Joseph Bahout | Nonresident fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
In parallel to the upward curve of infections from the new coronavirus, we should pay attention closely to the downward curve in oil prices. They have slid to unprecedented levels—in real terms to prices close to those before the pre-1973 oil shock. The regional effects of this could be devastating.
Under such conditions, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a plan to end the kingdom’s dependency on oil, is most probably going to be shelved, if not terminated. Saudi Arabia will see a huge budget deficit in six months and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dreams will be shattered, followed by harsh adjustments. The prince will have to resort to more authoritarian practices to maintain his control. However, his inability to distribute revenues from the kingdom’s oil rents to absorb discontent means the risks of upheaval will increase.
The slump in the oil market will also have a major impact on the political economy of the Middle East. With labor markets in the Gulf closed off, the expulsion of millions of workers from Egypt, Sudan, and the Levant could trigger social problems in all these places, which are already facing major challenges.
Authoritarian systems will also tend to grow closer to each other and narrow their differences. The most recent example of this is the United Arab Emirates’ rapprochement with President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. As the United States faces an inescapable recession, Russia is impoverished by its oil dependency, and China will likely buy more cheap oil from Iran, global powers will be less able to arbitrate or impose dynamics in the Middle East, giving middle-sized regional powers more leeway to act as they please.
Nathan J. Brown | Nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
The new coronavirus has been the source of enormous unpredictability. How will it affect those whose politics have been all too predictable—Egyptians governed by a deeply entrenched authoritarian system or Palestinians suffering from occupation and division? Their problems are likely to worsen.
The one threat to such authoritarianism over the past decade—mass protests—is likely to be off the table for a while. When such behavior reemerges, it may confront security apparatuses that have upgraded their ability to monitor and patrol societies. However, upgraded monitoring is unlikely to spill over into more effective governance. The challenges that the pandemic imposes on governance are already proving enormous for well-established political systems, liberal democracies, and prosperous societies. The authoritarian systems of the Middle East are likely to perform less well. Atomized and alienated politics will be the likely result.
However, there is one mild countervailing trend. Regimes that reflexively reacted to the virus by denying its potential impact paid heavily, and some have evolved (admittedly after tragic delay) by discovering more honest approaches treating the pandemic as a threat to public health and not just regime security. This may be a useful lesson, but it is one few regimes seem well poised to employ in other areas.
Zaha Hassan | Visiting fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program.
As the new coronavirus spreads into communities, how the authorities in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories cooperate—or don’t—in the face of the pandemic will be critical to watch. The crisis is also likely to impact U.S. and Israeli efforts to force a political solution on the Palestinians.
At the first appearance of the coronavirus in the occupied territories on March 5, cooperation was good between Israeli and Palestinian officials. They formed a joint committee and Israel shared some of its test kits with Palestinians and released a fraction of the clearance revenues that Israel had been withholding from Palestinian coffers to help the Palestinian Authority (PA) make necessary procurements to combat the virus. More recently, however, Israel has forced its sick Palestinian laborers back into the occupied territories without coordinating with the PA, destroyed a makeshift field clinic for Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley, continued demolishing Palestinian homes and infrastructure as Palestinians are trying to obey orders to shelter in place and maintain hygiene. It has also lagged on ensuring that Palestinians inside the green line—citizens of Israel—have access to testing on par with their Jewish neighbors, maintained the Gaza blockade, and taken measures that may impede Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from accessing hospitals.
Amid these worrying developments, Israel has been moving full steam ahead with measures to consolidate its control over those parts of the West Bank it seeks to annex as part of the so-called Trump peace plan. The pandemic could provide a convenient fog to fast-track permanent Palestinian land confiscations and displacement. As the Palestinians’ self-imposed lockdown sends the occupied territories into economic collapse, there may not be a Palestinian authority left to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic, or to pursue a durable peace with Israel.
H. A. Hellyer | Nonresident scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Program
It’s hard to see the new coronavirus pandemic not having a tremendous effect on all issues pertaining to the wider Arab world region, both while the crisis continues as well as thereafter. What the pandemic is likely to do is show the durability and staying power of regimes and authorities in some countries of the region, and the absence of this in others. It will bring to light the gaps in state systems, particularly when it comes to health provision.
One thing it has also brought out is how the debates in Muslim religious circles worldwide have raised many interesting points with regard to the way politics affects religion. Many religious scholars encouraged people to avoid going to mosques on public health grounds. Some were keen to be seen as pro-government (where those governments hadn’t called for mosques to be closed). Others wanted to be seen as “more Catholic than the Pope,” even while the most prominent authorities, such as Al-Azhar in Egypt, were clear about the need to engage in social distancing and the appropriateness of suspending congregational prayers in mosques.
