A look at the blame-gaming and likely consequences of Covid-19 in the Middle East .
The criminal incompetence of western leaders in failing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic has led to a situation where we do not hear much about the disastrous effects of the virus in the rest of the world – and in particular in the poorer, more vulnerable south. However, the victims of coronavirus are dying in their thousands and the measures taken so far by many ‘third world’ countries have failed to address the severity of the situation – in terms of both human lives and the economic and political consequences.
More than three decades of global neoliberal capitalism, imposed as one of the conditions for receiving International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans, have devastated the social infrastructure of these countries. There is no proper healthcare and, to make matters worse, subsidies have been removed. There is huge job insecurity – high rates of unemployment existed long before the pandemic, as a result of the ‘structural adjustment’ dictated by said international organisations. And, of course, all this has got far worse in the last few months.
The situation will deteriorate further, as the number of fatalities increases. Most of these states will be left with the stark choice of saving lives or saving the economy. The figures regarding deaths and numbers infected by coronavirus put out by various Middle East governments are not reliable – no-one at all believes them. Egypt, with its densely populated cities, has reported 135 deaths and 1,794 infected patients, yet Saudi Arabia, with a much smaller population, admits to 3,651 confirmed cases and 47 deaths. According to some news agencies, including Al Jazeera, some 150 members of the Saudi royal family have been infected, forcing “King Salman and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to retreat into isolation to avoid the outbreak”.1 The health minister warned last week that the number of Covid-19 cases in the country could reach 200,000 in the coming weeks.
The declared figures of Iran’s Islamic Republic are 74,877 confirmed cases and 4,683 deaths, as of April 14. Of course, given the record of this regime, it is difficult to believe the government’s claims that the rate of infection peaked on March 30 and the number has since fallen. Iranian leaders have followed the UK and US pattern of first denying there was any cause for concern, then claiming ‘herd immunity’ would do the trick. President Hassan Rouhani actually quoted UK government comments on this, but then a ‘voluntary lockdown’ was announced – ignored by the majority of the population, who decided that if it was a choice between hunger and disease, they would risk the disease. Finally, the government imposed a compulsory lockdown over the Iranian new year holiday in late March. But even this was lifted on April 11 – against the advice of the government’s own medical experts.
Since then Iran has moved into a new phase labelled ‘smart social distancing’. Of course, there is nothing ‘smart’ about this new policy, for the country’s economic survival – and therefore the regime’s political survival – are deemed more important than human lives. Iranians are still posed with the choice: ignore the lockdown and risk illness or to stay at home and die of hunger.
Throughout all this ayatollah Ali Khamenei has seemingly been attempting to win an award for the most stupid comment made by any leader on the subject – in his case defeating even Donald Trump. In late February, Iran’s supreme leader claimed that the threat of the virus was part of a ploy by the United States and other western powers to use a deadly outbreak to sabotage Iran’s parliamentary elections. In early March he said the virus was not a big deal, then on the occasion of the Persian New Year (March 23) he seemed to imply the virus was connected to invisible, supernatural creatures with unbelievably destructive powers: “We have jinn2 and human enemies that help each other. The intelligence services of many countries work together against us”. Iranians have not failed to see similarities between Khamenei’s comments on the virus and those of his arch-enemy, Donald Trump.
Of course, far from ‘jinn’, it is his own regime’s neoliberal ‘structural adjustment policies’, combined with corruption and nepotism, that have created the current disastrous economic conditions, where hunger and deprivation are killing as many people as coronavirus.
But, as I say, no-one believes any of it, including the official figures. After all, this is the country where we still do not know how many people died in the protests of November 2019 or the mourning processions after general Qasem Soleimani was assassinated by a US drone in January. The government shows complete disdain for the lives of its own supporters – never mind the majority who make up the rest of the population.
Hard-line Islamists have tried to breach the lockdown with visits to shrines and some to make family visits. Although travel between cities was officially banned over the new year holiday starting on March 20, photos posted on social media clearly demonstrate that many Iranians were not adhering to social distancing rules. Travelling on overcrowded public transport – just like living in an overcrowded apartment – has taken its toll.
The story is similar in many other densely populated Middle Eastern countries. Egypt is, according to the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in the third stage of the outbreak (this is the period when the source of the infection is untraceable and therefore difficult to control). The government is advising a lockdown, yet, according to Al Monitor,
… many people still wander around in the streets without caring about the virus, preoccupied with more important matters. These people are the most affected by the crisis, but they do not have the luxury of staying at home. They are irregular workers – a segment of society that amounts to 12 million to 14 million people, according to figures given by the secretary general of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, Mohamed Wahballah.3
Images on social media show social distancing is non-existent in Cairo, while in Giza the market is packed – as in Iran most people are more concerned about their livelihood.
And in Egypt – also just like Iran – government advice is not believed. Many think that the lockdown is part of a plot by the state to deprive them of their meagre income. But the regime is not imposing penalties or arresting anyone breaking the lockdown rules – they are keeping such repressive measures for later, when job losses, deaths and mass hunger will likely prompt mass protests.
The national TV claims that “Egypt is protected by god. No harm can befall us” – a message echoed by religious leaders. A preacher, speaking via social media, told his congregation: “Muslims shouldn’t fear coronavirus. They perform ablution five times a day, which makes it impossible for them to get infected.”
