The COVID-19 disease has spread throughout the Gulf states and while the highly contagious virus that causes the disease has exposed how unprepared many nations are, it has also inflamed pre-existing social tensions. Prejudiced tensions ranged from anti-Iran and anti-immigrant rhetoric all the way to regional rivals spewing conspiracy theories.
Kuwaiti Shia Muslims traveling to Qom – an Iranian city home to a religious site – were exposed to the coronavirus disease—COVID-19. When they returned, Kuwait shortly imposed a ban on flights between the two countries and mandated quarantining arriving travelers. However, two problems faced the travelers: the virus itself and a domino effect of prejudice.
The language of religious intolerance aside, Shia Muslims often have their spiritual identities conflated with political support of Iran—an enemy to many states in the region.
The language of religious intolerance aside, Shia Muslims often have their spiritual identities conflated with political support of Iran—an enemy to many states in the region. When some of the returning travelers refused to be quarantined, disapproval quickly took shape into questioning their nationalistic loyalty.
“I’ve informed our brothers in the Ministry of Interior,” Mohammed Barak Al-Mutair, a Kuwaiti member of parliament, wrote in a tweet. “Any person coming from Iran or Iraq and refuses medical protocol in airports or other means of entry must be considered an agent of Iran. And it is a duty to contain them and report them to the appropriate authorities.”
Critics of Iran justify questioning Kuwait’s Shia population’s dual loyalty with the Iranian-backed Abdali terror cell—a Kuwaiti pro-Hezbollah miniature militia busted by authorities in 2015 with a large weaponry cache. Additionally, given Al-Mutair’s parliamentary presence, his animosity towards Iran is rooted in politics.
Abdul-Hameed Dashti, a former member of parliament and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s brother-in-law, was a staunch opponent of Al-Mutair’s conservative party. Dashti, who is both Shia Muslim and ethnically a Persian-Arab, was sentenced in absentia – given his current life in exile – to 46 years in prison for defaming local and neighboring monarchs.
Dashti’s opposition to the war in Yemen and human rights abuses toward Shia minorities solidified his pro-Iran image in Kuwaiti politics—all of which is used as fodder against the near 1.3 million Kuwaitis who are Shia.
“With most of the Middle East contracting the virus via Iran, the anti-Iran camp has condemned Iran’s irresponsibility and poor services (ignoring the impact of U.S. sanctions), with some even suggesting that the virus is a Shia phenomenon aimed at infecting the Sunni-majority Middle East,” Bader Al-Saif, a professor of history at Kuwait University, wrote for the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“With most of the Middle East contracting the virus via Iran, the anti-Iran camp has condemned Iran… with some even suggesting that the virus is a Shia phenomenon aimed at infecting the Sunni-majority Middle East.”
The “rogue citizen” implications laid out by Al-Mutair transpired and were picked up by Kuwaiti digital news outlet Derwaza’s editor-in-chief, Salah Al-Elaj.
“We’ve seen nothing but evil from Iran. May God shake them 24/7 nonstop with a 87.8 Richter earthquake and after, may it rain gas on them followed by a lightning strike that rids us from Iran,” Al-Elaj wrote in a tweet to almost 90,000 followers.
Responses were overwhelmingly against his calls for Iran’s ruin with people calling him “childish,” and one user wrote Al-Elaj “is inflicted with the virus of racism.”
Picking up on this anti-Iranian sentiment were other prominent figures. Saudi political analyst and author Turki Al-Hamad went as far as spewing conspiracy theories against Iran.
“Just a question: will Iran’s mullahs use the corona epidemic as a weapon against neighboring countries, especially Saudi Arabia?” Al-Hamad wrote in a tweet.
When it came to conspiracy theories, Emirati political researcher Noura Al-Moteari surpassed coronavirus conspiracies. She used it as a direct attack against another Saudi regional rival: Qatar.
“I believe the makeup and dispersal of the coronavirus is distinctly Qatari,” Al-Moteari wrote in a tweet to an audience of almost 220,000. “Doha paid billions in producing this scary virus in China with aims at disrupting 2020 given this year marks the initiation of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Dubai’s 2020 Expo, the fall of the Ottoman empire, the achievement of the Riyadh deal and peace returning to the Middle East.”
Al-Moteari then justified her tweet as “satirical writing” aimed at “connecting the effects of coronavirus on Gulf projects” all the while exposing “Qatar’s ugly conspiracies.”
Ironically, on March 15, Al-Moteari, who is also a columnist for the U.A.E.’s Al-Bayan newspaper, wrote a column titled “The Merchants of Catastrophes.” The article aimed to explain how the coronavirus was used as a political weapon between nations as the U.S. and China accuse each other of being the virus’ originator.
Al-Moteari, remaining oblivious to her own punditry, concluded her column entry stating how history will mark these moments and how these nations will be remembered as ones which “exploited [the coronavirus] to spread fear among humanity.”
Another way of “fear spreading among humanity” is the anti-immigrant anger hidden behind the mask of coronavirus containment. In Kuwait, where the expatriate force makes up 70 percent of the country, Egyptians faced most of that anti-immigrant backlash.
As the possible threat for a contagion increased, so did the anti-immigrant portion of Kuwaiti public opinion.
In the early days of March, a few days after Kuwait’s week-long National and Liberation Day holidays, an estimate of 10,000 Egyptian workers returned to the Gulf state with many rumored to be COVID-19 carriers. As the possible threat for a contagion increased, so did the anti-immigrant portion of Kuwaiti public opinion.
While some expressed disappointment at Jazeera airlines’ mismanagement, owned by Kuwait’s Boodai Group, and the state’s poorly regulated immigration policies, people concerned over workers’ welfare fell on deaf ears.
Kuwait’s coronavirus containment efforts rallied Egyptian workers en masse to medical centers away from suburban and commercial areas. The medical centers, like the treatment provided to migrant workers, are suboptimal at best. Populist anti-immigrant parliament members, like Safa’a Al-Hashem, were quick to take advantage of the situation, calling for immediate deportations.
In Saudi Arabia, immigrant mistreatment empowered by the coronavirus was also present. Saudi Aramco, the world’s most profitable company, went viral with a picture of a Southeast Asian worker dressed as hand sanitizer, reducing the man to a commodity for others to ward off the virus.
At least 140 countries now have cases of the coronavirus and xenophobic reactions will cause only further disruption to nations’ well-being.
Athbi Al-Mutairi, a Kuwaiti programmer and prominent public figure, found this mistreatment particularly ironic.
“They’re afraid of getting [the] coronavirus from an Egyptian but have no problems contracting it from another nationality,” he wrote in a Tweet to over 31,000 followers. “Even the racism is exceptional here.”