Coronavirus in MENA: first thoughts
Since acknowledging its first cases of Covid-19 coronavirus infection in the holy city of Qom on February 19, the Islamic Republic of Iran has emerged as (officially at least) the third most severely afflicted country in the world in terms of fatalities after China and Italy, and at the same time an important staging-post for the virus in the MENA region.
Without hazarding any guesses as to how the epidemic can be expected to evolve, below are a few preliminary observations on the current circumstances and possible future implications of Covid-19 in the region.
As of March 2, Egypt officially had just two confirmed cases of Covid-19 (both of whom, conveniently, were foreigners). By then, however, there had been reports from the UK, Canada and France of returning travellers who appeared to have contracted the virus during package holidays in Egypt – suggesting strongly that Covid-19 was very much at large in the country by late February. This in turn suggests severe shortcomings in local reporting.
This ought not perhaps to come as much of a surprise in the current social/political climate of Sisi’s Egypt, which disincentivises (to put it mildly) the reporting of unwelcome or unflattering information by low-ranking officials. A set-up that in many ways resembles the stifling atmosphere that badly hampered China’s initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Sadly, Egypt is by no means the region’s only highly centralised and authoritarian regime with a strong penchant for denial, and similar dynamics are likely be in play in a number of other countries. The number of Covid-19 cases reported in Saudi Arabia, for example, has been suspiciously low – the Kingdom reported its first confirmed case only on March 2 – even if there are arguably signs that the Saudi authorities have learned at least some of the lessons of the homegrown (and proportionately far deadlier) MERS coronavirus outbreak of 2012.
Even without hitting true pandemic levels, the Covid-19 outbreak has already wiped $50 billion off global exports in February alone and is expected to slash growth globally in 2020. The MENA region, and notably the GCC countries, are likely to be particularly hard hit.
On March 1, Gulf stock exchanges slumped dramatically, with the Kuwaiti bourse suspending trading, after it emerged that the last week of February had been the worst week for oil prices since 2008. With global oil consumption now expected to fall this year for the first time since the financial crisis, the pressure on prices can only get worse – and Gulf oil exporters will be likely to feel the pain even worse than others: countries such as the UAE and, in particular, Saudi Arabia have reoriented their crude exports over the past decade or so massively towards the China and the Far East, precisely the economies that have been the hardest hit by the Covid-19 outbreak (China’s demand for oil slumped by a massive 20% in the first two months of 2020). This in turn may undermine attempts by OPEC and other oil producers to bolster oil prices by means of production restraint: with their market share suffering badly from the effects of the Asian downturn, the Saudis, who together with the Russians have effectively led this long-running effort, seem likely to be less inclined to shoulder so much of the burden. If ‘OPEC+’ production restraint gives way to a beggar-my-neighbour free-for-all, the consequences for oil prices, and for the budgets of oil-producing countries, may prove catastrophic.
The coronavirus crisis is also very bad news for debt-ridden Dubai, where the already struggling tourism and real estate sectors are likely to take an additional hit. With so much riding on Expo 2020, which is due to open in Dubai in October, in terms of stimulating renewed growth in those key branches of the economy, Dubai’s rulers will be praying that the outbreak will have run its course before then. Dubai’s Emirates airline – and similarly regional rival Qatar Airways – also stand to be hurt by the Covid-19 epidemic, having based their highly ambitious growth strategy largely on positioning themselves as “super connectors”, linking the Far East with the Middle East, Europe and beyond.
So far, the reaction of the protestors driving the civil revolts in Algeria and Iraq to the Covid-19 outbreak has been one of defiance. There was no appreciable dip in number as Algeria’s pro-democracy ‘Hirak’ entered its second year on February 28, and slogans raised in Oran and Algiers riffed on the theme of coronavirus being the lesser threat to the wellbeing of the people: “Goulou lel issaba yrouhou yakhtouna, el mardh dialhoum ketar men el Corona” (Tell the clique in power to leave us alone, because their disease is worse than coronavirus), “Makanch Corona, kayen li sarqouna” (There is no coronavirus, there’s only the people who robbed us), and so on.
Likewise in Baghdad, despite an official ban by health authorities on public gatherings in an effort to contain the virus, protesters have refused to leave Tahrir Square, chanting in defiance: “Your snipers didn’t deter us, what can coronavirus do?”. Makeshift clinics erected in Tahrir Square months ago to treat demonstrators hit by bullets and teargas canisters are now dispensing gloves, hand sanitizer and leaflets on prevention.
Depending on how the epidemic develops, however, it cannot be ruled out that it could have a dampening effect on the protest movements (this may already be the case to some extent in Lebanon) – although whether this will be sufficient for the regimes in place to stabilise and lastingly take back the initiative remains to be seen.
What seems inevitable, on the other hand, is that certain governments’ mishandling of the Covid-19 epidemic will come back to haunt them. In Iran in particular, reports that the authorities deliberately suppressed news of the outbreak in its crucial early days lest it affect participation in parliamentary elections on February 21 will further undermine the public’s trust in the regime – already dealt severe body blows by its repression of protests last year and its inept coverup of the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January.
Predictably, in a region whose media is addicted to outlandish conspiracy theories, there have already been efforts to ‘weaponise’ the Covid-19 outbreak for foreign policy ends. “Coronavirus is not a germ but rather a plot by Iran and Qatar to crush this world … Both of them must be eradicated,” tweeted Nora Shanar, who writes for Saudi-owned online newspaper Elaph, on February 27.
كورونا ليس جرثومة بل هي مؤامرة إيران وقطر لسحق هذا العالم .. كلاهما ينبغي استصاله.
— نورة شنار (@Norashanar) February 27, 2020
Not to be outdone, on March 1 Noura Almoteari, who writes for Saudi daily Okaz and the UAE’s Al-Bayan, tweeted: “I think the fabrication and spread of the #Corona virus is [a] Qatari [misdeed] par excellence … and that Doha paid billions to grow this frightening virus in China, with the aim of hitting the year 2020, which was supposed to see the beginning of the implementation of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Dubai Expo 2020, the end of the Ottoman caliphate, the implementation of the Riyadh agreement and the return of peace to the Middle East.”
أعتقد أن تركيبة ونشر فيروس #كورونا قطرية بامتياز.. وأن الدوحة دفعت مليارات لزراعة هذا الفيروس المخيف في الصين، بهدف ضرب العام 2020 الذي كان معدا له بدء تحقيق رؤية السعودية 2030 ودبي اكسبو 2020 ونهاية الخلافة العثمانية وتحقيق اتفاق الرياض وعودة السلام للشرق الأوسط.#قطر_هي_كورونا
— نورا المطيري (@Noura_Almoteari) March 1, 2020
Sadly, we can be confident that they will not be the last. The extent to which they are taken seriously by their reading public is another matter, however…