The Lessons of the Arab Springs

Arab countries still have fewer cases of Covid-19 than the United States, Europe or China, but they also have fewer policy options as they have not fully recovered from the “Arab springs”. Local and international actors should not merely freeze conflict lines but seize the pandemic’s momentum to address pre-existing political issues.
The views expressed in this article are strictly personal.

Beirut, 1 May 2020. — Demonstration against growing economic hardship in Lebanon on International Workers’ Day
Anwar Amro/AFP

What is the connection between the “Arab springs” and the global Covid-19 pandemic? They tell a similar story of vulnerabilities and spillover effects. In 2011, years of poor governance, political repression and rising economic inequities brought Arab citizens into the streets in a historic wave of national uprisings. The “Arab Springs” led to the fall of four authoritarian regimes, but also spawned new conflicts and failed to address underlying economic and social grievances.

In considering the pandemic’s aftermath, the spread of the 2007 financial crisis in the US and Europe to North Africa demonstrates some of the consequences a global recession could produce today. While less exposed to international financial markets, non-oil producers in the region are more vulnerable to external shocks and foreign economic cycles. Thus between 2007 and 2010, the downturn in Europe led to a drop of 60% in the trade balance of goods from North African countries. Likewise Egypt and Tunisia saw their tourism revenue decrease by 5%, foreign direct investments by 31% and remittances decrease by 6%. Similar trends should be expected in the wake of the pandemic.

In 2020, the IMF already expects the global recession to cut growth in the MENA region from 1.2% in 2019 to -2.8%. Preliminary UN estimates also suggest that 1.7 million people could lose their jobs this year in a region where unemployment plagued 27% of youth in 2019. The demographic challenge in the region is even greater today than in 2011. In the 2000s, the main issue for regional governments was absorbing millions of young workers entering the workforce each year. By 2011, 189 million people out of 398 fell between the ages of 15 and 40. They are 18 million more today; compounding that challenge, Arab societies must also support more elderly people, whose numbers will double, from 18 million in 2011 to 40 million by 2030. Family solidarity remains a strong cultural norm in Arab societies but will be heavily tested both by confinement and the lingering economic consequences of the pandemic.

Recession and rural exodus

A global recession will also have a still more dramatic impact on refugees in the region because the number of people affected by conflicts and reliance on UN assistance are even greater today than in 2011. For instance, the US and Europe together currently provide 75% and 45% of the billions of dollars of UN assistance respectively for Syria and Yemen. Assuming these Western contributions are even partially reduced by a recession in the period ahead, the consequences for Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and even Turkey are likely to be dramatic.

As in the run up to 2011, when the 2007 drought in Syria pushed waves of rural workers to the south and to the suburbs of Damascus, environmental change will also add to regional tensions. As of 2018, two thirds of the 448 million inhabitants of North Africa and the Middle East already suffer from insufficient water resources. The region does not have the means to sustain its economic growth commensurate with its surging population, raising the specter of cascading public health issues, uncontrolled urbanization and competition between countries over access to water.

Old and new problems limit policy options

Governments across the region have taken globally followed public health measures: including lockdown, social distancing, and donning of masks and protective gear. The GCC countries and Egypt have announced stimulus packages to contain the first economic shocks but other countries have been unable to afford comparable measures. Beyond financial resources, political fragility will weaken governments’ response. Heads of state have recently changed in Oman, Algeria and Tunisia. Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco have faced social unrest and security challenges, while conflict continues unabated in Yemen, Syria and Libya. Protesters in Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq proved in 2019 that the 2011 quest for dignity was far from over. Lockdowns have allowed authorities to reduce social movements, for instance in Iraq and Algeria, but this is unlikely to solve underlying political and institutional tensions, as the recent demonstrations in Lebanon showed.

Even oil producing countries are more vulnerable than in 2011. They have suffered from a precipitous decline in prices since 2014; and despite the recent OPEC-plus deal, prices just hit a spectacular historic negative. Arab oil producing states lack the fiscal room for maneuver they had to contain the Arab springs through massive social spending (up to $130 billion in Saudi Arabia in 2011). They started issuing sovereign bonds. The current oil blockade imposed by Hafter on Libya’s oil production has reduced it below 100 000 b/d compared to 1.8 million in 2010. Algeria had a limited public debt by the end of 2019 but only 15 months of reserves in foreign currency. Politically and economically, Iraq has not recovered from the war against ISIS and suffers both from governmental instability and the effects of the Saudi-Russian oil war.

