This paper reviews the responses of Middle Eastern countries to the spread of the coronavirus and highlights diplomatic and defense implications stemming from the situation. The assessment of JISS fellows is that the coronavirus crisis will not fundamentally change power dynamics in the region or alter the prevailing ambitions and policies of key countries.
By Fellows of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security
The coronavirus epidemic does not respect borders. Middle Eastern countries – Iran, Israel, Turkey and the Arab states – have reacted differently and at different times, but eventually adopted plans of action similar to those of other countries around the world. They restricted international air travel and movement within each country, tightened border controls, and adopted social distancing.
These responses echo the ancient lesson taught in the Talmud (Tractate Bava Kamma 60b): “If there is plague in the city, gather your feet, as it is stated ‘And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning’ (Exodus 12:22).”
Management of the coronavirus crisis has varied, based on the capabilities of specific countries’ national health care systems, and on the nature and authority of leadership. Some governments have responded quite effectively and forcefully, such as the Jordanian government, while others were late to react.
This paper reviews the responses of Middle Eastern countries to the spread of the coronavirus and highlights diplomatic and defense implications stemming from the situation. The assessment of JISS fellows is that the coronavirus crisis will not fundamentally change power dynamics in the region, or alter the prevailing ambitions and policies of key countries.
The coronavirus crisis has shaken the Iranian public’s confidence in government and led to the most difficult economic period in the history of the revolutionary regime since it took power in 1979. Iran likely “imported” the coronavirus directly from China, but Teheran downplayed the danger for quite some time because of its close trading relationship with the PRC. It is unclear how badly Iran has been hit by the virus, but by all accounts, the damage is extensive and the official figures are misleading. Some senior regime officials have died.
Iran was the source of the virus’s spread to Shiite populations in Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, due to pilgrimage from these places to the city of Qom, and the Islamist regime’s failure to realize, until late in the day, that mass prayers accelerate the spread of infection.
Beyond the dismal economic situation stemming from the “maximum pressure” of US sanctions, Iran also has been hit by a dramatic drop in oil revenues, following the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia and the flooding of the market with surplus oil. Energy exports provide more than 80 percent of Iran’s foreign currency revenue and make up about half of its national budget. Consequently, the system of subsidies Teheran provides to the general public is in danger of collapse. The Iranian economy will continue to shrink, as has been the case over the last two years, although the IMF had previously anticipated growth in 2021.
While the regime does not yet appear to be in danger of collapsing (it has been using suppression measures and has attempted to divert public rage towards “enemies of the revolution”), there are preliminary signs of anarchy in the country. Soon, Iran is likely to face a strategic point of decision. A request for international aid to help cope with the coronavirus crisis, in exchange for a new nuclear deal with the West, is not out of the question. However, at this point there has been no sign of Iran backpedaling on the steps it already took in breach its obligations according to the JCPOA, such as accelerating the process of enriching uranium.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to support the pro-Iranian militias operating in Iraq with the aim of pushing US forces out of that country. Iran also continues to assist the Assad regime in Syria and mobilize pro-Iranian militias that are fighting there. Iran continues to provide financial assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon (albeit in smaller sums), and to back the Houthis in Yemen.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have increased their harassment of US warships in the Gulf, which already has provoked a harsh reaction from President Trump. In the absence of an unequivocal warning signals from the US, Iran may further escalate its attacks and Washington will be forced to respond. At the same time, Iran cannot but have noticed that US Democratic leaders have adopted a conciliatory tone in speaking about Iran.
In short, Iran’s priorities have remained unchanged despite coronavirus. It is worth noting that in 2019 Iran diverted one billion euros that it had received for medical needs for other purposes. When the official number of corona-related deaths in the country surpassed 3,000 on April 1, Iran launched an international campaign for sanctions relief. But based on the regime’s record, funds that Iran might receive from this effort (as opposed to legitimate assistance in kind, i.e., in the form of medicine and equipment) surely will be devoted to “exporting the revolution.”
Turkey, too, initially ignored the coronavirus. There were even government assertions that the Turkish “race” is resistant to the virus. The lack of transparency makes it difficult to know how extensively the virus has hit Turkey.
Turkey’s increasing economic difficulties stem from the cessation of tourism and economic shutdown, which has led to 30 percent unemployment. In addition, its currency is losing value, while its foreign currency reserves are being dangerously depleted.
In parallel, there is a crisis of confidence developing due to the flaws in the government’s response to the coronavirus that could weaken Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s status. This may have political consequences, although the next presidential election is scheduled only for 2023. Meanwhile, Erdogan is taking advantage of the crisis to contend with his political opponents. So far, it has been hard to identify signs that the corona crisis is directly affecting his conduct or his ambitions to regional leadership and hegemony, or the advance of ambitious projects such as the Istanbul Canal that is to be dug along the Bosphorus.
