In the span of nine months, the states’ abilities to weather existential crises have been put to the test. Success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic has varied; in many cases, mismanagement has spurred dissent, which makes regimes more vulnerable to turnover through forceful replacement or incumbent losses in democratic elections. In others, the suffocation of certain social sectors forebodes future problems.
Regimes become more vulnerable to turnover when healthcare provision is weak and economic hardship is widespread. As a result, COVID-19 has compounded the existing crises.
Regimes become more vulnerable to turnover when healthcare provision is weak and economic hardship is widespread. As a result, COVID-19 has compounded the existing crises. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), countries already mired in conflict are constrained in responding to the pandemic. Pandemic-induced grievances have also spurred protest, creating or protracting strife. On the other hand, Jordan and the Gulf countries have levied their relative institutional strength to contain the virus through testing and technological innovation.
The Scope of the Problem
It is important to note that the official national tallies of the COVID-19 cases must be interpreted cautiously. First, much of the Gulf States’ success in containing the virus can be attributed to the efficient and widespread testing programs. Lower-income countries or countries in crisis do not have the infrastructure to test extensively, and the reported values—just over 2,000 total cases since March in Yemen, for instance—likely do not tell the whole story. Additionally, the positive cases may be purposefully underreported; infection rates in Iran between March and July were double the value publicized, and journalists faced expulsion or arrest in Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq after highlighting the doctored numbers.
Testing capacities, the integrity of government reporting, and the freedom of the press to investigate are all part and parcel of the stability of state infrastructure.
As the severity of the pandemic became apparent in March, Iran emerged as a global hotbed. Today, the country still appears to bear the brunt of the MENA cases, with 15,286 cases and 665 deaths per million residents as of January 12. Testing capacities, the integrity of government reporting, and the freedom of the press to investigate are all part and parcel of the stability of state infrastructure. Almost all of the MENA countries are in the lower half of the World Press Freedom Index; Tunisia, in which freedom of the press was most freely exercised in the region, was ranked 72 of 180 countries measured in 2020.
States have struggled to stymie rates of infection without increasing unemployment. In June, the International Labour Organization estimated that over 400 million jobs were lost globally during the pandemic. As a region, the Arab states fared relatively well; they saw a reduction in working hours by 13.2% in the second quarter of the year, or 8-10 million full-time jobs, compared to 18.3% in the Americas. However, it is unclear whether these figures consider the nature of work in MENA, which is heavily concentrated in the informal economy. Informal workers are often unable to work from home and thus face either significantly reduced work hours or continued exposure to the virus.
There is evidence that economic grievances play a key role in the outbreak of an armed conflict. In Lebanon, economic depression, exacerbated by the pandemic, has ushered in months of protests and a déjà-vu-inducing administrative turnover. In April, 45% of the Lebanese population lived below the poverty line, while earlier in March the government defaulted on its debt, which totalled 170% of its GDP, for the first time in the history. The dire situation was only compounded in August when the explosion of ammonium nitrate housed at the Port of Beirut killed almost two hundred people and decimated structures within a radius of up to two thousand meters. Though Hassan Diab, who was the Prime Minister during the explosion, stepped down from his post, his succession by Saad Al-Hariri, who was ousted from the position last fall, paints Lebanon’s political future as one of stagnation.
Some state healthcare systems have been ravaged by years of war. In Syria, Yemen, and Libya, hospitals have been purposefully targeted by combatants, and the remaining treatment capacity is overrun by preventable diseases. Personal protective equipment is non-existent, ruling powers are occupied with physical security threats, and refugee populations produced by violence have little ability to social distance.
In Palestine, the movement of patients, medical professionals, equipment, and aid remains contingent on the Israeli restrictions. The situation in Gaza is particularly dire, with only five hundred hospital beds for its population of almost two million. At the beginning of December, the last testing centre in Gaza closed down due to a shortage of tests. Efforts to secure equipment—including recently, a vaccine—situate the territories clearly within the regional alliances. In the wake of the United States’ (U.S.) withdrawal from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the Palestinian Authority is set to receive four million doses of the Russian “Sputnik V” vaccine and subsidized doses for 20% of the population through the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Covax initiative. However, the timeline for the distribution, particularly between the West Bank and Gaza, is unclear.
In Iran, the U.S. sanctions have blocked the country from importing medical equipment and vaccine doses. Here, diplomatic stalemate adds another layer to a landscape of response already muddled by high inflation, unemployment, and regime repression. Two rounds of parliamentary elections held in February and September saw incredibly low turnout and a restricted roster of candidates. Under the weight of these forces combined, the Iranian civilians are being pushed into an increasingly precarious situation.
In March, the WHO ranked the Gulf countries as the most prepared in the region to combat the coronavirus. In September, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain deployed the most tests per thousand people worldwide, and Jordan, despite its lower economic endowment, made three times more tests available in August than recommended by the WHO. In these countries, technology has been effectively utilized to limit exposure to the virus. Sanitizing robots are at work in airports and hospitals in the UAE, and travellers arriving in Jordan and Kuwait must wear electronic bracelets that ensure quarantine guidelines are respected. The AMAN app in Jordan, Tabaud in Saudi Arabia, Tarassud in Oman, Shlonik in Kuwait, and BeAware in Bahrain notify the users if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
The trade-off between privacy and security is not new, and it is pertinent to these innovations, which often entail collecting location data. Yet, survey data shows that a majority of the Jordanian population is willing to accept the terms of tracking technologies like electronic bracelets in the name of containing the pandemic.
The technological innovations developed during the pandemic promise future economic return.
Because of the high volume of tests deployed in Jordan and the Gulf countries, the reported case tallies, if accepted, more accurately represent the scope of the problem than countries with low testing capacities. However, while the Gulf countries are considered more transparent than many in the region, Transparency International acknowledges that the score accorded to Saudi Arabia particularly “does not reflect…severe restrictions on journalists, political activists and other citizens,” which can certainly skew data. Indeed, in the World Press Freedoms Index, Saudi Arabia is one of the lowest in the region—behind only Syria—ranked 170 of 180 countries.
They have their own economic concerns: Jordan has large populations of refugees and informal workers, foreign workers have largely left the Gulf, and oil prices have dropped precipitously. However, the technological innovations developed during the pandemic promise future economic return. Moreover, Jordan and the Gulf states will gain a reputation in the region for their successful containment of the virus.