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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems.
Pandemic affect middle east crises?

25th April 2020

Starting the conversation…

Philipp HirschResearch Assistant at the Centre for Geopolitics

Corona is changing everything. A lot of new problems and questions will have to be addressed once the current crisis is somewhat under control, about the global economic model or international health policy. However, what about problems that were there before and are not simply going away through Corona?

For years, the Centre on Geopolitics has engaged with the set of crisis and conflicts in the Middle East through its Westphalia project. These crises, it seems from the outside, are all on hold – no more reporting about protests in Iran or Haftar’s march on Tripoli. Anyone remember Trump’s peace plan, barely two months old?

The wars in Syria, Libya or Yemen are not just disappearing because of our current health crisis

Of course, this description is neither entirely accurate now, nor will it be in the future. The wars in Syria, Libya or Yemen are not just disappearing because of our current health crisis, and in a few months are likely to be back on the international political agenda. But how are they impacted by the Corona-crisis?

On the one hand, some are warning that another humanitarian crisis will soon unfold in the Middle East, when Corona spreads in the many war-torn and exhausted societies there.

On the other hand, the Corona crisis could also represent chances for the region. With the oil price in shatters and their focus on dealing with a pandemic, Saudi Arabia and Iran might no longer be able or willing to continue their aggressive foreign policies. And the calls for a relive of US sanctions on Iran could trigger a détente between the West and Teheran. Maybe outside sponsors will have to decrease their weapons and money supplies to their respective proxies in Syria or Libya.

Corona will change the Middle East, too, but how will it impact its existing crisis-complex? Will the pandemic throw the region into more turmoil, or are there silver linings for Day One after the virus has been contained?


Erica Gaston, Non-resident fellow at GPPI and New America Foundation & PhD student at the University of Cambridge

Staring down the prospect of thousands of deaths (conservatively), tanking oil revenues and economies, and further shortfalls in governance, some have been inclined to look for potential silver linings in the Corona virus’ effects on conflict prospects in the Middle East. Will these larger challenges cool Saudi-Iranian, or US-Iranian tensions, among other national or geopolitical standoffs? Will the need to confront a common challenge create opportunities for peace and rapprochement among warring parties?

Sadly such silver linings look unlikely so far. The range of regime actors, substate parties, and armed groups competing for authority across many Middle Eastern states have responded in the same way they always responded to crises – taking advantage at the expense of long-term peace or citizen well-being. Armed groups in Yemen and Libya seized the moment to press for more territory and control. In Iraq, the government has used the pretext of health restrictions to double down on the 6-month-old protest movement. And while a significant virus outbreak among fighters might necessitate an immediate cessation in hostilities in some countries, the conflict might just tick back up when the Corona numbers recede.

The Corona crisis does seem likely to reshape key powers’ calculations on external intervention, which might now prove too costly. Saudi Arabia announced a two-week ceasefire in its five-year war in Yemen due to the Coronavirus. The US accelerated withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, while France and Canada pulled its forces (trainers) out altogether. Such trends, including some of these envisioned troop withdrawals, were already in play before this crisis, but may now give way to a more fundamental shift. The appetite for Western military intervention in the Middle East just got even lower.

However, while the volume of regional and international meddling has overall rendered the Middle East more “combustible” – and thus a decrease would appear welcome – there are also costs to international retreat.  Regional powers like Iran are unlikely to abandon regional intervention overnight. Moreover, a dominant trend in proxy warfare has been for non-state and substate actors to take over as proxy patrons, adding complexity to existing conflicts and generating local-to-regional pathways for renewed conflict. A Middle East left only to its stew in its own economic and health crises, with greater opportunities and incentives for substate and armed group infighting, is likely to be even more combustible than the present.  

Joost Hiltermann, MENA Director at the International Crisis Group

It is too early to predict how precisely the COVID-19 crisis will affect Middle Eastern countries, apart from Iran. Most governments, as well as armed non-state actors controlling territory, have taken the types of preventive measures that Iran, struck first, failed to take. Easier to predict is that, after perhaps a brief period during which everyone adjusts, popular criticism of authorities’ inadequate responses to the healthcare crisis and subsequent economic implosion will rise, adding to long-standing critiques of unresponsive, non-transparent, unaccountable and thoroughly corrupt government, which triggered the 2011 and 2019 popular uprisings. In other words, the pandemic can only accelerate the region’s principal conflict driver: deeply deficient governance and the breakdown of the social contract between states and citizens.