Across the Middle East, national TV stations are as bad as social media, when it comes to conspiracy theories. In Egypt one pro-Sisi presenter blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the spread of the virus. However, the most common conspiracy theory is that corona was manufactured in a laboratory to weaken China as an economic rival to US. No-one seems to point out to the proponents of such nonsense that if it was US plot how can we explain its disastrous effects on western economies – in particular the United States.4
It is clear that there is no coordinated international effort to deal with the pandemic. The hegemon power is not concerned about the rest of the world. This is quite an unusual situation, in that, following previous major catastrophes (two world wars, the 2008 financial crisis …), there was a level of international coordination led by the United States. To add insult to injury, Trump has imposed a funding freeze on the World Health Organisation. However, the US is not alone in prioritising national self-interest, in the expectation that this period will be followed by unprecedented rivalry between the two major economic powers, the United States itself and China.
There is no sign of such coordination even within Europe. If Italy has to look to China for support, how likely is it that ‘third world’ countries will get any help from international organisations? Many are avoiding loans from the World Bank, because they know they will be paying high interest on them for at least the next decade. It is not as though these organisations are in the habit of cancelling such debts.
On the contrary, the US administration is not only putting ‘America first’, but is now involved in high-sea piracy, when it comes to stealing protective masks – a sign of a truly barbaric era. There is no sign that the US will now relax its economic sanctions against Iran, which is unlikely to get a favourable answer to its request for loans – Trump, Israel and even the Iranian rightwing opposition are all dead set against any financial relief for the country.
According to Toby Matthiesen, writing in the magazine Foreign Affairs, the coronavirus is “exacerbating sectarian tensions in the Middle East”.5 In fact Iran’s Islamic Republic is blamed by most Arab countries for actually spreading the Covid-19 infection. It was, of course, the first country in the region to suffer large numbers of infected people as early as January. Chinese students who were studying in the religious city of Ghom, as well as Chinese workers, were claimed to be the source of infection and then most Arab countries reported their first cases amongst citizens returning from visits to Iran. It is also true that, despite the large number of deaths caused by the virus, Iran was late in taking measures against its spread. However, several Persian Gulf countries depend on their airlines for substantial income, with major airports like Doha and Dubai acting as international hubs. No doubt they have played a significant part in the spread of the virus. Yet, as Matthiesen points out, the Islamic republic’s Arab neighbours were quick to blame Shia Iran:
General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa accused Iran of “biological aggression that is criminalised by international law” for covering up the outbreak and failing to stamp Bahraini travellers’ passports. On its official Twitter account, Saudi Arabia’s ministry of foreign affairs condemned Iran for “creating a health threat which endangers mankind”. And a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates claimed that all coronavirus cases in the region were linked to Iran – even though the UAE’s first Covid-19 cases were Chinese tourists from Wuhan (and the cases which were the first to be reported in the Middle East were confirmed on January 29 – weeks before the outbreak in Qom became public).6
Inevitably the spread of the coronavirus, coinciding with a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, has led to a dramatic drop in the price of crude oil, which is now at its lowest level for 17 years. The Persian Gulf states have shut down large sections of their economies. According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia has suspended most domestic and international transport and closed most shops except for supermarkets and pharmacies. The United Arab Emirates has urged residents to stay at home and is halting passenger air travel, except for emergency evacuation flights. Kuwait has closed down schools until August and in early April the government announced its intention to repatriate about 17,000 Egyptian teachers, who had been working in the country’s education system. There are around 800,000 Egyptian workers in Kuwait out of a total number of immigrant workers of 3.5 million. In Dubai the national airline, Emirates, one of country’s largest employers, has cut most of its flights and is asking its workers to take early holidays and unpaid leave. The crisis in these countries has direct consequences for many countries in the region, as income from migrant workers plays an important part in the economies of countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan.
According to the International Labour Organisation, there will be
a rise in global unemployment of between 5.3 million (the ‘low’ scenario) and 24.7 million (the ‘high’ scenario) from a base level of 188 million in 2019. The middle’ scenario suggests an increase of 13 million (7.4 million in high-income countries). Though these estimates remain highly uncertain, all figures indicate a substantial rise in global unemployment.7
It is estimated that at least 20 million Americans, plus equivalent numbers of Europeans, working in the travel, hospitality and retail sectors are likely to lose their jobs. In such circumstances they are likely to make immigration and political asylum much more difficult to achieve than before. Fortress Europe’s previous restrictions on migration from ‘third world’ countries might soon be regarded as the good old days.
According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa will go into recession in 2020, contracting by between 2.1% and 5.1%, compared to a growth of 2.4% last year. The disruption to trade will cost sub-Saharan Africa somewhere between $37 billion and $79 billion. According to Ken Rogoff, former chief economist at the IMF, we should “expect commodity-price collapse and a collapse in global trade unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1930s.”8
In most ‘third world’ countries economic collapse will lead to huge tension and lead to increased authoritarianism. Dictatorial regimes will use the pandemic to suppress opposition and maintain power. Far from releasing prisoners – a justifiable global demand – they will incarcerate ever larger numbers of political opponents. In such circumstances, leftwing activists in Europe and North America should prioritise solidarity with workers and the poor in the south. Otherwise the current global divide will become far worse.
- Supernatural creatures in Islamic theology.↩︎
- See youtube.com/watch?v=pTSu9hGyWzE&feature.↩︎