How does Coronavirus Affect Stability in the Middle East?

Sam Marrero, NESA Center

The validity of coronavirus data coming out of Middle Eastern countries may be uncertain, but most Middle Eastern countries – save Iran and Turkey – appear to avoiding a catastrophe of causalities. Take for example, Egypt, an under-resourced country of almost 100 million, which as of May 8th 2020 reported a mere 7981 confirmed cases 482 deaths. For comparison, as of the same date Washington D.C. reports 5,899 cases and 304 deaths, but whose population is about 700 thousand, less than 1% of Egypt’s. The United Arab Emirates, whose coronavirus numbers more accurately reflect reality on the ground than Egypt’s, have more impressively contained the spread in comparison to the United States.

The Middle East, like the whole of the globe, is facing a health crisis but more pressingly an economic crisis underpinned by low oil prices which will continue to affect regional tensions. Rich oil producing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries appear to be weathering the coronavirus, but the low price of oil has compounding economic consequences. Money from oil trade, which bolsters GCC economies, flows to poorer Middle Eastern countries in the form of investment and worker remittances. Tourism will be affected as well. Across industries the damage will not be contained.

Rich Middle Eastern nations will be less likely to throw money around on infrastructure or security cooperation projects. Optimists’ hopes were raised when the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen announced a two-week ceasefire on April 9th and Houthi rebels appear amenable to work with the UN on a ceasefire and an ultimate end to the conflict. But, fighting has since continued. The reality is that Yemen is more likely to spiral out of control due to supply line disruptions due to the pandemic.

There is already a political push afoot to reduce US military presence in the Middle East, but an enduring defeat of ISIS is still necessary. While the US has drawn down significantly in Iraq since late 2018, it’s still important to be an enduring security cooperation partner there lest they turn to Iran for help in countering ISIS. At no time was there a better model of the American-Iraqi partnership than in 2015-17 when the US was a reliable behind the scenes partner while the Iraqi Security Forces carried out the most ardent fighting to neutralize ISIS.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, Iran has continued the escalation of hostilities that began in late December with the K-1 Air Base rocket attack was a rocket attack near Kirkuk. Already, on 11 March 2020, Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia with ties to Iran, launched 30 rockets into Camp Taji (north of Baghdad), killing 14 C-ISIS coalition members there – two Americans and one British.  We can expect Iran to continue to test red lines and draw attention to US presence in the Middle East while stopping short of provoking all-out war. Why? The strategy of maximum economic pressure has cornered and provoked Iran. Iran wants to point out the fact of, and stoke discussion of, the presence of US military in the region. Sanctions will exacerbate the Iranian public’s suffering during the coronavirus pandemic. Public anger in Iran mounts for the Iranian government’s gross mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak as well as recent instances of incompetence like the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on 8 January and initially lying about having done so. Such anger may lead to a change in Iran’s managing of domestic affairs, but it won’t alter its foreign policy.

Rogue actors thrive in chaos and leadership vacuum. One would’ve hoped the coronavirus crisis would prompt a winding down of the conflict in Yemen, as well as the Afghan Government and Taliban coming together for the good of Afghanis to find common ground in the peace process. Such optimism is likely unfounded. Politicians with the inclination will use the coronavirus and ensuing military budget tightening as an impetus for a more sustainable and streamlined US military presence in the Middle East.

The views presented in this publication are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.