Coronavirus Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
MENASource March 24, 2020

Coronavirus experiences on the ground in the Middle East

By Zineb Riboua

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. The first coronavirus deaths in the Middle East were reported on February 19, when two Iranians died from the virus in the holy city of Qom. Despite knowledge of this, the Iranian government allowed the February 21 parliamentary elections to proceed. This may have played a role in its spread across the country, where now officially 1,934 are dead and over 23,000 have contracted COVID-19. The unofficial numbers are expected to be much higher.

The earliest case of reported coronavirus in the Middle East, however, was made on January 29 by the United Arab Emirates. As of mid-February, the coronavirus has since spread to other regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq. Tourism, oil prices and financial markets in the region are devastated. The pandemic forced regional projects to be put on hold, including the Dubai Expo 2020. Access to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina was temporarily suspended, which will heavily impact the Saudi tourism sector since the country annually receives 20 million tourists, most visiting for religious reasons.

The health systems of Iraq, Syria and Iran are under tremendous strain to detect, contain and track the coronavirus carriers which is severely impacting neighboring countries. In Baghdad, for example, the coronavirus outbreak is nearly impossible to control since local authorities do not have enough resources.

We spoke to several Atlantic Council nonresident fellows based in the region to get a sense of how these events are playing out on the ground.

Jonathan Fulton, Nonresident Senior Fellow based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

On the face of it, the coronavirus impact on the UAE is pretty standard. Schools have been closed since March 5, and most moved their spring breaks up from March 29-April 10 to March 8-19. Starting this week, the UAE will be doing everything online, much like the rest of the world. Restaurants, beaches and pubs are all closed. Grocery stores are well-stocked, and no hoarding seems to be happening. Hospitals are fine (we took our son in for a sore throat and he saw a doctor quickly). The roads are unusually quiet with most folks staying home. If anyone needs to get out of the house, the commutes are easier and parking is great. Borders have closed and folks who left for spring break—everyone was advised not to travel out of the country—might have problems getting back and returning to work. 

Where it’s a little unusual is the demographic composition of the UAE. About 90 percent of the country is made up of expatriates living on work visas. This means a high percentage of the population is middle aged. So most of the people I’d encounter day-to-day aren’t in that age group where they’d be worried about the worst case scenario. When I talk with my parents in Canada there’s a lot of genuine concern. They’re 69 and 74, and the town where I grew up is made up of an old populace, so folks there are understandably taking a lot of precautions. Over here there seems to be less urgency.

A friend from a foreign embassy was having a dinner party last weekend but reluctantly canceled; not out of concern but because his government has asked embassies to avoid non-essential social events. So it’s quiet in the UAE, but at the same time nobody seems especially worried. There have only been around 198 cases confirmed so far. 

The bigger issue, I suppose, will be if travel is restricted out of the country when the school year is over. Everyone who can, leaves for the summer, and if that’s not possible, there will be a lot of cabin fever as temperatures in the UAE get as high as 122 F. 

Borzou Daragahi, Nonresident Senior Fellow based in Istanbul, Turkey

The large crowds that gather along Istanbul’s Istiklal Street and in the Eminonu area near the iconic mosques and Byzantine historic sites have dissipated. Though some fishermen prop up their poles along the Galata Bridge, the numbers have dwindled, and they maintain a proper social distance between each other. 

Schools have long been shuttered, and step by step, as the number of coronavirus victims increases, more draconian measures are put into place. Last week, the Turkish government announced that police have yet to begin handing out fines to those caught socializing in public or on non-essential trips outside their homes as in France or Italy, but that day may soon be approaching. Municipal authorities have begun removing park benches from green spaces to discourage people from loitering. 

With schools and universities shut, and many large businesses closed, the frenetic rhythms of this city of 16 million have screeched to a near-halt. There’s still vehicle traffic along the Bosphorus, and pedestrians continue to make their way to certain jobs. The government has yet to declare all non-essential offices closed, but that day is also looming as the number of deaths keep doubling day-to-day, rising from one quickly to nine as reported on March 20. 

With each passing pandemic day, the mood gets grimmer. On the streets and sidewalks, the people hurry past, perhaps with a scarf or surgical mask covering their mouths, their eyes looking down and away.

Nicholas Blanford, Nonresident Senior Fellow based in Beirut, Lebanon

Lebanon was already reeling from its gravest economic crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war and from mass protests since October 2019 against the country’s ruling elite, when the coronavirus arrived. It is unclear who is, or was, Lebanon’s patient zero although some reports suggest it was a monk who recently visited Italy while others link it to a returning pilgrim from Iran. For now, 150 cases have been registered and there have been four deaths. Schools and universities have been closed for two weeks and children are attending online classroom sessions each day. Restaurants, bars and cafes have closed as have most hotels. Rafik Hariri International Airport closed its doors on March 18 and the border crossings with Syria have also closed.

Like elsewhere, the catchphrase of the day is “social-distancing”. By and large, the Lebanese are staying at home and only venturing out to buy food or emergency provisions having donned rubber gloves and face masks. Beirut’s usually traffic-clogged streets are nearly empty and the police have been warning strollers to leave the seafront corniche.

The Lebanese, of course, are used to disasters, having passed through 16 years of civil war and a subsequent era of political turmoil, Israeli occupation, Syrian dominance, assassinations and economic woes. This has built up a degree of personal resilience in the face of adversity. On the flip side, however, the Lebanese government is as good as bankrupt having recently defaulted on a $1.2 billion Eurobond payment, and is in no good position to handle a potential health catastrophe, let alone the global recession that looks set to follow. 2020 marks Lebanon’s centenary since being established in the wake of World War I, but few Lebanese will be in a mood to celebrate this year.

Shalom Lipner, Nonresident Senior Fellow based in Jerusalem

Jerusalem’s mayor has announced that the public should expect to be placed on full lockdown. Israelis were instructed last week to suspend all non-essential business and to refrain from gatherings of more than ten people. The internet is working overtime as my children, dispersed throughout the house, “attend” online lectures on their computers with their college peers. Parcels are dropped off at my front door by quickly escaping delivery trucks. Passover cleaning continues unabated.

Israel got an early jump on the COVID-19 pandemic, instituting initial quarantine protocols immediately after the country’s first case of infection was confirmed in late February. As the global crisis expanded, additional measures—extended periods of self-isolation for returning travelers, closures of public institutions—were supplemented. On 18 March, entry into Israel was prohibited for all but Israeli citizens and residents.

The intensification of Israel’s response from “recommended” behaviors to the enactment of draconian regulations—including the controversial authorization of surveillance tracking—has come against the backdrop of an increasing number of positive coronavirus diagnoses, but also flagrant violations of the guidelines. Moshe Bar Siman Tov, director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Health, reprimanded Israelis on national television: “We are not playing cops and robbers with you. There’s a virus here. . . You can’t negotiate with it.” The country’s medical personnel are celebrated as heroes of the hour.

None of this exists detached from Israel’s unique political circumstances. April’s general election—the third in under 12 months—has yet to produce a new government. Benjamin Netanyahu’s transitional cabinet remains in power but is operating largely in vacuum: the Knesset is dormant and the country’s court system is on “state of emergency” footing. The electorate hopes desperately that this stalemate is resolved before Israel’s economic health, also suffering the effects of the virus, is compromised beyond repair.

Zineb Riboua is an intern with the Middle East Programs.

Related Experts: Nicholas Blanford, Borzou Daragahi, Jonathan Fulton, and Shalom Lipner

Image: Staff members sterilize the old city of the West Bank, Hebron (Reuters)