The Emirates Policy Center (EPC) has organized yesterday (Wednesday, 29 April 2020) a webinar on “Potential Post-Coronavirus Geopolitical Shifts in the MENA Region”. At the opening of the webinar, which was broadcast live via the Center’s accounts in different social media platforms, Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi, EPC President, said that while it is till too early to predict the geopolitical changes that will be brought about by the coronavirus crisis in the world, it is certain that the Middle East will be one of the regions most affected due to the wars and conflicts it is experiencing, in addition to the state of trouble, lack of stability and numerous challenges faced by the national state in the region.
In his turn, Dr. Zeid Ayadat, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, who moderated the webinar, wondered about the nature of the regional order that will be formed after the coronavirus, the form of competition between the powers therein, the consequences of the wars and conflicts in the region, and whether we shall witness a new wave of local social protests as a result of the economic consequences of the crisis.
Dr. Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, indicated that the coronavirus pandemic will not change the geopolitical scene in the Middle East. Rather, it will accelerate the trends that had existed before the epidemic, namely the absence of regional cooperation and attempts by countries to fulfil their own national interests. Satloff added that while exposed to the challenge of countering the epidemic, countries of the region have not changed their regional policies. He gave the example of Iran. While it faces a hard situation in containing the epidemic, it continues to follow the same policies of hegemony. The same applies to Turkey which continues to interfere in Libya, and Israel which continues with the unilateral approach with regard to the dispute with the Palestinians and seeks to annex a part of the West Bank. He added that the regional conflicts continue in Libya, Syria and Yemen and have not ended with the coronavirus epidemic. Despite his pessimism, Dr. Satloff hoped that the coronavirus crisis and the economic and social challenges stemming from it will drive countries of the region towards a more cooperative approach to solve regional problems.
With regard to the internal implications of the coronavirus crisis for countries of the region, Dr. Paul Salem, President of the Middle East Institute in Washington, indicated that the world is facing the biggest economic crisis since World War II. It is clear that the world economy is heading towards recession and will need two years to recover, according to best estimates. This will have negative implications for the region’s economies, including Gulf economies which are affected by the fall in oil prices and the decline of demand for energy due to the slowdown of economic activities and the traffic of means of transport.
However, the biggest danger, in his view, lies on the shoulders of countries that had been suffering from hard economic conditions even before the coronavirus. These may experience social outbursts due to poverty, disease and unemployment. The renewed protests in Lebanon in the last few days due to financial and economic conditions could be a small example of the protests that could break out in other Arab countries. He warned that the new social protests will be more severe compared to the ones experienced by the Arab world in 2011 because this time, the youth will be driven by a feeling of hunger and despair.
Therefore, Dr. Salem thinks that countries of the region ought to modify their development plans to shift from focusing on economic growth to focusing on enhancing social safety networks and supporting the food, health care and education sectors in addition to investment in the technology sector and slowing down the pace of major projects. He hoped that the crisis would provide an opportunity for governments in the region to head towards enhancing governance and building prosperous and coherent societies and economic sectors that are capable of countering unexpected crises.
With regard to the impact of the post-coronavirus China-US competition in the Middle East, both Robert Satloff and Paul Salem think that what is important is not China’s growing influence in the region but rather the nature of the policies of the US administration, whether current or upcoming, and whether it will continue to follow the strategy of stepping back from global commitments and inward orientation, or it will defend its leading role in the world and region similar to its outward projection after World War II. Both speakers predicted that President Trump, in case he wins in the elections to be held next November, will focus further on internal affairs to deal with the economic challenges stemming from the coronavirus epidemic and will not be ready to get involved in a major adventure in the region. This would amount to a more significant setback in his policies towards the Middle East. Even if the Democratic candidate Biden wins, he will give priority to domestic affairs while repairing some of the foreign policies of his predecessor. Nevertheless, both speakers confirmed that the US will continue to be the main security provider for the Gulf region.
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