Dave DesRoches, NESA Center
The novel coronavirus is a traumatic event for the Arab states of the Gulf, surpassing even the security challenges posed by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the events following the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The Arab Gulf states are all export economies that are reliant upon functioning global markets for their prosperity and their underlying regime legitimacy; a significant disruption to the global economy (such as a novel coronavirus-induced global recession) will pose significant challenges.
A second challenge is raised by government responses to the novel coronavirus. State institutions in most Gulf States are relatively weak, very centralized, and not used to dealing with social and health issues of this scale. In a crisis of this sort, all governments are challenged, but centralized models of governance are predisposed to control the scenario to the utmost degree. Control is a benefit when responding to a public health emergency, but counterproductive when it relates to the sharing of information and transparency. The Arab Gulf states – whose economic modernization plans all rely on inward investment – are being evaluated by potential investors for government efficacy and veracity.
The Arab Gulf states have a set of unique characteristics which could shape the reaction to the novel coronavirus.
Expatriates: First, these states all have large communities of expatriate laborers, many of whom live in densely populated compounds. These groups – who have little access to any resources other than their labor – are not likely to comply voluntarily with any restrictions on working or movement as they lack the status to access many forms of public assistance.
Transients: Second, Gulf States have large populations of international transients. In countries which have built themselves as transit hubs (e.g., Dubai and Qatar), these transients are businessmen or global travelers. As many regional airports serve as the destination or key transit point for religious pilgrims, the overarching number of possible interactions of individuals who congregate and then disperse is high.
Sectarian Division: The regional driver of novel coronavirus propagation in this region is the infection outbreak within the Iranian city of Qom and the inept initial response of Iranian authorities to that outbreak concentration point. Because Qom is the center of Iranian religious scholarship, Shi’a from the region often travel there and currently face a higher risk of becoming infected and spreading the virus upon their return home. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have both identified Shi’a returning from Iran as the initial source of infection in their countries. In fact, the mostly Shi’a region of Qatif in Saudi Arabia was the first to be quarantined within the Kingdom. The mistake would be to take the outbreak location within Iran as a signal of fault to any particular group within the region. Instead, it is the nature of regional interaction and regional travel that exposes the region to threats.
American Military Presence: All of the Arab Gulf states host US military facilities and American forces are continuously present. If the pandemic is not dealt with effectively, the politics surrounding the presence of American forces in the region could become more complicated. Regional regimes may rethink the basing of US forces due to domestic politics or worries about public health. The United States government could potentially rethink the deployment of forces to the region if ongoing public health crisis increases the risks posed to United States forces.
Increased Government Transparency: The Gulf regimes have followed a model that prominently features good news and suppresses bad news. Unfortunately, over time, this has led to a dynamic that will harm public health measures. If the citizenry doesn’t have confidence in government information in a time of crisis, it will seek other sources of information. This easily leads to panic, which in most instances is worse than the crisis which predicates the panic. Enhanced transparency also will help reassure potential investors who are worried that government opacity will devalue their investments and serve as a stabilizing factor for other economic processes.
Increased Regional Cooperation in Disease Tracking and Treatment: The impetus for regional integration has always been strongest in times of crisis. This is an example of a civil crisis which calls for enhanced cooperation. The countries could exchange experiences, practices, lessons learned, and concerns in a forum of parity. All regional states would benefit from sharing their data regarding common experiences. The development of a uniform reporting system for infection and morbidity would be a benefit across the region, and would enable governments to develop confidence in public information. It would also help establish the confidence needed to reinvigorate international trade patterns.
Establish Common Standards for Travel and Commerce Resumption: While the states of the region are interdependent to a degree, they are also rivals for trade and investment. Without the establishment of common standards to resume normal trade, there is the risk of a “race to the bottom” to be the first to declare the virus defeated and resume trade. This incentivizes underreporting of disease and risks laying the groundwork for a disease resurgence. Common standards would help to minimize this threat.
The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.