Just when it seemed things could not get worse in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), COVID-19 made an entry onto the global stage. The MENA region has been going through one existential crisis after another. Waves of revolutions since the onset of the Arab Spring; the emergence of new conflicts as direct and indirect results of revolutions and protraction of the existing ones; near collapse of some regimes and their revival in one form or another; as well as conflicts based on language, identity, and political beliefs have brought most of the region to the edge of collapse.
At the beginning of 2020, things appeared very bleak—the greater MENA region, including Turkey and Iran, were almost on the brink of war.
At the beginning of 2020, things appeared very bleak—the greater MENA region, including Turkey and Iran, were almost on the brink of war. The US strikes that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani were a reminder of just how fragile the security situation had become. If a war had erupted, it would not have been just regional, but almost certainly global. The ramifications would have been irreversible—directly impacting Europe, and other parts of Asia and Africa.
Arguably the global impact of the Syrian conflict is here to stay; the refugee crisis that ensued will continue to affect European politics indefinitely. Not only has it given way to xenophobia and nationalism across Europe – according to different surveys one in four Europeans is now a nationalist, but it has divided Europe from within. Brexit is just the frontline story symbolizing the entire European Union (EU), which finds itself in serious trouble.
Other conflicts in MENA such as the Libyan crisis have created further rifts within Western Europe, such as the French-Italian rivalry and discords.
There is no regional governance in the Middle East and North Africa, and global governance and its agencies have an abysmal record in almost every conflict in those countries.
There is no regional governance in the Middle East and North Africa, and global governance and its agencies such as the United Nations (UN) have an abysmal record in almost every conflict in those countries. Each of these factors emphasize the existing fragility of the region amid the outbreak of COVID-19.
None of the ongoing conflicts are going to decrease or simply go away in the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the nature of the local governance (or lack of it) and the incapability of global governance in the MENA region, dictates that the COVID-19 outbreak will only make these conflicts and related issues much worse.
The following are possible impacts of the pandemic:
Despite the total failure of global initiatives led by the international community in any of the key regional conflicts – such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya, there are and have been numerous non-governmental or semi-governmental initiatives on multiple levels. Those initiatives have created instrumental “tracks” in providing space for intra and inter-party dialogue in some of the most conflicted areas. Most of these “tracks” are either sponsored or run by European organizations in tandem with regional ones.
Europe is currently the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, most of the European effort, and all of its mechanisms, will focus on protecting EU citizens.
Europe is currently the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, most of the European effort, and all of its mechanisms, will focus on protecting EU citizens and handling socio-economic crises that will remain for the foreseeable future.
This leaves a void in all of the key conflict theaters, where the lack of dialogue, and most importantly the capacity and willingness to hold dialogue, will be replaced by further military escalation. We can expect each side to use this “opportunity to strive for a military win out of a crisis” to the maximum.
Increased Humanitarian Crisis
Unchecked military escalation will deepen the already unbearable humanitarian crises plaguing each conflict. The other worrying factor is the conditions of refugee camps in Europe and MENA, where most of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are housed. In places such as Idlib, Tripoli, Sana, and Hodeida, people are already under siege or in near siege situations due to the ongoing hostilities. There have been numerous warnings issued by medical professionals that a COVID-19 outbreak in any of those areas will be catastrophic; particularly because those living under such conditions are at higher risk due to their already lowered immune systems and other underlying health issues.
Further Lack of Governance and Increased Non-governed Spaces
One of the key slogans of the Arab revolution was “break the system.” In most countries, the “system” does not work and has not been working. States do not provide healthcare, education, and welfare to most of their citizens. There is no such thing as a social contract, which is essential to bind citizens to the state.
Across the MENA region, non-governed spaces (where the state does not have direct control and non-state actors fill in the gap instead) have been rapidly increasing. When the state falters on protecting its citizens from the COVID-19 pandemic or is unable to provide healthcare to its most vulnerable citizens, that will further destroy any sense of belonging to the state.
When the state falters on protecting its citizens from the COVID-19 pandemic or is unable to provide healthcare, that will further destroy any sense of belonging to the state.
People will certainly revert to their relatives, extended families, and tribes for support. Non-state actors thrive under such situations as they can fill in the governance gap. In response, the state will attempt to securitize the issue. Steps such as further surveillance and limitation on human rights will be applied in the name of containing COVID-19. The more regional governments try to securitize the COVID-19 response, the more non-governed spaces will emerge. Increased non-governed spaces will result in creating further conflicts between non-states and states actors.
The COVID-19 pandemic will further deepen the socio-economic gap in the MENA region and the middle and lower classes will be the most affected. The inability of most governments to inject huge economic rescue packages to individuals, local businesses, and key economic sectors will mean that entire populations will suffer.
Since most MENA states rely hugely on the global economy, its impending meltdown will mean a double-dip recession.
Most conflicts in the region have been the result of this widening socio-economic gap. The Arab Spring is a key testimony to that effect. While the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold, local economies will take another major hit. And since most MENA states rely hugely on the global economy, its impending meltdown will mean a double-dip recession. Another regional spring or revolution is therefore in the making.
COVID-19 will highlight the incompetence of most of the MENA states and monarchies. If history is any indicator, once the ineptitude and corruption of the ruling elites are exposed, it will be very difficult to put things back in order.