Covid Hasn’t Crushed the Middle East . . . Yet

This commentary was originally published in Arab Digest on November 17.

The Middle East is being hit hard by Covid-19 but, up to now, its regimes have not been. Governmental responses to the virus have varied, from draconian to technocratic to laissez-faire, and none sparked a major backlash. Case numbers are now rising sharply, and once again, there is no significant backlash.

Much is unknown about the virus, yet what is becoming clear is that caseloads’ rise and fall seems not to drive political unrest, regardless of either mortality or economic impact. As the Middle East undergoes a punishing second wave of infections, though, that premise will be tested.

Jordan was an exemplar of effective controls in the spring, as the government shut much of the economy and put strict controls on movement. After initial infection rates of 20-30 cases per day, the country dropped into the single digits from April through early August. Since then, however, new cases have exploded, now approaching 6,000 per day and rising. The Jordanian economy weathered the spring shock relatively well, with billions of dollars in loans from international financial institutions. Jordan’s fate in this second wave is harder to discern. The government has not implemented draconian protocols, and the economy has not shut. Yet, some of Jordan’s major sources of hard currency—tourism and remittances—are under strain, and low oil prices and shifting political sands make the Gulf Cooperation Council states less eager to provide Jordan with assistance. The ability and willingness of international financial institutions to continue their strong support for Jordan is in question, as is the course of the disease. Jordan hosts most than half a million Syrian refugees, drawing some international support but straining utilities and infrastructure while it distorts the labor and housing markets. It is early to declare that Jordan is facing a perfect storm, but such a storm may be on the horizon.

Lebanon is unquestionably in such a storm. The country fared better on the virus than most expected in the spring, but infections grew sharply in August and have shot up to more than 1,500 cases per day. The country is facing a fiscal crisis and a currency crisis, unemployment has exploded, and much food has become unaffordable. Political wrangling has kept the country without a permanent prime minister for more than a year, and foreign governments and international financial institutions are holding back until Lebanon can show some signs of responsible governance. Gulf states are holding back until Iranian influence in the country is curbed. Meanwhile, corruption remains rampant, as it often has in the country. Perhaps 20 percent of the population is comprised of Syrian refugees, who in some respects provide a low-cost labor force but who are also a draw on resources and infrastructure. The UN estimates that 55 percent of Lebanese are now in poverty, double the number a year ago. All of the indicators are bad, and the case numbers are rising.

One might project that Lebanon will muddle through, as it often has. Yet, Lebanon’s political dysfunction seems destined to block the sort of assistance that would be necessary to pull the economy out of its downward spiral. Perhaps the strain will be enough to tear apart the country’s political system, which originated as a way to protect sectarian communities and has morphed into a racket that rewards oligarchs and warlords. There are few signs of that happening yet. Instead, the rising immiseration of the Lebanese has prompted those oligarchs and warlords to gather more resources to themselves and embed them still further in their ethno-sectarian communities.

Elsewhere in the region, Iran has been among the hardest hit, with 762,000 reported cases and more than 41,000 deaths. The real numbers are thought to be much larger. Early on, the Iranian government appeared to be in denial about the disease. In February, the deputy minister of health was diagnosed with the disease, and the next month a vice president and two ministers were infected. Numbers continue to run high, the government response is uneven, and the economy is in shambles. Iranian politics continue to rumble on, neither soothed nor exacerbated by the virus’ toll.

Israel seemed to fare well in the spring, but numbers rose over the summer and soared in the fall. Significant parts of the ultra-Orthodox community bitterly resisted restrictions on large gatherings, especially coming around the Jewish High Holidays. Nevertheless, harsh restrictions on movement and gathering arrested the rise, and Israel’s case load has dropped to fewer than 1,000 per day after peaking at more than 9,000 per day. The virus is thought to have energized opposition to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, especially among his right-wing allies, but once again, it is hard to differentiate the signal from the noise. Israeli politics are always noisy, and Netanyahu remains in control.

The Gulf states, though they are experiencing a spike in numbers of daily cases, can thank well-funded health systems and populations accepting of authoritarian governance for a degree of pandemic control and disease management that leaves political structures secure. In Yemen, reported numbers are low but that may well be due to war chaos. Actual numbers are likely to be much higher than those reported.

Tunisia, which, like Jordan, had managed the first wave well, has experienced a big spike that is further straining the country’s already stressed health system and fragile economy. On the other hand, Egypt has seen a levelling off of the virus and would appear to have the situation in hand.

We know that Covid-19 is debilitating, both to many of those infected as well as to societies that must contort to avoid a massive spread of the disease. And yet, like other countries around the world, thus far the virus has not infected the politics of the Middle East in a durable way.

As we look at Jordan and Lebanon, however, as well as vulnerable countries such as Iraq where daily cases are surging, the picture may change. Covid-19 is driving a whole set of economic challenges, from the fall in oil prices to the decimation of tourism, that is throwing economies into turmoil. And on top of that, public health systems in many of the region’s countries, which strain in the best of times, are being completely overwhelmed. Anecdotally, we hear that a fear of ostracization has inhibited citizens from being tested or isolating themselves, and that has driven the disease still further. The economic costs seem destined to rise.

Middle Eastern states were able to manage the first wave of Covid-19 infections to varying degrees of effectiveness. But the first wave may have damaged them enough that the second wave will prove much more challenging. The prospect of a vaccine holds hope for the spring and summer, but the Middle East will need to struggle through a difficult winter before it will see much relief.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program