Turkey continues to tighten its grip on Syria, in the Idlib province and the areas east of the Euphrates River. In February 2020, Turkey was involved in heavy fighting in this area against the Syrian army. Syria was backed by the Russian air force and fought hard to regain control of the region. A ceasefire along the existing front lines was agreed upon at the Moscow Summit between Erdogan and Putin on March 5, and joint patrols were established. Stopping the advance of Syrian regime forces was a feat for the Turks and their allies among Islamists and other rebels in Syria. However, Sunni extremists (such as the “Guardians of Religion,” Huras al-Din,) have refused to abide by the ceasefire, and have murdered Turkish soldiers. The price of Turkey’s military presence in Syria in the buffer zone along the border, and especially in the Afrin and Idlib provinces in western Syria, is expected to continue to rise.
In the wake of the escalating refugee problem (hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from Idlib), Turkey is once again threatening to flood Europe with refugees. Greece, which is on the front lines, has taken significant steps to protect its borders and prevent refugees from landing on the shores of its islands. The continuation of the current trends could lead to a sharp rise in tension in the Aegean basin.
In complex connection to the two fronts mentioned above, Turkey is determined to establish facts on the ground in the eastern Mediterranean. It has continued its involvement in the Libyan civil war in an effort to bolster the Fayez al-Sarraj (GNA) government that rules the Tripoli area (and is affiliated with the Islamists), against the forces of the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar and backed by Egypt, the UAE, and Russia. Turkey reached an agreement with the GNA in November 2019 on the delineation of a border between the Turkish and Libyan exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean. One of the reasons for this was an attempt to counteract cooperation between the members of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum – comprised of Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – and to hamper plans to transfer gas via a pipeline from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe.
The agreement with the GNA was aimed at establishing Turkish hegemony in the Mediterranean and damaging vital strategic and economic interests of Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus. It provoked a strong European response, including preventive actions by the French navy off the coast of Libya, followed by the announcement of an EU military presence, “Operation Irini,” for the purpose of enforcing the UN ban on arms supplies to Libya.
Egypt was also late in dealing with the coronavirus. The measures it is currently taking have not been decisive, especially considering the high density of the Egyptian population, which makes it difficult to enforce social distancing. It is doubtful whether the Egyptian government is aware of the spread of the virus in its territory, and whether it has the ability to stop it. In any case, the president was granted additional emergency powers to deal with the coronavirus.
The damage to Egypt’s economy, mainly due to global suspension of the entire tourism industry, is profound and ongoing. Egypt’s economic achievements in recent years have somewhat dulled the economic blow. Even so, the coronavirus crisis will increase Egypt’s need for external assistance in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster. This, at a time when the its traditional sources of aid – the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states – are experiencing financial difficulties themselves, and China’s ability to assist is unclear. (Beijing does appear to be capitalizing on the situation to take over assets with strategic potential). The conflict with Ethiopia over the building of a dam on the Nile River, Egypt’s lifeline, assumes even greater significance during these times.
The advanced Israeli health system has coped reasonably well with the virus crisis, despite deficiencies in infrastructure and logistical problems. In fact, Israel has dealt with coronavirus better than most Western countries. Particularly notable is its low mortality rate in comparison with countries such as the UK and France. (It is about one tenth of the rate in those countries). The national resilience and discipline that the Israeli public has demonstrated so far is a strategic asset, given the importance of such resilience in the context of deterrence.
However, the measures taken to ensure social distancing paralyzed much of the Israeli economy. Unemployment has reached 25 percent. It remains to be seen whether the gradual “exit strategy” adopted recently by the government will be successful in re-igniting economic activity without excessive health risk.
The IDF has played a significant role in the government’s response to the epidemic due to its organizational, logistical and technological capabilities. The IDF’s relationship with Israeli society was enhanced, including its image among the Ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors. It is clear, however, that the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis dramatically decreases the chances that the IDF will obtain the NIS 20 billion it seeks for its multi-year “Tnufa” (“Momentum”) buildup plan. It certainly will be easier for the Finance Ministry to reject IDF demands for an increase in the defense budget.
This is very problematic, since Israel indeed faces significant strategic challenges. For example, the so-called “campaign between wars” must continue, to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria and to prevent Hezbollah from upgrading its missiles.
If there is a vital need, such as a dramatic escalation in strategic threats, Israel has significant foreign exchange reserves that it can draw upon both to power an economic recovery and to boost its military.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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 in 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.
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.
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 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.