Middle East in Focus
As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic wreaks havoc throughout the world, perennial regional debates and disagreements seem to dwarf in comparison to the challenges lying ahead. That is not to say they are forgotten. If anything, Iran’s struggle to bring under control the spread of the virus while under an embargo is a tragic reminder of the aggravating impact that the pandemic may have on existing challenges. However, under the current circumstances, regional observers have turned their attention—perhaps a bit prematurely—to ‘weightier’ matters, including the nature of the international system we are likely to see emerge in the aftermath of the pandemic, as well as the latter’s impact on domestic politics.
Reflecting on these themes, Daily Sabah columnist Kiliç Buğra Kanat suggests that if the current international response to the threat of the coronavirus has demonstrated anything, it is that international relations are making a return to a Hobbesian reality obsessed with self-preservation and borders: “In a short period of time, we've seen the trends and developments that we previously assumed were an irreversible part of globalization change course. Nations closed their borders, stopped international travel, locked down cities and prohibited the export of some goods and services. Nation states, that some considered less and less relevant, are making a strong comeback by becoming the principal agents for implementing and coordinating efforts to halt the spread of the virus. Countries' political leaders and the machinery of the state are on their way to becoming the main actors during this crisis. International agencies, which used to be the headliners that defeated diseases and epidemics, turned out to be increasingly irrelevant.”
Jerusalem Post’s Hamza Karcic puts forward a similar argument, highlighting the importance of power in the international system and the ensuing inward-looking state policies: “What the coronavirus pandemic shows is that realism in international relations is not only alive and well but it is back.... A virus originating from a wet market in Wuhan already did more to unravel a borderless Europe than all the far-right politicians combined. The special relationship between the US and the UK, nurtured over the decades, showed its limits in a similar fashion. The initially downplayed virus may very well turn out to have an outsized influence in shaping our thinking about international relations. As in the past, states have yet again responded in a predictably realistic manner. The pandemic has reaffirmed Politics 101: only strong, effective and self-reliant states are able to cope with crises.”
Among the countries that appears to have been the most adversely affected by this realist turn in international relations, Iran has complained vociferously about its treatment at the hands of its neighbors and world powers. Writing for Tehran Times, Syed Zafar Mehdi praised the country’s medical staff who “have been pulling out all the stops, despite lack of resources, to help patients recover. Their efforts to fight the pandemic have been stymied by the acute shortage of medicine and equipment, as Iran isn’t able to import them due to US sanctions. With severe shortage of equipment and medicine largely due to the cruel US sanctions on Iran, they are facing an uphill task to contain the outbreak and save precious lives....”
However, Asharq Alawsat’s Mohamed Orabi pushes back against such state-centric narratives, emphasizing instead the impetus toward greater international cooperation as the result of the nature of the pandemic: “The coronavirus question will initiate a before and after evaluation which may be humanitarian to some extent and may lead us to rise above some problems, especially chronic regional conflicts; in the sense that some narrow political goals may be reconsidered because there is a greater threat endangering all of our lives.... International institutional mechanisms will be modernized because of this disaster, becoming more intertwined and thereby contributing to the protection of human life all over the world. It will also be a golden opportunity to reformulate its regional and international agenda.... Bridges of communication between nations and governments will emerge, giving a glimmer of hope on resolving their conflicts and uniting to confront the problem.”
Others in the region have turned their attention to the impact of the pandemic on domestic politics. For example, in an op-ed for The National, Hussein Ibish examines how ‘native populism’, as a political force and a movement, is faring under the current conditions, given that: “The coronavirus pandemic has all the elements needed to undo the rise of insurgent, nativist populism in the West. The crisis could prove an incontrovertible refutation of the anti-state and anti-expertise arguments on which such populism is based.... Mr. Johnson and his Brexit allies have championed a comparable anti-expertise and anti-administration ethos to that of the staunchly anti-science Republican Party under the leadership of Mr. Trump. But a crisis that can only be combated by scientific rigor and professional competence will surely undercut the appeal of this attitude, exemplified by Michael Gove’s notorious declaration that ‘the British people have had enough of experts’.”
Finally, Arab News’ Abdulrahman Al-Rashed explores another facet of domestic politics by focusing on the efforts by some governments to underreport the reach of the pandemic in their societies: “The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has revealed a political crisis no less serious than the disease itself. It has reached the stage where some governments are presenting false statistics regarding the total number of cases and deaths in their country and have even filtered the information being issued by hospitals. All this is being done in an attempt to preserve a positive image, both internally and externally.... Governments that still hide the correct figures, and refrain from making difficult decisions, will pay a high price because we do not yet know the depth of the crisis or how long it is going to stay.... Thus, honesty is not only a virtue, but also a necessity.”