Arab countries still have fewer cases of Covid-
By CHARLES THÉPAUT*
What is the connection between the “Arab springs” and the global Covid-
In considering the pandemic’s aftermath, the spread of the 2007 financial crisis
in the US and Europe to North Africa demonstrates some of the consequences a global
recession could produce today. While less exposed to international financial markets,
In 2020, the IMF already expects the global recession to cut growth in the MENA region
from 1.2% in 2019 to -
RECESSION AND RURAL EXODUS
A global recession will also have a still more dramatic impact on refugees in the region because the number of people affected by conflicts and reliance on UN assistance are even greater today than in 2011. For instance, the US and Europe together currently provide 75% and 45% of the billions of dollars of UN assistance respectively for Syria and Yemen. Assuming these Western contributions are even partially reduced by a recession in the period ahead, the consequences for Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and even Turkey are likely to be dramatic.
As in the run up to 2011, when the 2007 drought in Syria pushed waves of rural workers to the south and to the suburbs of Damascus, environmental change will also add to regional tensions. As of 2018, two thirds of the 448 million inhabitants of North Africa and the Middle East already suffer from insufficient water resources. The region does not have the means to sustain its economic growth commensurate with its surging population, raising the specter of cascading public health issues, uncontrolled urbanization and competition between countries over access to water.
OLD AND NEW PROBLEMS LIMIT POLICY OPTIONS
Governments across the region have taken globally followed public health measures: including lockdown, social distancing, and donning of masks and protective gear. The GCC countries and Egypt have announced stimulus packages to contain the first economic shocks but other countries have been unable to afford comparable measures. Beyond financial resources, political fragility will weaken governments’ response. Heads of state have recently changed in Oman, Algeria and Tunisia. Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco have faced social unrest and security challenges, while conflict continues unabated in Yemen, Syria and Libya. Protesters in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq proved in 2019 that the 2011 quest for dignity was far from over. Lockdowns have allowed authorities to reduce social movements, for instance in Iraq and Algeria, but this is unlikely to solve underlying political and institutional tensions, as the recent demonstrations in Lebanon showed.
Even oil producing countries are more vulnerable than in 2011. They have suffered
from a precipitous decline in prices since 2014; and despite the recent OPEC-
Societal resilience already plays a role in mitigating the effects of local COVID-
Pandemic consequences will greatly vary internally and across the region because
of income disparities. The Arab world is the world’s most unequal region by income,
where the top 10% owns 65% of wealth. This means Covid-
REGIONAL COOPERATION MORE URGENT THAN EVER
IMF and World Bank programs, technical assistance and equipment supply by UN agencies
will bring some immediate relief to countries of the region. However more tailor-
With the pandemic breaking across the Middle East, regional cooperation is more urgent
than ever. The GCC countries have announced the creation of a food safety network.
But the standard of regional cooperation in the region is generally low. The pooling
of resources and coordination has traditionally been limited to bilateral financial
assistance from the GCC to other Arab countries. Parts of the region have established
Arab countries will need to find new drivers of growth, as post-
A NECESSARY DIPLOMATIC IMPETUS
The pandemic and its deepening economic destruction are likely to increase the already
evident inward turn of international actors like the US, Europe, China and Russia.
In a region that has seen more than its share of foreign interference in the last
decades, this dynamic may well be welcome but this will not extinguish conflicts
in the war zones. Non-
At the same time, regional actors have made gestures toward easing existing tensions. Saudi Arabia has given a new impulse to negotiations with the Houthis. The UAE, Kuwait and Qatar have renewed gestures to Iran by sending medical assistance. However, cooperation and appeasement will not provide new solutions if they are limited to a freeze of frontlines. A key challenge for the region is to use the fleeting momentum provided by the pandemic’s crisis to address core issues. Tensions are otherwise likely to reemerge as soon as the peak of the pandemic is passed, endangering the region’s recovery even more. One pertinent example: by the time the second wave of contamination has passed (spring 2021), the breakout time for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon could well be reduced to a point its adversaries find unacceptable, which risks another cycle of regional escalation.
While the Arab world will not emerge from the pandemic better off than it was, the
US and Europe have an interest in supporting innovative cooperation and providing
assistance to mitigate some consequences. The virus will not alone solve conflicts
like Syria or issues like US-
*French career diplomat. He is currently visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of Le monde arabe en morceaux. Des printemps arabes au recul américain (Armand Colin, 2020). He previously worked for European diplomatic institutions in Syria, Algeria, Iraq, France, Belgium and Germany.