The Covid-19 pandemic has swept through the Middle East and North Africa, a region already struggling with the effects of a decade of uprisings, failed or difficult political transitions, state collapses, civil war and international conflict. Some countries in the MENA region have reacted pre-emptively and more efficiently, and have been able to flatten the infection curve. Countries in the Gulf have implemented a range of measures to limit the spread of the virus, including quarantine and lockdowns, travel bans and restrictions, the closure of schools, the cancellation of public events and the closure of public places, as well as a shutdown of economic activities.
Gulf countries have announced economic stimulus packages totalling $97 billion. Qatar’s QAR75 billion ($20.5bn or about 13 per cent of GDP) package to reduce the effects of Covid-19 aims at shoring up small businesses and hard-hit sectors such as hospitality, tourism, retail, commercial complexes and logistics. It includes six-month exemptions on utilities (water and electricity) payments.
Meanwhile, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Jordan suspended international flights, partially demobilised the workforce, closed mosques, used military and police forces to impose mandatory quarantine, closed schools and businesses, banned public gatherings, introduced curfews, closed businesses and placed restrictions on the movement of people within each country. Other countries such as Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Palestine have little or no healthcare capability to respond to the deadly contagion once cases are identified.
The Gulf countries stand out as the most actively involved in humanitarian aid during this global health crisis. Humanitarian diplomacy is not uncommon, nor is it new for the Gulf. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on providing immediate relief such as food distribution, medical aid and the construction of refugee camps and shelters. For example, substantial aid has been sent to China, Iran, Palestine, Italy, Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Nepal and Rwanda. Since mid-February, Qatar Airways has carried over 70,000 tonnes of medical equipment and aid. Over the past several weeks, the airline has helped repatriate over 45,000 people to France, 70,000 to Germany and over 100,000 to Britain.
Covid-19 has underscored the importance of global governance and multilateralism. It is a global crisis that has demonstrated further that the need for coordinated international approaches, cooperation, multilateralism and global solidarity exposes the fallacy of go-it-alone isolationism. The esteemed historian Yuval Noah observed astutely, “The storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world.”
It is clear that the MENA region will not be the same after this pandemic. Unfortunately, though, the crisis has brought into sharp focus the inadequacy of regional cooperation to address the coronavirus. The Arab countries thus face an important choice between national parochialism and regional solidarity.
If they choose parochialism, this will exacerbate disunity, trust deficit, governance failures and conflicts, and deepen economic gaps within and between countries. Furthermore, given the global nature of the economy and supply chains, if each government does its own thing with complete disregard for everyone else, the result will be chaos and a deepening crisis.
If, however, the Arab countries choose solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but also against all of the negative issues besetting the region. Arab countries are urged to intensify cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat the pandemic. What form the post-pandemic region takes is dependent upon the choices that they make.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.