The Gulf Cooperation Council states were somewhat hesitant before assessing the seriousness of COVID-19 and taking drastic measures to combat the pandemic and contain its progress. Fears of how an outbreak would affect their ruler-ruled equations prompted them to delay their responses to the challenge. However, as the pandemic proved to be very lethal and swept the whole world, GCC leaderships were quick to implement some of the strictest isolation and containment measures.
In mid-March 2020 more than 870 COVID-19 cases were recorded across the six member-states. Facing a mounting public health threat, the GCC states began closing their borders, canceling flights, and grounding their airlines. A policy of home confinement of the population was declared and various forms of curfew were implemented in the GCC states. On March 4, Saudi Arabia suspended the umrah (the minor pilgrimage to Mecca) due to the coronavirus, portending things to come.
Government operations ground to a halt throughout the GCC, and mosques were closed and collective prayers were banned. During the second week in March, the UAE and Saudi Arabia banned shisha (smoking tobacco through shared water pipe, also known as a narjilah or hookah) at cafés, bars, and restaurants. Shaking hands or kissing each other on the cheeks, a common greeting across the Arab Gulf, was quickly discouraged. The UAE and Qatar have also advised their citizens to stop the traditional “nose to nose” (al-khashm) greeting, with Abu Dhabi instructing residents that a wave would suffice. Deserted streets, mosques, and shopping malls have replaced the usually vibrant markets and cultural life. The coronavirus quickly turned life upside down in Arab Gulf societies.
Measures such as suspension of work permits for foreigners and repatriation of tourists to their countries of origin were put in place. “Coronaphobia” came to the fore in the shape of accusations against the “other,” namely expatriates and foreign laborers who number in the millions in the GCC states. For example, Kuwaiti actress Hayat al-Fahd has called for foreign workers to be “kicked out” of the country “…even if I have to throw them in the desert.” She added that the country [Kuwait] has been devastated by what she called “traders of residency IDs.”
There was a stark difference between the GCC states and other Arab states that were totally ill-prepared for a pandemic. The wealthy GCC states could afford massive acquisition of ventilators and testing kits. In that sense, they were among the few Middle Eastern countries that were equipped to respond effectively to the threat posed by the virus. Also, they announced measures to shield their economies, Qatar, for example, granted 75 billion riyals ($20.5 billion) in incentives for the private sector and more state investment in the local bourse.
However, the GCC member-states were also facing an economic shock. For some of them, the implications were staggering. Home to some of the busiest airports in the world, the Gulf hubs were hard-hit by the pandemic. The long-term effects for many international firms and companies, will be significant. Dubai’s Expo 2020 was supposed to attract three million visitors over six months, beginning in October 2020, and will now be postponed, a serious blow to the local economy.
At a time when increased government spending was badly needed to offset the negative impact of the virus, an unprecedented and dramatic decline in oil prices was triggered by a pricing war for market share between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The drastic fall in prices at the height of the pandemic will put additional pressure on the GCC states’ economies, pushing them to increase their deficits and borrowing, while depending on their cash reserves. It is still early to predict the impact that the pandemic will have on the GCC states, but it seems safe to assume that a recession in the Gulf is likely.
The Geopolitics of the Coronavirus
While the pandemic has exposed some of the structural constraints and the fragility of GCC states’ economies, it has not fundamentally changed the geopolitics of the region, instead it has reinforced the existing rivalries that have driven geopolitics in recent years. A more assertive and robust GCC foreign policy in the opening decades of the twenty-first century constituted a break with tradition and was meant respond to a rapidly changing regional environment. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, adversaries of Iran, closed ranks and took aggressive steps to counter what it perceived as expanding Iranian influence, while the UAE has consistently challenged the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in both the Gulf and the broader region. Qatar, on the other hand, has played an important role in financing Hamas-run Gaza. The GCC states were pointing their fingers at Iran for spreading the virus in the Arab world and the Kingdom of Bahrain went as far as to accuse Iran of “biological aggression” over the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the pandemic seems to have resulted in a dramatic reduction of violence throughout Yemen. The five-year civil war, a scene of a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has left millions at the brink of misery, famine and death. A widespread pandemic in such a war-torn country could be catastrophic. Against this background, a ceasefire declared by the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen went into effect in mid-April 2020. The ceasefire brings a much needed respite for the 24 million Yemenis who were exhausted and in desperate need of humanitarian aid. However, it is hard to say whether the coronavirus will reshape the foreign policies of GCC states, pushing them toward a more inward looking approach and reducing the attempts to project power that they have engaged in over the last several years.
The ways in which the GCC states have managed the coronavirus crisis has been revealing. While they have been able to manage the pandemic with some success, it is too early to say whether they will emerge from the crisis in a stronger position. It seems reasonable to suspect that any signs of failure, will deepen existing socio-political divisions and raise the stakes in what is a delicate politics of survival for many of the ruling families in the GCC.
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.