Spotlight: Israel & The Middle East

Insights on strategic issues facing Israel and the Middle East​

 March 16, 2020 


Coronavirus in the Middle East: Regimes' Stability, Oil, Religion, and Politics

As in other parts of the world, the spread of the Coronavirus has dramatic and diverse implications across the Middle East – economic, geo-strategic, diplomatic, among others. Nonetheless, the processes in the Middle East have several unique features: undermining regimes' stability that are subject to waves of turmoil over the past decade, a sharp decline in the public trust of regimes, an evolving "oil war", and cross-effects between the pandemic and religious and political aspects.

The virus triggered a chain of events regarding the region's relations with the great powers and the competition among the powers focusing on the main and longtime international interest in the region – oil.

The forty per-cent crash in oil prices, the highest decline since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in January 1991, led to a crisis between Saudi Arabia and Russia because the latter refuses to renew the "OPEC-Plus" deal and cutback production to prop-up oil prices. Russia, among other interests, sought to target the American shale oil industry, which is not financially sustainable when oil prices are low, thus retaliating U.S. efforts to sanction the Nord Stream 2 project.

Benefitting from relatively low production costs, Saudi Arabia surprisingly took to a "market-breaking" measure and announced that it would increase production substantially as of next month. The Saudi measure that sought to compel Russia to cooperate, not only infuriated Moscow, but also got the U.S. angered.

From the perspective of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the decision to step on the toes of two great powers came at a complicated timing domestically. The coronavirus crisis could further deepen discontent in the royal court as the two powerful symbols of power are harmed: oil and the Kaaba (the center of the Great Mosque of Mecca – Islam's most important mosque). Pictures of the empty Kaaba – closed down unprecedently for disinfection – went viral on social media.

Under these circumstances, and considering the speculations regarding King Salman's health, it was reported that MBS arrested three princes, possibly on charges of conspiring to prevent MBS from succeeding his father. The most senior arrested prince is Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the youngest and last remaining full brother of King Salman. The surprising arrests underscore the fact that the Saudi royal court, which appears consumed by internal power struggles, is a "black box" – outsiders cannot really observe what is going on and predict what will follow. Thus, if MBS would be ousted tomorrow, the outside world would be surprised, but pundits could claim that the writing was on the wall…

Thus, the coronavirus crisis is accentuating internal tensions and is bolstering trends of instability. The two additional notable examples are Iran and Lebanon.

In Iran, the crisis has peaked public distrust in the regime and in its ability to deal with the spread of the virus, spiraling out of control.  The regime is accused of hiding information on the real scope of the outbreak in a way that harmed the functioning of the authorities and caused the death of citizens. Against this backdrop, President Rouhani sought to reassure the public that there is no shortage of water, electricity, and fuel.

The public discontent in the current crisis comes on top of the public protest against the regime's coverup attempts regarding the downing of the Ukrainian airplane in January and the overall regime's disfunction in providing services and dealing with the economic crisis that took the crowds to the streets in November. [For further background on the domestic situation in Iran, see the previous edition of Spotlight: Israel & The Middle East – "When it rains, it pours – Coronavirus, elections, and money laundering in Iran"].

In Lebanon, the coronavirus outbreak coincided with the most severe economic crisis in the history of the country, complicating the desperate attempts of the new government to salvage the economy by negotiating for international credit. The previous government, led by Hariri, for which many held high hopes, failed to realize commitments of international aid until it resigned after nine months in office.

The crisis threatens to lead Lebanon to bankruptcy and the collapse of the economy, which suffers from the largest ratio of debt in the world (170 percent of GDP), severe lack of reserves and devaluation of the Lira. The new government, which lack public trust, announced last week that it will default on the first payment of its Eurobonds and ask its debtors to reschedule its payments.

Another country that "caught" the coronavirus at a dramatic moment was Egypt, in which population crossed the one-hundred-million threshold. The government is trying to address the soaring fertility (two million babies are born each year), which President A-Sisi defined as a severe threat, not less than the threat of terror. Analysts assess that the Egyptian economy, which is dependent on tourism, maritime transit through the Suez Canal, and the gas industry, will be significantly harmed due to the implications of the pandemic.

