.
T

he COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to destabilization in already fragile Middle East and North African (MENA) states, leaving many on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The pandemic is amplifying regional economic underdevelopment that is laying bare societal and governmental weaknesses. These weaknesses are personified in a severe lack of case reporting that is reflective of weak public health systems. Given these issues, geopolitical interests, stemming from inherent nationalism and isolationism, have facilitated an inability to tie international cooperation between wealthier states and international organizations, which is needed to support a coordinated response designed to stabilize national unrest and civil conflict.

Poor governance, weak institutions, and limited service provision contribute to the region’s fragility. This includes decades of patronage and wasteful spending in Lebanon that has left it poorly prepared to address the needs of its people during a pandemic and a public health system in Yemen that is all but destroyed due to its own prolonged conflict. In Iran and other states in the region, active government attempts to suppress COVID-19 reporting appear designed to mitigate dissent against weak institutional preparedness and governance.

Reporting in the region is limited, largely due to capacity, access, and political willfulness. According to John’s Hopkins University, there are approximately 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the MENA region as of July 21. This includes significantly high case levels in Iran (2757,827), Saudi Arabia (255,835), Turkey (220,572), Qatar (107,430), and Iraq (97,159). Even with severe underreporting, the region hosts more cases on average than other parts of the world.

Of particular importance is underreporting in conflict zones and weaker states. For example, Yemen, Syria, and Libya have a combined total of just 4,000 confirmed cases. Lebanon, a country without an actual active conflict but weak public health institutions, has only reported approximately 3,000 cases.

The impact of COVID-19 is negatively skewed towards these weaker states. One of the more drastic examples is Lebanon, where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is predicting GDP to drop by 12 percent in 2020. A lockdown to temper the spread of the disease is partly to blame and has negatively impacted the nation’s poorest and small businesses the hardest. Over half the population now lives in poverty in Lebanon, while government services continue to falter as the currency crisis inflates. This is increasing the size and frequency of anti-government protests and is raising warranted concerns regarding a collapse into sectarian violence.

Conversely, aid flows into the region are either decreasing or being disrupted by COVID-19 as confirmed cases rise—particularly in the case of Yemen. Widely considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, roughly 24.1 million people (80 percent of the population) in Yemen require humanitarian assistance. This number continues to increase, coinciding with a severe decrease in aid. For example, the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently reported that just 40 percent of its call for $479 million has been met. Critical Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) programs that keep people healthy are being shut down, alongside World Food Programme (WFP) projects in places like Hodeida that feed millions.

Remittance flows into the region, largely from regional neighbors or wealthier nations in Europe and North America, continue to decrease. The flow of funds into the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen, and Jordan not only directly support poor families but constituted over 10 percent of GDP for these countries in 2019. The World Bank has reported a drastic decrease in this critical social safety net globally due to COVID-19, particularly because of economic shutdown and hardship worldwide.

While the economic situation in many of these states is dire, there are immediate solutions that can mitigate the effects of COVID-19. This includes increased international engagement, particularly from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). A coordinated international response starts with this body, as it has the legally binding ability to address challenges. The body has been particularly deadlocked as of late on regional issues, with minimal engagement on Yemen and its recent failure to garner consensus on two cross-border aid flow points between Turkey and Syria.

Wealthier nations, particularly the United States and other major foreign donors, will need to increase their foreign aid totals in order to prevent deteriorating conditions in MENA states. Two approaches towards aid should be instituted in tandem: immediate humanitarian aid and longer-term aid that supports public health systems and good governance. Active conflict zones such as Yemen, alongside nations with high levels of unrest such as Lebanon, require immediate aid to address basic resource shortages, medical supply inadequacies, and limited governmental social support spending.

Long-term aid, on the other hand, will need to be focused on bolstering public health systems in a region notorious for limited resources and infrastructure in this sector. This also includes addressing debt relief needs for poorer countries. The Paris Club and the World Bank must work to address their lackluster performance in debt forgiveness, especially with IMF predictions of a regional fiscal deficit spike from 2 percent to 10 percent for 2020.

Nationalism and isolationism that drive geopolitical interests appear to limit the likelihood of such responses today. Aid totals are decreasing because states are struggling to address the pandemic at home but have also been politicized. This includes the U.S. distrust of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi Movement in Yemen, which have led to drastic cuts in aid out of fear of malign intentions.

