Cipher Brief Expert Emile Nakhleh is a retired CIA Senior Intelligence Service Officer and founding director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program Office. Nakhleh is currently a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. Since retiring from the government in 2006, he has consulted on national security issues, particularly Islamic radicalization, terrorism and the Arab states of the Middle East.
OPINION — The coronavirus has struck Middle Eastern countries in different ways, relatively moderate in some and more severe in others. According to the April 19 Johns Hopkins University (JHU) report, confirmed cases have ranged from 80,000 in Iran and Turkey with related deaths of 5,000 and nearly 2,000 — the highest in the region — to supposedly one case and zero deaths in Yemen.
In the Arabian Peninsula countries, JHU reports that Saudi Arabia has the highest number of positive cases and deaths in the region with over 8,000 cases, followed by the United Arab Emirates with 6,300, Qatar with 5,000, Bahrain and Kuwait with nearly 1,800 each, and Oman with nearly 1,200 cases.
In the Levant, Israel leads the pack with nearly 13,000 cases followed by Iraq with over 1,500 cases. Lebanon has nearly 700 followed by Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza with over 400 each, and Syria with 38 cases. Egypt leads in North Africa with over 2,800 cases followed by Morocco and Algeria with over 2,500 each, and Tunisia with nearly 900 cases.
These numbers, excluding Iran and Turkey, are relatively low, but many analysts believe they are undercounted because of a lack of widespread testing, monitoring, and reporting. Also, many regimes are hesitant to reveal the extent of the pandemic in their societies and have hidden the inadequacy of their health systems.
COVID-19 has laid bare the fissures in Middle East societies. Regimes have exploited the onslaught of the pandemic to favor the affluent and ignore the marginalized segments of society, which have been hit very hard by the pandemic.
Because of their ethnic, sectarian, and geographic marginalization, these groups have been deprived of adequate healthcare, unemployment benefits, testing, and social services. Hunger, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity have become rampant among these diverse groups, which does not bode well for the long-term stability of some of these countries.
The coronavirus is causing a deep schism between governments and their societies, from Iraq to Lebanon. As the socio-economic inequities come to the fore, terrorist groups — for example, al-Qaida, the Islamic State, and their regional affiliates — have begun to reorganize and carry out operations in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Like this pandemic, terrorism is not stymied by state boundaries.
Regional states have reacted differently to the pandemic. Israel, for example, has ended its political deadlock by announcing the formation of a national emergency government to include Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival, Benny Gantz. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have tightened the lockdown in Shia areas.
Enhancing Regime control through the pandemic
In the midst of COVID-19, many regional states and regimes have glossed over the fissures in their societies. As the coronavirus knows no geographic, ethnic, sectarian, and economic boundaries, however, it has struck the vulnerable, the poor, and of course the communities that cannot for economic, cultural, geographic, and religious reasons isolate or maintain social distance. Governments talk about leveling the curve, but it is unrealistic to accomplish this goal in crowded communities.
In most Middle East countries, health services for COVID-19 victims have been mostly provided to the ruling elites, the affluent and the politically connected sectors of society. Members of the Saudi ruling family, for example, are self-isolating at government expense in exclusive neighborhoods, opulent homes, hotels, and palaces. The wealthy minority of Turks, Iranians, Arabs, and Israelis can afford to stay at home. The rest, who must go out to eke a living, are locked down in their neighborhoods under draconian measures without pay, medicine, or food. Many die without any testing, medical care, or even a hospital visit.
Middle Eastern autocratic leaders have exploited the coronavirus to deepen state authority and enhance regime control without accountability. Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey are examples of this phenomenon. Some regimes have used sophisticated technologies to track and surveil their citizens, ostensibly to trace the spread of the virus, but in reality, to track their citizens for so-called national security reasons.
Communities at risk
The communities at risk from COVID-19 are spread across the entire region. Akin to many minority and underprivileged communities in the United States, vulnerable Middle Eastern communities lack job security and health insurance and are rapidly running out of food. Like their American counterparts, people living in these communities will die from COVID-19 at far higher numbers than the rest of the population. If ventilators or Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are needed to intubate the infected, they invariably go to the affluent before these groups could reach a hospital or benefit from them. The communities include:
— Millions of camp refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Yemen, Libya, and Turkey.
— Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian village dwellers in Israel and in the highly densely populated Gaza Strip.
— Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers living in very crowded and unsanitary slums and poor neighborhoods throughout the Gulf Arab kingdoms where they constitute 25 to 50 percent of the total population in these states.
— Tightly net ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, especially in the Jerusalem suburbs of Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim.
— Millions of poor, destitute, homeless war victims in Syria and in the Saudi-run war in Yemen.
— Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians living in poor, unsanitary, overcrowded areas, especially near the so-called city of the dead and garbage areas that lack running water or sewers.
– Millions of ethnic and sectarian communities viewed as a threat to existing regimes, that usually occupy the lower end of the economic ladder, including the Shia in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere, the Kurds in Syria and Turkey, the stateless Bedouins in Kuwait, and the Bedouins in “unrecognized” towns and villages in southern Israel.
The path forward
It’s possible to identify two scenarios as the Middle East region goes through COVID-19: Stay the Course and Extended Chaos.
Under the Stay the Course scenario, regimes in the next three to five years are able to contain the fallout from the popular discontent at governmental unpreparedness for the disease, inadequate health systems, and the ever-widening gap between the powerful, wealthy minority and the poor majority. Communities at risk will remain so as these countries move forward, but regimes will be able to contain social unrest and street eruptions.
Sunni ruling minorities in the Gulf Arab states can manage their Shia populations and the hundreds of thousands of expatriate labor. Because of societal disparities, this situation, however, cannot endure beyond five years. Once citizens discover that regimes fail to reward their fealty with economic support, they will not hesitate to hit the streets.
The Extended Chaos scenario postulates that the gap between the haves and have-nots will grow much more rapidly, which regimes will be unable to keep under wraps. The poor will become angrier, more frustrated, and more courageous to confront their regimes and security services. They will direct their decades-long alienation and growing poverty against their governments.
The drop in global demand for oil from 100 million barrels per day to 75 million since the advent of COVID-16 has led to a dramatic collapse of oil prices. The Gulf Sheikdoms are forced to cut state subsidies in education, health, and welfare. Demands for regime change become the rallying cry. The vulgarity of the rich and the destitution of the poor will collide in the public square. Regimes can no longer depend on or trust their security services to quell popular protests.
Economic fragmentation and regime bankruptcy lead to civil unrest, which will shake the foundations of many of these political entities. COVID-19 will likely show that many of these states are no more than a house of cards. As the major powers that traditionally supported the Gulf countries begin to tackle their shaky economies in the post pandemic era, they are unable to provide meaningful assistance to wobbly Middle Eastern countries, thereby hastening their inevitable collapse.
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