The region is obviously changing. Before the pandemic, there was a series of very deep crises across the Middle East. One of them is the massive number of refugees and internally displaced people due to the ongoing wars in countries like Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq. The region is now the site of the largest forced displacement since World War II. Many of the displaced people live in rudimentary camps or in crowded urban spaces, putting people at a much higher risk of infection with the virus. There is also the widespread prevalence of malnutrition and other diseases (such as the resurgence of cholera in Yemen) – again, these are closely linked to the wars and conflicts that preceded the pandemic.
In 2019, we witnessed a new wave of popular struggles in many countries of the Middle East, especially in Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco and Iraq. These were countries that had moved somewhat away from the uprisings of ten years ago, and there were many reasons to be optimistic about these new mobilizations. They have attracted broad sections of society, including the poor and workers in the informal sector. They effectively resisted attempts at marginalization, and there was a strong anti-sectarian character in these movements – particularly prominent in Iraq and Lebanon.
These movements also clearly articulated politics and economic spheres are interdependent – in Lebanon, for example, banks have been identified as a major target of protest, moving beyond the well-rehearsed issues of nepotism and political corruption. The 2019 wave of protests also had significant recognition from regional hierarchies – with slogans hurled against the machinations of neighboring powers, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Iran.
Now, the pandemic has obviously temporarily delayed these movements and restricted the ability of people to take to the streets to protest. But none of the key issues that motivated these protests in the first place have gone away. In fact, I think it’s pretty clear that the issues of poverty, inequality and corruption – all of which have fueled the legitimacy crisis facing established ruling classes in the region – will be highlighted both in the aftermath of the pandemic and the global economic downturn that is now upon us.
In the Gulf, of course, the big problem is the massive collapse in the price of oil that has occurred over the past two months. Like all oil producers, this will weigh heavily on the fiscal capacity of the Gulf. There will undoubtedly be cuts in social spending – some of which have already been announced – and a withdrawal from some of the larger projects associated with the Gulf “vision” strategies announced in recent years.
But I think it would be wrong to read this crisis as necessarily marking a permanent reversal of some of the trends I noted above. Unlike other states in the region, Gulf governments have relatively low existing debt levels, access to accumulated reserves, and can borrow relatively cheaply in international markets. Although the global oil market has been severely affected by the pandemic, GCC oil companies could actually strengthen their position if assets from neighboring countries become available cheaply in a post-viral world.
And, as is so often the case in the Gulf, migrant workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic and the economic downturn. Saudi Arabia, for example, has started deporting Ethiopian migrants and, according to one internal UN memo, is expected to deport 200,000 in total. There was also a great peak in racist rhetoric against migrant workers across the Gulf, as well as new laws which allow private sector companies to permanently reduce the wages of non-citizens or force them to take unpaid leave.