Societal resilience already plays a role in mitigating the effects of local COVID-19 epidemics: individuals and civil society organizations are already providing support to communities in every country amid the pandemic. However, local solidarity is unlikely to be enough. Public healthcare and capacities to produce medical equipment remain weak throughout the region because of excessive state centralization, public service cuts and selective liberalization since the 1990s. The number of hospital beds in each country shows very few countries could handle a massive outbreak.

Pandemic consequences will greatly vary internally and across the region because of income disparities. The Arab world is the world’s most unequal region by income, where the top 10% owns 65% of wealth. This means Covid-patients from the top 10% are likely to find excellent private hospitals in the Gulf or some other Arab capitals. Many of the 100 million people already living in poverty may suffer from the pandemic economic consequences or contract the virus without ever knowing it.

Regional cooperation more urgent than ever

IMF and World Bank programs, technical assistance and equipment supply by UN agencies will bring some immediate relief to countries of the region. However more tailor-made efforts will be needed, in particular in countries with authoritarian or contested authorities, like Libya, Yemen or Syria. International assistance has a record of being diverted by patronage networks or armed groups for their own survival or military gains. The recent example of WHO assistance in Syria shows how international support can be instrumentalized. While international law requires the UN to work with central governments, the UN Security Council should also authorize access to NGOs if governments instrumentalize assistance.

With the pandemic breaking across the Middle East, regional cooperation is more urgent than ever. The GCC countries have announced the creation of a food safety network. But the standard of regional cooperation in the region is generally low. The pooling of resources and coordination has traditionally been limited to bilateral financial assistance from the GCC to other Arab countries. Parts of the region have established high-quality medical communities; health institutions across the region could be supported by these communities. The digital gap in Arab countries remains significant but innovative partnerships between international organizations, governments and an emerging tech scene in the region could provide secure digital solutions without increasing online surveillance.

Arab countries will need to find new drivers of growth, as post-pandemic economic fallout globally reduces traditional sources of development assistance. This creates an opportunity to address long-running bilateral feuds. One example: post-independence tensions between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara have produced a semi-permanent closure of their border, rendering North Africa one of the least integrated economic areas in the world. Estimates suggest that regional integration could add 1% GDP growth in each Maghreb country over the long term. A post-pandemic reopening of the Algerian-Moroccan border could offer significant economic benefits to both countries, a bounty that might itself—properly supported by the UN—ease the way to addressing the Western Sahara question.

A necessary diplomatic impetus

The pandemic and its deepening economic destruction are likely to increase the already evident inward turn of international actors like the US, Europe, China and Russia. In a region that has seen more than its share of foreign interference in the last decades, this dynamic may well be welcome but this will not extinguish conflicts in the war zones. Non-state actors—Libyan militias, Lebanese Hezbollah, Syrian Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah—are just as likely to seize opportunities offered by decreasing international involvement and attention.

At the same time, regional actors have made gestures toward easing existing tensions. Saudi Arabia has given a new impulse to negotiations with the Houthis. The UAE, Kuwait and Qatar have renewed gestures to Iran by sending medical assistance. However, cooperation and appeasement will not provide new solutions if they are limited to a freeze of frontlines. A key challenge for the region is to use the fleeting momentum provided by the pandemic’s crisis to address core issues. Tensions are otherwise likely to reemerge as soon as the peak of the pandemic is passed, endangering the region’s recovery even more. One pertinent example: by the time the second wave of contamination has passed (spring 2021), the breakout time for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon could well be reduced to a point its adversaries find unacceptable, which risks another cycle of regional escalation.

While the Arab world will not emerge from the pandemic better off than it was, the US and Europe have an interest in supporting innovative cooperation and providing assistance to mitigate some consequences. The virus will not alone solve conflicts like Syria or issues like US-Iran rivalries. It could nevertheless provide excuses to reset dialogs between adversaries and push them to accept compromise they would not have accepted otherwise. The US and European countries have an interest to propose options and assistance to support these deals.