The Coronavirus Crisis in the Middle East: Between Fragility and Resilience

Introduction of "The Coronavirus in the Middle East", a collection of essays published by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in collaboration with the Moshe Dayan Center. Written by Brandon Friedman.

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This collection of essays focuses on how states and societies absorbed the coronavirus shock as the first wave spread through the Middle East, from February through April 2020.

It offers a critical examination of how several dif­ferent Middle East countries have coped with the crisis to date. Doha-based intellectual Azmi Bisha­ra, in a wide ranging series of essays written in re­sponse to the pandemic, pointed out that in times of crisis people look to the state to as the only organized framework “capable of taking com­prehensive and enforceable action.” Moreover, “everyone expects the state to act” and it is “the state that will be blamed for acting or not acting.” It is these fundamental state-society dynamics that we take up in this publication. Rami G. Khou­ri, a veteran Middle East journalist and commen­tator, writing in late March, viewed the capacity of Arab governments with a great deal of skepticism, judging it “unlikely they can respond effectively to the new menaces that are upon us…” In the long run perhaps Khouri’s pessimism may prove well-founded, but the analysis presented in this volume presents a more complex picture of the region’s immediate successes and shortcomings in its response to the crisis.

This publication, similar to several earlier studies that have attempted to address how the crisis spread through the region, is not intended to be comprehensive or definitive, but rather represen­tative and preliminary. Each of these essays draw on some combination of official government data, traditional local and international media, as well as social media, to provide a provisional picture of the interplay between state and society in the initial response to the crisis. Due to the global na­ture of the pandemic countries “varying in size, demography, socio-economic structures and pol­itics” are all addressing the “same challenge at the same time.” In publishing these essays together, under one cover, we have provided a comparative snapshot that begins to identify what is both com­mon and unique about how states and societies have reacted to the outbreak in the Middle East.

Thus far, many of the governments in the region have not proven to be “uncaring or incompetent.” Joshua Krasna’s essay on Jordan describes how the state mobilized quickly in response to the crisis, allowing the Hashemite Kingdom to successfully contain the virus. Uzi Rabi also describes effective mobilization in the GCC states, but at the same time identified public expressions of xenophobia between Gulf citizens and their large migrant la­bor populations. Michael Milshtein’s essay on the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and Arik Rudnitzky’s essay on Arab Society in Israel both point out surprising levels of coordination and across the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, identifying an often overlooked capacity for cooperation that exists despite the persistent atmosphere of ten­sion and conflict. This aspect of the crisis also un­derscores the fact that states are relying on each other to win the fight against the coronavirus.

Iran was slow to respond to the crisis and Liora Hendelman-Baavur’s essay traces the evolution of the Islamic Republic’s mobilization, identifying how its reaction has been consistent with a his­toric pattern of crisis-response. Joel D. Parker and Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak’s essays, on Lebanon and Turkey respectively, discuss how the pandem­ic erupted against the background of a growing economic crisis. Further, Parker and Yanarocak, respectively, show how the Hizballah-backed gov­ernment in Lebanon and the Justice and Devel­opment Party (AKP) government in Turkey have both attempted to exploit the crisis to shore-up their domestic political support, while the full ex­tent of the damage remains to be seen. Similar­ly, the full extent of the crisis has been hard to gauge in Egypt. Michael Barak’s essay outlines the Sisi government’s late start in its effort to curb the crisis and control the media narrative. Final­ly, Adam Hoffman’s essay on the Sunni jihadists in the region examines divergent approaches to navigating the crisis among the leading jihadi or­ganizations.

While the coronavirus crisis has led to econom­ic paralysis and public lockdowns in many parts of the region, war continued unabated in other parts. In Libya, Turkey’s intervention appears to have dealt Haftar’s Tripoli offensive a serious set­back. In Syria, Israel stepped-up the pace of its campaign against Iranian-backed forces there. At the same time that Russia was waging a public in­formation campaign against the Asad regime, its decade long partner in the Syrian war, the Asad regime was shaking down its most high-profile business tycoon, Rami Makhlouf. And, in Yemen, a separatist movement in the south is emerging within the framework of a five-year long civil war, expanding the scope and complexity of the war. All of these important developments are beyond the scope of this publication, but perhaps a future project will allow us to consider the intersection between the coronavirus and regional geopoli­tics. In the meantime, we hope these essays will provide a starting point for evaluating how state and society are coping with the coronavirus pan­demic across the Middle East.

This article is part of The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis.

For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.