The spread of Covid-19 has not spared the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), all of which are to varying degrees engaged in the fight against the new, common enemy. On 6 April, there were 71,500recorded cases in the MENA region, with the highest number in Iran (over 58,000), the epicentre of the virus in the region. According to official figures, there are 16 confirmed cases in Syria, 18 in Libya and none in Yemen. While it is obviously impossible to check actual data in conflict-ridden countries, there are many doubts as to the reliability of the figures announced by the governments in the region, as even the World Health Organization has warned. Egypt’s reported 1,117 cases, which seem particularly low for a population of over 100 million, is especially surprising.
Although every MENA country has adopted measures to contain the spread of the virus, there is no escaping the fact that here too, as in other regions of the world, the responses have not been as swift everywhere. And even where they have been, they are unlikely to be able to protect such vulnerable systems as those of the MENA region. Moreover, here more than elsewhere, the pandemic overlaps with hitherto unresolved political, social and economic challenges and could exacerbate pre-existing tensions, thereby turning the area into a huge powder keg waiting to explode.
The most immediate and greatest fear is over how fast the disease can spread in those areas where access to water and electricity is scarce or restricted, hygiene measures are inadequate and social distancing is difficult to implement due to the high density of the population, as in the Gaza Strip or Egypt’s urban areas, not to speak of the refugee camps in the Near East, where the impact of coronavirus could be devastating. But there is also concern about the resilience of fragile healthcare systems with inadequate infrastructure and a paucity of health workers, ill-prepared to cope with an emergency that is putting even the most advanced countries under heavy strain. Over the years, the governments in the region have preferred to pour their resources into military spending rather than investing in healthcare, with health expenditure ranging from 0.6% of GDP in Yemen to 4.6% in Israel.
When the number of infections began to rise and the first deaths were recorded from early to mid-March, schools, universities and mosques were closed and a host of social activities were stopped in a bid to contain the pandemic. Many countries declared a state of emergency, imposed curfews, sealed their borders, cancelled flights and severely restricted or banned domestic travel.
But in countries already characterised by strict restrictions on individual freedoms, the exceptional measures adopted by governments to avoid total collapse have only ramped up the regimes’ control over their citizens. Such control, exercised by branding as ‘fake news’ any report that contradicts official information and clamping down on any criticism, is especially tight when it comes to information relating to the pandemic. An emblematic case is that of a journalist from theGuardian expelled from Egypt for reporting on a Canadian study estimating the number of cases in the country to range from 6,000 to over 19,000. The situation is not different in Algeria, where criminal charges can be brought against journalists who publish different figures from those issued by the Ministry of Health. A war of numbers is also underway in Turkey, where widespread criticism has been voiced on social networks for inadequate information and lack of transparency. Here, the recent disclosure of figures on the regional spread of coronavirus by the Turkish Medical Association has led to a crackdown by the authorities. Throughout the region there is a danger that tighter controls may stretch beyond the need to contain the pandemic, further eroding public trust in government as a result.
No less concerning is the economic and social fallout on already hard-hit economies caused by the slowdown in global growth – particularly that of the Chinese and European economies with which the region has close economic and energy ties – and the worldwide lockdown. While as yet it is difficult to quantify what the actual economic impact of the pandemic will be, the first negative effects have already hit tourism and remittances, which are key sectors for MENA countries. Tourism revenues account for 16% of GDP in Tunisia, 12% in Egypt, and 11% in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
Each country is responding according to its means. In Morocco, the government has made available USD200 million to strengthen the healthcare system. In Libya, the Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj has allocated USD350 million to tackle the coronavirus, while Egypt has launched a USD6.35 billion package to prop up its economy. Meanwhile, Iran, battered by international sanctions and the health emergency, has made a request for funding from the International Monetary Fund, for the first time since 1962, in the form of a USD5 billion loan.
The rich monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), for their part, have launched substantial packages to stimulate economic growth – ranging in value from USD34 billion by the United Arab Emirates to USD1.5 billion by Kuwait, with the GCC as a whole pledging over 120 USD120 billion in all – and are able to tap into substantial foreign currency reserves. Yet the consequences of the collapse in crude oil price and long-term prospect of low oil prices could stretch well beyond the economic impact and undermine the stability of systems where political and social consensus relies directly on the redistribution of oil revenues. Furthermore, the foreign aid that the oil exporting monarchies have been giving to other countries in the region, like Jordan and Egypt, could also be affected and fall substantially as a result. Some economists estimate that GDP growth across the MENA region in 2020 will be 2.1%, down from the initially projected growth of 2.8%, and 1.7% for the GCC alone. But the reduction could be much greater.
While it is hard to predict what the pandemic’s political, economic and social consequences will be, from a geopolitical perspective it is not inconceivable that it will lead to a shift in the regional balance of power, with China playing a bigger role. Beijing has been particularly proactive in lending support to governments across the region – from Algeria to Tunisia, and from the Palestinian National Authority to Iran – by supplying medical equipment and sharing medical expertise. Beijing’s so-called ‘mask diplomacy’ – with over 250,000 masks donated to Iran – could be the prelude to a policy that extends beyond the protection of China’s economic and energy interests.