The novel corona-virus is still spreading, no vaccine has been confirmed yet, and there is clearly a state of uncertainty about when the spread of the virus is going to subside. Such uncertainty has led some countries to take decisions for gradual opening of facilities, in order to prepare the country and citizens for co-living with COVID-19, since generally suspending life and business for longer than necessary could cause potentially uncontrollable economic ramifications, with potential political ones.
So, we can say that there is an international attitude to end the state of uncertainty by co-living with the virus and relying on the personal prevention measures and the governmental measures as well.
In light of the growing impact of COVID-19 on the world condition, putting many pressures on governmental sectors and individuals alike, and considering the fragility of the Middle East, there are many questions that have arisen since the pandemic started, regarding its ramifications on politics, security, terrorism, economy, and the structure of conflicts in the region.
Will COVID-19’s ramifications cause a protest outbreak in the Middle East?
It is unlikely that street protests or an uprising will outbreak in the countries of the region, for several reasons:
1- the states, that has been long working on revolutionizing the public and providing illegitimate support for the movement in the street, also suffer from an internal crisis caused by the coronavirus; thus, those states will need to focus more internally rather than externally.
2- there is a prevailing impression, held by a large segment of the public in many countries in the region, that their governments are managing the crisis fairly well, such as in Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. This impression is supported by the fact that the pandemic has not been spread in the countries of the region as in Europe and the United States. In Egypt, for instance, there is a prevailing sense inside the country that the government is doing positive things within its financial and organizational capacities, such as: giving subsidies to informal workers, and amending the progressive tax act to provide support for the classes with the least incomes, a decision that is driven by the economic conditions caused by COVID-19. In addition, the Egyptian government is completely interactive with the public, a thing that has not been happening before.
3- the outbreak of an infectious virus is not a good time for street movements, since fear of infection will make the public worried. In addition, the streets are currently under government control through the imposed curfews and deployments of police and military forces, a situation that is unsuitable for protests. For instance, COVID-19 outbreak has limited the protests in Lebanon, Algeria, and Iran. This is for reasons related to people being worried of infection and the curfew operations imposed due to the coronavirus.
It can be said that the coronavirus could be the revolution, not the other way around. Because the crisis resulting from the virus outbreak has revealed issues and weaknesses in different sectors of infrastructures and health facilities, significant levels of unemployment, a crisis of informal workforce with no insurance coverage or protection, and social inequality and low wages that compelled millions of people to go to work in a time of a pandemic. This will help bring such serious issues to the attention of many countries.
How will COVID-19 crisis impact the course of conflicts in the Middle East?
The paralysis caused by COVID-19 crisis will impact the international intermediation efforts in the region’s conflicts. The efforts of the UN and peace preservation forces will stumble, meaning we will see a low level of responsivity. For instance, the UN mission in Yemen needs to arrange for meetings between Yemeni and Saudi parties, a thing that has become completely difficult to achieve, disrupting any projects to manage or end the crisis. Relief projects and management of refugee affairs will also be disrupted.
The international parties will be busy handling their local crises, leaving a gap and a space that could be used by the conflicting parties inside Libya and Syria to deepen their control over their spheres of influence or to seize those of their opponents. Consequently, we could see more military escalations by internal parties to seize the opportunity to achieve more gains.
Chaos is a suitable environment for irregular wars, the kind of wars prevalent in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Thus, such situation is favorable for the active military parties in these countries. These parties will seek to get to the highest levels of achieving possible gains during such time. With the corona-virus crisis taking all the share of media and political focus in every country around the world, the ongoing conflicts in many countries in the region will fall completely in the blind spot, away from monitoring and observation, which is also favorable to the conflicting parties.
How will COVID-19 crisis impact the actions of terrorist organizations?
There are two scenarios in this regard, which must take the same level of attention and readiness.
Scenario 1: the terrorist organizations could try to benefit from the fact that armies and security services are busy managing the current crisis, and execute terrorist operations; considering that chaos is a favorable environment for terrorist organizations to make their attacks. For instance, the deployment of additional 250 British soldiers who were scheduled to join extremism fighting in the African coast region will be delayed to a later time this year due to this pandemic. Donald Trump could use this crisis to push towards achieving his hopes of withdrawing the remaining American forces in Syria and Iraq. In addition, in case the rate of infection increases in refugee camps, this could generate indignation and anger among the population, and usually, indignation and anger create suitable opportunity for a terrorist organization to recruit new fighters and attract angry persons to the organization.
Scenario 2: terrorist organizations may not increase the rate of their attacks, but they could use this current stasis as a “mobilization pause” for re-preparation, building muscles, and probing the damaged areas from the crisis, to be ready for launching attacks in a later time.
How will COVID-19 crisis impact regional security in the Middle East?
Defining security threats, the states in the Middle East has long focused on the danger of terrorism and military operations, with no regard to new or emerging security threats. However, the crisis created by COVID-19 will lead the states in the region to pay attention to the new factors that could result in security threats, such as: biological war, viruses, and climate change. A consequent reconsideration may follow regarding the allocation of the resources of the security services, in order to be ready for such a kind of threats and for containing it whenever possible. This could mean paying attention to the scientific and medical institutions, or at least developing the specialized facilities of the armed forces in the countries that still depend heavily on the support provided by the military sector in times of crisis.
China is keen to make use of the crisis by consolidating its relations currently with many states in the region. The United States, on the other hand, does not want China to achieve high levels of influence in the region. Thus, the Middle East could become an area for tugs between China and the United States, affecting the stability of its security.
No high-level threats to food security have been recorded in the countries of the region – the countries with no ongoing conflicts-, as these countries have a strategic stock sufficient for 4-6 months. In addition, the countries in North Africa will not be significantly impacted by the stoppage of the international supply chains, as these countries are not linked to them. Though generally unfavorable for the economy in normal times, not being linked to the supply chains in the current time could be useful for managing the crisis and accordingly controlling any potential disturbances.
In case the corona-virus is not contained, we could witness cases of decampment of refugees, where refugees will move from their current areas to other areas that can provide a reasonable level of safety so that they do not get infected. This will form a pressure to many countries in the region. An increase in escape attempts has been recorded on the Syrian-Lebanese borders towards the inside of Lebanon.
Iran will keep investing in the crisis, internally and externally, heavily promoting a message that Iran’s incapacity to fight the pandemic, with hundreds of victims left dead accordingly, is due to the American sanctions against Iran. This, of course, will be in favor of the extremist parties inside Iran, through confirming their view of the necessity to confront Arrogance. Externally, Iran will try to promote the same message to the United Nations to call for lifting the sanctions against Iran. Different countries in the Middle East think that lifting the sanctions against Iran will bring different security threats.
The outputs of the crisis could lead to focusing on the efforts of national states to confront threats, in light of the incapacity of the international and regional coalitions to make mutual coordination. For instance, the Arab League is completely absent from the scene. Despite this fact, the collapse of trust in the idea of “joint regional security” could bear long-term security threats. So, the states of the region still need to have a joint security formula, and it’s not their best interests to act as isolated islands.