Finally, the impact of demographics has been a factor in determining the sustainability of many Arab regimes. The coronavirus only brings this more sharply into focus in terms of the health sector’s ability to cope. It seems that the virus is disproportionately risky to the elderly. In contrast, while the young are not immune, statistically the disease affects them less. Generally speaking, the Middle East is much younger than Europe, which may partially explain the different impacts of the coronavirus thus far, even if it is still too early to tell.
Aaron David Miller | Senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Perhaps nowhere in the world has the novel coronavirus had a more immediate or consequential political impact than in Israel. After a close aide tested positive, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has self-quarantined. But more than that, with more than 4,300, coronavirus cases and sixteen deaths, this cruel and merciless virus may well be on the way to achieving what three elections in barely a year could not: the formation of a functioning government and, at least in name, a unity government at that.
The deal is not yet done. Part of the reason driving its prospects is surely the lack of other viable options. No one wants a fourth election, and amid the current pandemic one could not be held for months in any event, if then. Neither Likud nor Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party had enough support to pass the 61-seat threshold. And the other option, a Gantz-led minority government with the Arab parties supporting from the outside, was deemed to be too risky, too unpopular, and too unstable for the risk-averse and long-opposed Gantz to embrace.
So with the coronavirus very much on his mind, bad options all around, and Israelis now under an almost complete lockdown and hungering for unity to defeat it, Gantz rearranged the deck chairs on what many Israeli pundits believe to be some political version of the Titanic. He blew up his own party and agreed to take a rump faction of seventeen members into negotiations with Netanyahu to try to form a rotational unity government. Netanyahu will serve first as prime minister for 18 months, while Gantz will receive the portfolios of defense, justice, and foreign affairs, before himself becoming prime minister 18 months later.
It may well be that the coronavirus and bad options combined to produce the best outcome for Israel to deal with the pandemic. But without a doubt the other winner is Netanyahu, who will lead Israel for a veritable eternity, fight his indictments from a position of strength, and if the pandemic worsens, be able to share the blame with Gantz. Moreover, with Gantz having split his party and now down to only seventeen seats, compared to Likud’s 37-plus and right-wing supporters, and having betrayed his allies, few believe he will have the leverage to make the rotation deal stick and will never see the inside of the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street.
Marc Pierini | Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where he focuses on the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective
Two groups of Syrian citizens might be impacted by the new coronavirus in different ways: Syrians who fled the conflict in their country and now live in Turkey and internally displaced persons, or IDPs, in Syria’s Idlib Governorate.
The vast majority of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey live in apartments in large cities. They generally have access to sanitation and to Turkey’s public health system, and are eligible for international assistance in cash. Therefore, as long as the health system can cope with the pandemic, they should be safe. European Union assistance to this group should be continued, a decision which has been made more difficult by the recent actions of the Turkish government in inciting refugees, mostly non-Syrians, to try entering Europe through the border with Greece.
The situation is vastly more complicated for Syrian IDPs in Idlib Governorate bordering Turkey. They live in substandard tent camps, not always equipped with safe sanitation systems and efficient medical facilities. They represent a high-risk group in the current pandemic. If the ongoing efforts to provide cross-border assistance from Turkey to this group through United Nations organizations and international nongovernmental organizations are successfully expanded, a priority should be given to measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Maha Yahya | Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut
For Lebanon, the coronavirus pandemic comes on the heels of deep and multiple shocks that were already driving the country on a downward spiral. As a result of the financial crisis, the economy is in deep recession and government revenues have collapsed to such an extent that the state is unable to provide even the most basic services, including support for the 1.6 million Lebanese now estimated to be below the poverty line. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s private sector is strapped for cash due to informal capital controls imposed by an illiquid and possibly insolvent banking sector.
The pandemic also brings with it a desperate need for spending on the health sector and social safety nets. This includes providing basic unemployment support to a rapidly expanding pool of unemployed as a result of pandemic containment policies and for daily workers unable to afford isolation at home. These needs can be measured in the tens of billions of dollars. Social solidarity and civil society support, remarkable thus far, cannot cope with the magnitude of such a challenge.
With Lebanon facing significant governance shortcomings and political divisions, several trends are likely to continue. First, despite all health warnings, the number of people back on the street is likely to increase as they face the choice of dying of Covid-19 or of hunger.
Second, municipalities will play an increasingly significant role as the first line of defense against the pandemic, as they did in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis after 2011. Empowered municipalities are likely to impact the future governance of the country.
Third, political parties will increasingly use the pandemic to stage a comeback. All have announced plans for combatting the virus, including the establishment of quarantine areas, the deployment of medical staff and sanitization crews, and the provision of food assistance to needy constituents. Absent the political leadership’s willingness to place the interests of the country above the leaders’ own, Lebanon seems headed toward greater political fragmentation and challenges in the months to come.