COVID-19 challenges and opportunities for the Gulf monarchies


Every crisis, including the one triggered by the expansion of COVID-19, represents an opportunity for those who have the media and information and know how to make decisions at the right time. Despite their dependence on oil and consequent vulnerability to the effects of a global economic recession, the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf appear to have been able to meet the challenges of the global pandemic, at least for the time being.  

While it is true that each of these kingdoms and emirates has its particularities, the six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Saudi Arabia - have a number of common characteristics that make them amenable to analysis as a whole: they are all hydrocarbon-exporting countries, something that makes them enjoy abundant capital in good times but makes them susceptible to the vagaries of the global economy. This wealth allows them to provide public services and generous subsidies to their local populations, a counterbalance to the general absence of political rights. 

Despite their small population and limited military power, the six monarchies have significant international clout thanks to their soft power strategies - from the religious influence of Saudi Arabia to the media power of Qatar - and their support for various factions in conflicts such as Syria or Libya. The six monarchies are aware of the danger of relying solely on oil and gas, which still account for more than two-thirds of their income, and in recent years have sought to diversify their economy to attract tourism and the financial sector. One example is the establishment of strong airlines and the construction of international ports and airports that serve as hubs for global traffic of people and goods. Finally, almost all these countries have a very significant percentage of immigrant population - over 80% in the Emirates.

What has been the impact of COVID-19 on this group of countries? Their proximity to Iran, one of the major centres of the epidemic, the importance of airports such as Dubai's - the fifth busiest airport in the world - and the precarious living conditions of migrant workers, not covered by public health, left them exposed to an outbreak. However, governments reacted quickly, implementing measures to prevent the spread of the disease that combine advanced technologies and the region's own authoritarianism - in Bahrain people in quarantine are permanently geo-located and in Dubai, where every person who wants to leave their home must fill out an online form, the video camera network is ready to identify offenders. Some of these measures would be untenable in Western democracies, but they have proved successful. The number of confirmed deaths from the disease in the six countries was just over 300 at the end of April. 

Although those in power have announced economic stimulus measures and launched messages extolling national unity and pride, COVID-19 has shown the limits of balance between different sectors of the population. Although at the beginning of the epidemic the authorities assured that the epidemic affected the whole society and that governments would test and treat all immigrants who suffered from it, later they started to force the repatriation of foreign workers. Similarly, some countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have discriminated against Shi'a citizens, either by forcing mandatory quarantines or by turning away from pilgrims trapped in Iran. While some of these measures are justified and have helped to control the spread of the epidemic, they have also contributed to increased sectarian tension. In addition, almost all countries have restricted freedom of expression under the pretext of fighting misinformation about the epidemic.

Although the pandemic has been largely unreported, the effects of the economic crisis represent a greater threat. In addition to the reduced risks posed by falling oil prices, the paralysis of air traffic will cause millions of dollars in losses to airports and airlines. Almost all countries have offered incentives to the private sector and generous subsidies to their citizens. However, increased public spending at a time of falling revenues is unsustainable in the long term if the global economy does not recover, so austerity measures may be adopted that may threaten the social contract between subjects and rulers. 

Beyond the still low-intensity social tensions and economic impact, the pandemic represents an opportunity to increase the international influence of the Gulf monarchies. Perhaps the UAE has been the most successful country in terms of its significant contributions. In January, the UAE sent medical supplies to Wuhan and helped repatriate citizens of several nations trapped in China, and since the declaration of the global pandemic they have sent medical supplies both to developing countries such as Somalia and Pakistan and to EU members such as Greece and Croatia. This indiscriminate aid - irrespective of religion and the economic situation of the country receiving aid - has significantly enhanced the reputation of the Emirates, which are emerging stronger from the crisis.

Despite its tensions with Iran, the UAE has sent medical equipment and medical specialists there, as have Qatar and Kuwait, whose relationship with Iran is more cordial. These efforts have significantly reduced the tension between the Islamic Republic and the oil monarchies, a trend that seems to have started in January after the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by the US. However, the crisis has not allowed for the restoration of relations between GCC members, which have been badly damaged since the 2017 diplomatic conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Following the emergency GCC meeting at the end of March to coordinate efforts against COVID-19, Bahrain and Qatar clashed over repatriation flights of Bahraini nationals trapped in Iran paid for by the Qatari government.

Although states with greater economic capacity are more likely to control and manage a pandemic, the situation in some European countries or the United States shows that money is not everything. The Gulf monarchies have been able to contain and mitigate the effects of the epidemic with a combination of authoritarianism, prevention and state-of-the-art technologies. Undoubtedly, part of the success in their management is due to their previous experience: in 2003 the region was hit by SARS and in 2012 the outbreak of MERS began, a very lethal disease caused by a less infectious coronavirus than the one that causes COVID-19. But, in addition, the CGC countries have taken the opportunity to increase their international presence and improve relations with Iran. Although the drop in demand for hydrocarbons threatens their economic stability and will undoubtedly halt projects such as the construction of NEOMs in Saudi Arabia - it has also paralysed Dubai's Expo 2020 - the impact of COVID-19 will be much less than in poorer Arab countries such as Egypt or countries immersed in conflict, such as Yemen, Syria or Libya. The main challenges will be the lack of labour, as many immigrant workers have returned to their countries, and some social discontent if austerity measures are adopted.