The region stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Maghreb is vital to both French and European interests. Home to the world’s largest hydrocarbon reserves, it has been affected by multiple crises for several decades. Its stability is essential to the balance of the globalized world, both economically and in terms of security. What will be the impact of the Covid-19 crisis in this region? How are different countries dealing with the situation? What will be the political and social consequences for each of them? Who will be benefiting in the Arab world, and how will the power play between the United States, China and Russia be affected?
A common backdrop
It is not only religion, language or cultural factors that give a certain unity to this otherwise obviously diverse region. It is also a political culture marked by authoritarianism, albeit to varying degrees and according to different national traditions. In most of the states in focus here, Covid-19 has triggered some typical reactions: an initial denial of reality, a politicisation of the crisis used to counter opponents, tighter social control and even conspiracy theories. Yet the region is familiar with this type of virus, especially the Gulf countries which were hit by MERS-CoV only a few years ago.
We are thus witnessing the usual exploitation of crises by religiously extremist circles: for some the virus was transmitted by Shiite communities, for others the disease is the result of an "imperialist" or Sunni virus. The unreliability of figures is a consequence of authoritarian practices, further reinforced by the lawlessness of areas such as Syria, Yemen and Libya. It is also important to factor in the deceptive methods of these authoritarian governments, for whom success will be measured by the most effective dissimulation of the human cost of the pandemic, rather than the ability to curb it.
Moreover, though alongside oil monarchies, a number of these countries are in a difficult economic situation, making the shock of the health crisis particularly severe. Such is the case for Jordan, Lebanon (who shortly before the crisis announced the suspension of its public debt repayment), Tunisia and Egypt. These countries are dealing with public debt levels of more than 80% of the GDP (97% in Jordan), more than 50% of the population working in the informal economy, unemployment rates of over 20%, and with no tourism revenues in sight (over 10% of the GDP).
In order to make an initial assessment of the impact of the coronavirus on the Arab-Muslim world, it is necessary to take into account the geographical diversity, as well as the economic and political divides of the region.
Oil monarchies at the forefront, Iran in trouble, Assad (perhaps) strengthened
Let us examine a first set of countries which are linked geographically and politically. Vulnerable to the projections of the confrontation between Iran on the one hand, and the US and Gulf monarchies on the other, the situation in Iraq and Syria is inevitably tied to the "Gulf-Iran axis".
Iran was the initial source of the pandemic in the region and appears to be the country most affected by the crisis so far: China is building a high-speed railway line in Qom, the city which soon became the epicenter of the epidemic and where Chinese students study religion. The delay in the decision to halt flights from China can be explained by the economic importance of this country in Iran.