COVID-19 Impacts on Strategic Dynamics in the Middle East


Mar 26, 2020

A man walks near the Shalamcha Border Crossing, after Iraq shut borders to travelers moving between Iraq and Iran, March 8, 2020, photo by Essam Al Sudani/Reuters

A man walks near the Shalamcha Border Crossing, after Iraq shut borders to travelers moving between Iraq and Iran, March 8, 2020

Photo by Essam Al Sudani/Reuters

The most significant global crisis of our generation is sure to have transformational effects on every state and society in the world, and the Middle East is no exception. But it is unlikely that the COVID-19 crisis will lead to new regional strategic dynamics that were not already underway. Indeed, the crisis is more likely to reinforce and strengthen existing and largely negative trend lines.

The more significant strategic dynamics that will likely worsen with the advent of COVID-19 include:

  • U.S.-Iran escalation. Both sides may be tempted to view the crisis as an opportunity to double down on previous actions that contribute to conflict. The Trump administration continues to pursue its maximum pressure approach despite the lack of strategic results and the fissures it has created with Europe and other allies. Reports suggest that some in the administration seek to use the COVID-19 crisis to capitalize on Iran's increased vulnerability to force Iran to the negotiation table. For their part, Iranian leaders gave up on “strategic patience” after a year of adhering to the Iran nuclear deal following the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018, finding the strategy brought little economic relief from Europe or Asia. Instead, Iran began to exact a cost for U.S. maximum pressure policies by targeting oil tankers and facilities, as well as U.S. military assets and personnel. With continued escalation in the months following the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, Iran and its militia partners may perceive COVID-19 as an opportunity to attack American forces with less risk of retaliation as they attempt to drive the United States out of Iraq. The result is that both sides may see advantages to escalation, producing a classic security dilemma that risks an even greater military conflict than either side desires. The distraction from counterterrorism efforts as relations with the Iraqi government remain strained is also a trend likely to continue as the added distraction of a global pandemic shifts priorities.
  • Greater Chinese and Russian engagement in the region. Increased Russian engagement in the region is largely opportunistic and is unlikely to change as a result of the current crisis, as developments in Syria suggest. But it is China's role in the Middle East that is more critical to watch in terms of the longer game. China has already been aggressively investing and building infrastructure in the region through the Belt and Road Initiative. While economic interests have largely been driving the strategy, it is not hard to imagine China's influence in the political and strategic arenas growing over time. Some analysts already see the COVID-19 crisis as solidifying China's rise, arguing that global orders change gradually at first and then “all at once,” with COVID-19 potentially marking America's “Suez moment” of decline. Taking advantage of U.S. missteps, China is positioning itself as a global leader in the pandemic, dispatching medical teams and sending 250,000 masks, for example, to Iran.

Leaders using the typical authoritarian playbook will likely crack down on legitimate protests and speech under the guise of security and public health.

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  • Entrenched authoritarianism and weakened democracies. Increased repression to tamp down regional unrest was already on the rise before COVID-19. Poor governance, rampant corruption, and economic crises continue to spark widespread regional protests nearly a decade after the Arab Spring uprisings. With regional governments particularly vulnerable in the wake of this pandemic, it can be expected that leaders using the typical authoritarian playbook will crack down on legitimate protests and speech under the guise of security and public health. Officials in Lebanon have been using social media to track and target protesters and political dissidents, who are more reliant than ever on social media to coordinate efforts as in-person protests become difficult during the pandemic. In Egypt, authorities revoked the press credentials of a Western reporter over coronavirus coverage in an environment of increased censorship. Even in established democracies like Israel, observers are worried that what some have coined the “corona coup” will allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to defer his trial on corruption charges and retain power despite failing to secure a mandate to form a governing coalition.
  • Humanitarian catastrophes. The Middle East is host to some of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with ongoing conflicts in Libya, Yemen, and Syria creating the largest displacement crisis since World War II. Refugees and internally displaced people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. Now the region faces a health catastrophe on top of man-made devastation from a decade of regional wars.

In the Middle East, it is always easier to predict developments will go from bad to worse. But a few diplomatic openings may emerge. These include:

  • Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)–Iran rapprochement. Since the tanker attacks starting last summer, key GCC states like the UAE began holding maritime security talks with the Iranians as the cost of U.S.-Iran confrontation literally hit home. The U.S. killing of Soleimani and its aftermath have not appeared to calm nerves or instill confidence in the American approach. The Saudis and Emiratis may want to keep Iran contained, but as one Gulf analyst put it, they also do not want to face an imploding regime and desperate citizens. It is thus not surprising that the Emirati response to a virus that has hit Iran especially hard has been to facilitate shipments of medical supplies. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the reality that no one wins in a contagion.
  • Prisoner releases. Pressure to release political prisoners is growing across the region, particularly in Iran, given the risk of widespread infection in crowded conditions with poor sanitation. Iran temporarily freed approximately 85,000 prisoners, including political detainees, in response to the pandemic. UN officials are calling for further releases. Bahrain released approximately 1,500 detainees for “humanitarian reasons,” the largest prisoner release since the 2011 uprising. That said, releases are still selective and may be reversed.

Absent a game-changing development, the bleak strategic trajectory for the Middle East is likely to look much as it did before COVID-19 struck.

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  • Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Pandemics cross political and geographic boundaries. While Israel is not coordinating a pandemic response with the wider region, there does appear to be high-level cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian officials, including a joint operations room to contain the spread of the virus. Israeli President Rivlin even called Palestinian Authority leader Abbas to thank him for the high-level cooperation to confront the pandemic. Gaza, already suffering dire humanitarian and health conditions from years of blockade under Hamas rule, is a particular concern for new outbreaks of the virus. The World Health Organization has warned that Gaza's health system would not be able to handle an outbreak in a 25-mile enclave with 2 million people. Such risks might present openings to ease the blockade and possibly produce a ceasefire.

That said, such openings may prove limited and short-lived. Absent a game-changing development like the collapse of a major regional power—which would be difficult to attribute only to the pandemic given existing vulnerabilities across many states in the region—the bleak strategic trajectory for the Middle East is likely to look much as it did before COVID-19 struck.

Dalia Dassa Kaye is a senior political scientist and director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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