The coronavirus in the Middle East is closely associated with issues of religion and politics. When it comes to religion, the most notable example, although not the only one, is again … Iran – the hub of the regional outbreak of the pandemic. The pandemic broke out in Qom, the most important center of Shiite study around the world, attended by many Chinese students, who resided in seminars and training centers. Unwilling to close down the religious sites in Qom, the regime refrained from imposing a quarantine on the city, and its many pilgrims spread the disease rapidly across the country.

In additional aspects, the religion hinders the dealing with the pandemic. Despite the unprecedented cancellation of mass Friday prayers across Iran, clerics continue to call upon worshipers to come to mosques and pray, making it more difficult to contain the spread of the virus. The Supreme Leader Khamenei also called for special prayers for recovery and salvation.

The rate of contagion among senior leaders of the regime and the clergy is particularly high. The reasons for this are the frequent travel of leaders between Teheran and Qom, the tradition to kiss each other, and having them tested first for the virus. Insofar, several senior officials have died due to the virus, including an advisor of the Supreme Leader. Two of President Rouhani's deputies, the deputy minister of health, other top officials, and 23 members of parliament have been confirmed as infected by the disease.

A notable example for the linkage between the pandemic and politics was the official denials of the Iranian regime regarding the scope of the outbreak in an attempt to prevent low turnout for parliamentary elections that could have harmed the legitimacy of the regime. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, which objected to cancelling aviation links between Lebanon and Iran, was blamed with hiding coronavirus patients that arrived from Iran, placing in jeopardy medical teams. In Israel, the coronavirus might open-up the political impasse.

The Middle East is no different in the diplomatic aspects of severing ground and air transportation routes. Iran was late in severing flights to/from China in an attempt to avoid harming relations. Israel imposed home quarantine on all resident returning from all destinations, at the request of the American administration.

What are the security implications for Israel? Domestically, the Israeli military (IDF) is expected to be drawn into containing the outbreak among the civilian population to the point that it could disrupt its multiyear workplan ('Tnufa'). Externally, the closure of borders and the cancellation of air traffic are expected to harm the efforts of Iran, already embroiled in a national catastrophe, to expand its military efforts to entrench in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Nonetheless, it would be early to belittle Iran and its proxies, as the American discovered after a rocket attack on the international coalition's base in Taji, Iraq, claimed the lives of the soldiers of the coalition. The attack came as the Pentagon was planning to withdraw forces from the region, based on the assessment that the risks of escalation with Iran following the killing of Soleimani have declined. The broad retaliation of American forces against targets of Iraqi militia seems to open a new round of violence between the parties.

Simultaneously, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced in its periodic report in early March that Iran has accumulated 1,020 kgs of low-enriched uranium and has operated 1,044 centrifuges in its highly-fortified facility near Qom. According to assessments, the outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran will make it difficult for the agency's inspectors to continue monitoring the expansion of Iran's military nuclear program led prudently by the regime.

Closer to Israel's borders, in Gaza, there is a notable decline in tensions, but the situation could change if there is an outbreak of the virus there or if the economic situation worsens following attempts to prevent an outbreak (entrance of Gaza workers to Israel).

In sum, the chilling effect of the pandemic security-wise might be counter-weighed by other factors. The regional actors are expected to focus on their domestic arenas, but might also feel vulnerable and seek to prevent their adversaries from exploiting their weakness. In addition, some actors might seek to exploit the fact that Israel is focused on dealing with the pandemic. Finally, the pandemic might substantially increase the costs and implications of violent escalation, in Gaza for example.

"Spotlight: Israel & The Middle East" is a brief on topical strategic issues facing Israel and the Middle East. The brief shares the insights of the research team of IDC Herzliya's Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) and is authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental, a senior research fellow at IPS (@UEvental)


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