How Coronavirus Will Impact the Middle East
The last thing the Middle East needs right now is more troubles. But trouble is coming its way with the coronavirus pandemic. Along with it might come a period of economic, political and social turmoil. This might not be an “Arab Spring 2.0,” overthrowing authoritarian regimes, but it will impact the region’s strategic dynamics and reshape its future.
Western, and Israeli, policies towards the Middle East are currently based on several strategic assumptions: the decline of Salafi-Jihadi terrorism and ISIS; Sunni regimes that are stable, pragmatic, and U.S allies; Iran-Sunni rivalry; cautious Iranian nuclear advances; controllable oil prices; Western competition with Russia; minor Chinese presence and influence; and, above all, the ability to differentiate between different “camps," such as the Shi'ite, the Sunni pragmatic, etc. The Coronavirus could upend all of these, creating a "new normal" with far-reaching strategic implications. The stakes are particularly high for Israel, which is more immediately impacted by, and therefore must more quickly identify and respond to changes in regional trends.
Iran is currently the epicenter of the region’s pandemic, fueling the Islamic Republic's most dramatic strategic crisis since the 1979 revolution. The government’s failure to respond adequately as the coronavirus spread is exacerbating public dissatisfaction. Civil unrest is hard to imagine since people are practically in lockdown, but tension is building. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's speech for the Persian New Year, Nowruz, focused almost exclusively on trying to calm the situation. In the meantime, Iran’s hardliners have taken the lead in public policy.
An economic crisis is also brewing. Iran’s economy is grappling not only with U.S sanctions, but also declines in both oil prices, because of a crisis between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and exports. To cope, it requested urgent IMF financial assistance.
The worse its economic and political crises become, the harder it is to predict Iran’s actions, and the greater their regional implications. On the one hand, Iranian leaders might eschew regional conflicts to focus domestically. On the other, the Iranian regime might be inclined to distract from its woes at home with an aggressive foreign policy, including proxy attacks, cyber measures, and ongoing nuclear efforts. Iran might try to strengthen its ties with Russia and China, which claim success in dealing with the pandemic.
The virus has also hit Jordan and Egypt. These Sunni countries are dependent on tourism and external assistance, making their economies vulnerable to a crisis. The fear of instability might lead their military establishments to intervene politically. They will probably become less concerned with the Palestinian issue, and perhaps more inclined to receive Russian financial assistance. Instability in these two countries, resulting in hasty actions by rulers, would create a challenge for Israel – who relies on their stability and cooperation, including for transmitting calming messages to the West Bank and Gaza.
Lebanon, which is also dependent on external funding and tourism, was already in an economic and political crisis. The coronavirus outbreak just made things worse, perhaps increasing Lebanese motivation to receive Russian aid. A dysfunctional Lebanese system creates a void Hizballah might fill, based on its developed social system.
Sunni Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar will probably focus on fighting the pandemic. If these countries, which host U.S. military deployments, sense an isolationist U.S. policy, they might also be inclined to reach out to China and Russia. Turkey, in that sense, might also seek closer ties with Russia.
Iraq is another country already suffering from corona infections, amid low oil revenues and a political transition. The country has practically closed its borders, although its economy is dependent on trade. The U.S has just started to consolidate its forces in Iraq, but renewed instability might change this calculus given how previous political unrest allowed the emergence of both the Islamic State and Iranian influence. Meanwhile, attacks on U.S. bases by Iraqi militias are still taking place.
New ad-hoc alliances, exceeding the region’s traditional “camps,” will probably emerge because of the pressing need to fight the pandemic. For example, Iran has already received assistance from its Sunni adversaries in the Gulf, such as the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, on top of that received from the EU.
Western attention is naturally focused domestically, but the coronavirus pandemic will change the whole world. Rulers in the infected Middle East might act unpredictably, and basic Western assumptions will have to be re-evaluated. New ad-hoc regional alliances might arise; more ties of U.S allies, with Russia and China (which portrays itself as a global savior), might emerge; volatility in oil prices might rise, and more humanitarian crises will evolve. Western intelligence and analysis should identify these shifts as they emerge to inform relevant and agile strategies.
IDF Col. (Ret.) Itai Shapira is former Deputy Head of the Research and Analysis Division (RAD) in the Israel Defense Forces and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).