Key Finding

Transmission risk resulting from air travel is often global rather than regional in nature. Although regional countries often have more connectivity with one another than with countries outside the region, the GCC countries are highly connected globally. As a result, most of the COVID-19 transmission risk for most GCC countries originated from air travelers outside the region, first from China and then from elsewhere.

In this report—one of several from a RAND Corporation team examining the role of commercial air travel in the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic—we use our COVID-19 Air Traffic Visualization (CAT-V) tool to quantify the potential transmission vectors to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The tool combines COVID-19 case data from Johns Hopkins University with detailed air travel data from the International Air Transport Association. The analysis in this report is based on infection rates in other nations and the travel levels from those nations to the GCC countries between late January and late February 2020, a period when the UAE's number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rose from zero to 16.

Many sources, including U.S. officials, have indicated that Iran is largely responsible for the spread of COVID-19 in the GCC countries (according to a March 2020 Voice of America article). This view likely originates from Iran's geographic proximity to the GCC countries, a lack of Iranian transparency, and preexisting regional animosities toward Iran.

However, on January 28, 2020, nearly 90 percent of the COVID-19 transmission risk from air travel to the UAE originated with passengers from China—even based on the officially reported caseload from China, which we suspect was undercounted. The remainder of the risk to the UAE came almost entirely from passengers from other Asian countries. This risk profile remained constant for most of February. By February 29, the total risk of importation from all passengers to the UAE had grown about 46-fold. According to our analysis using the CAT-V tool, South Korea became the greatest source of potentially infected air travelers to the UAE; Italy and China posed the next-highest risks (see the map below).

Air Travel Risks of COVID-19 Importation to the United Arab Emirates on February 29, 2020

A heat map centered on the United Arab Emirates shows the risk of importing COVID-19 from various countries. Red lines show air travel routes to the UAE from countries throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, and beyond.

Iran, the closest country to the UAE with a significant number of COVID-19 cases at the end of February 2020, represented less than 2 percent of the UAE's transmission risk resulting from arriving air travelers. The relative risk from Iran reached a peak on March 6, 2020, at just under 7 percent of the total risk, about one-fourth of the risk from Italy. (Our analysis excluded air travelers who transited through the UAE. Including them would have further reduced the relative risk from Iran.)

Similar analyses further contradict the idea that Iran was most responsible for the spread of COVID-19 to GCC countries. For example, as of January 28, 2020, about 59 percent of Saudi Arabia's transmission risk resulting from arriving air travelers emanated from China. And as of February 29, 2020, Bahrain represented the most-significant risk to Saudi Arabia (42 percent of the risk).

Caveats

In accordance with RAND's quality assurance standards, this analysis is based on the best available data. However, COVID-19 is an evolving threat, and even the best available data being used by government agencies and research institutes have very significant limitations. In the first report in this series, we outline several caveats about using country-level data, assuming equal passenger risk profiles, drawing on inaccurate country caseload reports, and being restricted by other data limitations.

In the analysis for this report, the most important data caveat is the unknown accuracy of reported COVID-19 cases in Iran. Our analysis highlights the relatively low risk that Iranian air travel presented to the GCC countries, based on the low levels of air travel between Iran and those countries and on Iran's reported case rate. However, significant questions exist about the accuracy and truthfulness of Iran's reporting of cases, particularly in light of the alarming number of members of parliament and other government officials who have been infected, according to a March 2020 U.S. Department of State fact sheet. Moreover, in this report, we consider only air travel, not other modes of travel, in the GCC countries' region.

References

The COVID-19 Air Traffic Visualization tool combines confirmed COVID-19 case data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering's COVID-19 Dashboard with detailed air passenger data from the International Air Transport Association's Nationality Traffic Report program. Together, these data sets allow the researchers to visualize and analyze the estimated transmission of the novel coronavirus via air travel, outline the resulting implications, and offer suggestions for minimizing the most-dangerous potential vectors.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Air Force and conducted jointly within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division and the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.