collapse of its important tourism industry) – may encourage Islamists to return to the political arena and try to undermine stability.

On the other hand, even the larger and non-Arab countries, Turkey and Iran, who adhere to (different) versions of Islamist ideology, were late in responding to the virus crisis, and even tried to downplay the significance of the crisis. The internal political ramifications of the coronavirus on these regimes are still unclear. There are signs pointing to an even greater centralization of power in the hands of rulers.

With regards to ​​foreign relations and security, the coronavirus has not changed much across the region, with trends underway before the virus outbreak remaining steady. This includes continuing Iranian subversion across the region and the acceleration of its nuclear project, as well as Turkey’s provocations and its involvement in the Libyan civil war. There is no evidence of a change in Palestinian Authority or Hamas behavior towards Israel. Expectations of significant changes in the balance of power in the region in the wake of the coronavirus crisis are, at this point, unsubstantiated.

The spread of the virus has not led to greater cooperation between countries in the region. Most of the economic and other interactions have been with countries outside the region. Conflicts within the Middle East have not been frozen and the revisionist powers persist in their disruptive behavior. The coronavirus has had an impact on the capabilities of countries in the Middle East, but it remains to be seen what impact there will be, if any, on the ambitions and energies of key players.

Similarly, there is a high likelihood that the involvement of major powers in the Middle East – the US, China and Russia – will continue in the same patterns. The US will continue to withdraw from involvement in the region regardless of who is elected president in November. Russia considers the Middle East to be its “backyard,” where it succeeds with relatively little investment in proving that it is a significant actor and a loyal ally to its client states. It has managed to penetrate other countries beyond Syria.

The epidemic, however deadly, has not changed Russia’s strategic considerations. China wants to play a more central role on the international stage and will continue to expand its influence in the region through grants, investments and p.r. campaigns.

Yet, if we are to learn from Middle Eastern history, the asymmetries in great-power/small-state relations have had only marginal influence on the behavior of regional players, leaving the local actors much political and strategic leeway.

Economic recovery of Middle East countries will depend mainly on developments in the global economy, which are still unclear. What will be the fate of the world’s two largest economies, the US and China? Will China quickly resume buying oil from the Gulf States as it did before the outbreak of the pandemic, thereby restoring the price of oil and driving the global supply chain to activate production lines and generate jobs? When will the US market recommence the purchase of goods from around the world?

The answers to these questions are the key to economic recovery. Of course, recovery also will depend on the adoption of proper macro-economic policies by regional governments.

The end of the coronavirus crisis in the Middle East is not yet in sight. Israel is probably beyond the virus’s peak, although some analysts warn of second, and even a third, wave. Should Israel ultimately emerge with a particularly good record in managing the crisis, its international image as a successful country will be bolstered. As mentioned, this also will contribute to the strengthening of Israeli deterrence and deferment of a next war.

Posted with permission from The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security JISS, which offers security expertise for a strong Israel. The institute considers the Jewish People’s historic connection to the Land of Israel a central component of strategic worldview; and highlights the importance of united Jerusalem to Israel’s destiny and defense. It provides counsel to the highest echelons of the Israeli government and trains the next generation of Israeli national security specialists.



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