A global pandemic requires a global response that can only be achieved with cooperation and coordination between rich and poor countries. With World Bank reports of a sustained global recession on the horizon, MENA states will undoubtedly suffer more than most if certain disparities are not addressed.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander J. Langlois graduated American University’s School of International Service with an MA in International Affairs. He currently researches for the U.S.-Sudan Initiative on Sudanese peace and security. He also operates an independent blog and conducts research and analysis on MENA.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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COVID-19 is Destabilizing a Fragile MENA

July 29, 2020

T

he COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to destabilization in already fragile Middle East and North African (MENA) states, leaving many on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The pandemic is amplifying regional economic underdevelopment that is laying bare societal and governmental weaknesses. These weaknesses are personified in a severe lack of case reporting that is reflective of weak public health systems. Given these issues, geopolitical interests, stemming from inherent nationalism and isolationism, have facilitated an inability to tie international cooperation between wealthier states and international organizations, which is needed to support a coordinated response designed to stabilize national unrest and civil conflict.

Poor governance, weak institutions, and limited service provision contribute to the region’s fragility. This includes decades of patronage and wasteful spending in Lebanon that has left it poorly prepared to address the needs of its people during a pandemic and a public health system in Yemen that is all but destroyed due to its own prolonged conflict. In Iran and other states in the region, active government attempts to suppress COVID-19 reporting appear designed to mitigate dissent against weak institutional preparedness and governance.

Reporting in the region is limited, largely due to capacity, access, and political willfulness. According to John’s Hopkins University, there are approximately 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the MENA region as of July 21. This includes significantly high case levels in Iran (2757,827), Saudi Arabia (255,835), Turkey (220,572), Qatar (107,430), and Iraq (97,159). Even with severe underreporting, the region hosts more cases on average than other parts of the world.

Of particular importance is underreporting in conflict zones and weaker states. For example, Yemen, Syria, and Libya have a combined total of just 4,000 confirmed cases. Lebanon, a country without an actual active conflict but weak public health institutions, has only reported approximately 3,000 cases.

The impact of COVID-19 is negatively skewed towards these weaker states. One of the more drastic examples is Lebanon, where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is predicting GDP to drop by 12 percent in 2020. A lockdown to temper the spread of the disease is partly to blame and has negatively impacted the nation’s poorest and small businesses the hardest. Over half the population now lives in poverty in Lebanon, while government services continue to falter as the currency crisis inflates. This is increasing the size and frequency of anti-government protests and is raising warranted concerns regarding a collapse into sectarian violence.

Conversely, aid flows into the region are either decreasing or being disrupted by COVID-19 as confirmed cases rise—particularly in the case of Yemen. Widely considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, roughly 24.1 million people (80 percent of the population) in Yemen require humanitarian assistance. This number continues to increase, coinciding with a severe decrease in aid. For example, the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently reported that just 40 percent of its call for $479 million has been met. Critical Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) programs that keep people healthy are being shut down, alongside World Food Programme (WFP) projects in places like Hodeida that feed millions.

Remittance flows into the region, largely from regional neighbors or wealthier nations in Europe and North America, continue to decrease. The flow of funds into the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen, and Jordan not only directly support poor families but constituted over 10 percent of GDP for these countries in 2019. The World Bank has reported a drastic decrease in this critical social safety net globally due to COVID-19, particularly because of economic shutdown and hardship worldwide.

While the economic situation in many of these states is dire, there are immediate solutions that can mitigate the effects of COVID-19. This includes increased international engagement, particularly from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). A coordinated international response starts with this body, as it has the legally binding ability to address challenges. The body has been particularly deadlocked as of late on regional issues, with minimal engagement on Yemen and its recent failure to garner consensus on two cross-border aid flow points between Turkey and Syria.

Wealthier nations, particularly the United States and other major foreign donors, will need to increase their foreign aid totals in order to prevent deteriorating conditions in MENA states. Two approaches towards aid should be instituted in tandem: immediate humanitarian aid and longer-term aid that supports public health systems and good governance. Active conflict zones such as Yemen, alongside nations with high levels of unrest such as Lebanon, require immediate aid to address basic resource shortages, medical supply inadequacies, and limited governmental social support spending.

Long-term aid, on the other hand, will need to be focused on bolstering public health systems in a region notorious for limited resources and infrastructure in this sector. This also includes addressing debt relief needs for poorer countries. The Paris Club and the World Bank must work to address their lackluster performance in debt forgiveness, especially with IMF predictions of a regional fiscal deficit spike from 2 percent to 10 percent for 2020.

Nationalism and isolationism that drive geopolitical interests appear to limit the likelihood of such responses today. Aid totals are decreasing because states are struggling to address the pandemic at home but have also been politicized. This includes the U.S. distrust of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi Movement in Yemen, which have led to drastic cuts in aid out of fear of malign intentions.

A global pandemic requires a global response that can only be achieved with cooperation and coordination between rich and poor countries. With World Bank reports of a sustained global recession on the horizon, MENA states will undoubtedly suffer more than most if certain disparities are not addressed.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander J. Langlois graduated American University’s School of International Service with an MA in International Affairs. He currently researches for the U.S.-Sudan Initiative on Sudanese peace and security. He also operates an independent blog and conducts research and analysis on MENA.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.