What about other conflict drivers and fault lines? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Iran’s regional power projection through local armed non-state actors? Various intra-Sunni conflicts between jihadists, Islamists and non-Islamists? External military interventions? Three observations.

One, while we have seen some humanitarian gestures, such as Emirati aid shipments to Iran, this has not translated into a relaxation of regional tensions, nor is it likely to. The UAE made clear it will not pursue improved relations with Iran as long as Tehran supports the likes of Hizbollah, the Huthis and paramilitary groups in Iraq.

Two, the U.S. remains a key player, at least as powerful spoiler. Witness the Trump plan for Israel-Palestine, “maximum pressure” on Iran, and a fickle approach to the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Syria. This means that the November presidential elections outcome, whatever it may be, will have a major impact on how regional players position themselves for the next few years.

And three, the region’s strongest actors will seek to exploit the global leadership vacuum to pursue their own opportunistic and predatory agendas, further weakening states and fragmenting the political landscape.

A plague never comes alone.

Malik Dahlan, Principal, Institution Quraysh for Law & Policy

Recently, political scientists from Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics argued that “solidarity” effects due to Covid-19 might create “linked fate” arguments that would help tackle the crises. But rather, the pandemic seems to sharpen long-standing tensions in the Middle East.

It offered an ideal opportunity for Netanyahu to test the limits of Islamic and Arab support for the Trump Plan. The Israeli government is on the verge of the dramatic step of annexing 30% of the West Bank. The Arab states’ hope was for a leader in Israel to emerge who sees the shift in the regional situation and the benefits to leading the Palestinians to a “reasonable” agreement. But now, a mix of Corona, low oil-crisis and Israeli action might even cause a second wave of the Arab Spring, threatening stable regional allies of the West such as Jordan. It seems ludicrous from an Israeli perspective to risk a strategic asset such as Jordan just to ensure the political survival of a certain government or prime minister. But to Netanyahu, annexation is his legacy: his appeal to his maximalist base of settlers and the destruction of his left-wing opposition. Netanyahu will want to succeed President Rivlin in July 2021, ensuring immunity for seven more years.

From an economic angle, Arab solidarity will be challenged and most likely not meet its test. It is almost impossible to see bailout support from struggling rentier Gulf allies. A decrease in oil demand means it will take 10 years to achieve sustained pre-crisis prices.

From a religious angle, Muslim societies around the world have experienced a combination of apocalyptic trauma and profound grief with the images of the empty Grand Mosque in Mecca for the first time in history and learn of the possibility of Hajj being cancelled. What is left of their faith? In the current state of crisis, maximalist tendencies to defend ones faith through their symbols rise: Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina need to be protected. One might optimistically argue that the pandemic is creating pathways to solidarity within the Abrahamic tradition, and a need to return to confessional solidarity of a “linked fate”. But this is hardly imaginable with a pre-fascist American President.

It is hard to believe that the new world after COVID-19 could be defined by the same conflict in the region. Then again, a Jordanian public figure reminded me of Gramsci’s words: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.”

Your view…

Filippo Dionigi, University of Bristol

I do not think this crisis will bring structural changes to the region because all actors have been affected by it. What it can do, however, is to exacerbate the pre-extant dynamics of crisis. It is this “crises-multiplier” effect that could subsequently lead to structural changes to the region.
Much attention is given to the consequences of the pandemics on conflicts, but what about the situation of those millions of Syrians, Yemenis, Afghanis, Palestinians -to mention some examples- who have been forced to leave their homes because of war, destruction, and economic devastation?

They too are experiencing the severity of this emergency. Already vulnerable in a region in which they do not enjoy adequate legal status and protection, refugees from Syria and other conflicts see their rights and freedoms curbed even further under the pandemics. Host-states governments and local municipal authorities have implemented tough measures to contain the spread of the disease, thus restraining the already limited mobility of displaced populations. But mobility is a fundamental resource for all, and for forcibly displaced populations is vital in order to access the already scarce economic resources that sustain themselves and their families. Millions of refugees find work in informal temporary activities of labour-intensive sectors, such as seasonal work, construction, and services; thus confinement to their homes, camps, or settlements prevents them from accessing vital sources income. We already see reports indicating that most refugees in countries such as Lebanon struggle to meet basic needs or even experience hunger. When restrictions will be lifted, the economic downturn that will follow will affect the poorest sectors of Middle Eastern societies, and forcibly displaced populations, with high debt and a structural lack of access to work and economic resources, will be among them. A COVID19 crises-multiplier effect, in this case, will multiply poverty and inequality.

Who will have the willingness, resources, and capacity to respond to this?