The Pandemic and the State in the Arabian Peninsula: Groundwork for Thought

Laurent Bonnefoy, CNRS researcher, currently based at the Centre français d'archéologie et de sciences sociales, Oman

Yemen, Taiz, 24 March 2020. Copyright: Shutterstock

The seven societies of the Arabian Peninsula seemed for a while to have been spared by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the lateness of its arrival there compared to European countries.1 It was during the month of May 2020 —in the middle of Ramadan—that figures escalated, in particular in Kuwait, Qatar, and Yemen. Statistics remained modest however compared to those of Western Europe (even if their accuracy remains questionable, as elsewhere). On 26 May 2020, apart from Kuwait counting 39 deaths per million inhabitants, none of the countries of the peninsula counted more than 14 deaths per million inhabitants. In France at the same date, this macabre statistic reached 440.2

The Arabian Peninsula was however characterised early on by a series of radical governmental decisions. These were probably made hastily and were modelled on the European and American phases of the pandemic. They responded to an implicit but strong injunction to implement “good governance” of public health. The pandemic seems to have imposed a new international norm, redefining the terms of what it means to act and “see like a state”, to cite political scientist James Scott.3

Airports, borders, mosques, and schools have been closed, and curfews and radical economic measures have been imposed in the region since as early as February, bringing about a virtual freeze of economic and teaching activity until the start of the new school year in September (Saudi Arabia declared in March that schools would be closed for six months). In fact, the length of confinement associated with an apparently slow spread of the virus (and with the belief that the virus would disappear with summer heat) may have had some effect on behaviours, inducing a slackening in physical distancing, during the month of Ramadan. Preparing for family gatherings for Eid, authorities’ discourses became more alarmist, calling the population to remain cautious and “stay at home” (khalik fil-bayt) . Sometimes this even meant a total curfew, as in Kuwait. Evidently, these precautionary policies differ from one country to another. Sometimes they cause panic when food supply chains are affected. However, despite real differences, this shared logic among the seven societies constitutes an interesting research focus. At this preliminary stage of my interrogations, I suggest that public policies introduced to face the pandemic can be considered in light of the transformation of states in the Arabian Peninsula. Maybe more than elsewhere these states have used the pandemic as a test and a tool for (re)legitimation.

Showing a State that Protects, that is Both Efficient and Modern

Through their constraining decisions, the six Gulf monarchies, i.e. the entire peninsula except Yemen, have projected themselves from early on as the guarantors of their populations’ health. Compared with liberal and democratic states incapable to deal with the virus, the authoritarian logic surrounding the charismatic power of the emir, the sultan, the king or de facto regent (in Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia) has projected itself as efficient. Radical public policies (such as imposing the closing of supermarkets except for public cooperatives in Kuwait), a centralized communication (printed media has been interrupted in Oman), as well as budgetary recovery plans (the United Arab Emirates has drastically cut taxes on businesses and companies), have showed the states’ reactivity in the face of the crisis as soon as the first cases were reported.

In the context of quasi-regency in three countries and arrival to power of sultan Haytham in Oman on 11 January 2020 (after five decades of the reign of Qaboos), political legitimacy has also been at stake. In such circumstances, the management of the pandemic has allowed for the power-to be to gain credibility. A new field of intervention—health—has thus been launched as it was was somehow neglected by governments until then. States were indeed too focused on issues in the realms of economics (diversification of resources), social concerns (fight against unemployment), security (geopolitical rivalries with Iran), and society (reasoned distancing of religious actors). The new health domain imposes a new technicity for powers that have been promoting their capacity to adapt. In Kuwait for example, the pandemic coincided with the nomination of a new prime minister, Sabah al-Khaled, after a period of instability and while emir Sabah al-Ahmed, aged 91, is in fragile health.

State agility also imposed itself through the establishment of new ad hoc institutions. In Oman, a royal decree on 10 March 2020 created a Supreme Committee for Monitoring the Coronavirus ( al-lajna al-‘uliya li-mutaba‘a al-kuruna), gathering together several experts and ministries, including those of the Interior and of Health. Through regular press conferences, the committee announced easier lay-off procedures for foreign workers, regulated how reduction of working hours for Omani citizens should be done, and declared lockdown for severely hit neighbourhoods and other such exceptional measures. The promotion of such an assembly transforms the power equilibrium and its communication.4 The role given to the committee also promotes a state that is based on science and expertise but that remains benevolent, generally preferring to advise rather than impose. It also imposes a centralization of the responses given to the crisis, even in the humanitarian aid distributed to foreign workers who have lost their revenues and who are unable to fly back home because of closed airports. Individual initiatives of distribution of food have been frowned upon, leaving only authorised organisations, such as Dar al-‘Atta, in a position to answer people’s needs.

The health crisis has made it possible to see how state action is embodied in various ways. Indeed, elsewhere in the region, decisions have sometimes been more repressive. In Qatar, failure to wear a mask is punishable by three years in prison. A similar sentence applies in Kuwait to those who do not respect the strict curfew. At the same time, public policies are based on the protective role of the police, equipped with drones to monitor movements in neighbourhoods or on the beach. Lockdown has accelerated the dematerialisation of administrative procedures or, as in Kuwait, the launch of an ID card through a smartphone app. From there, rumours have spread concerning hidden tracking to monitor residents who do not follow the rules of the lockdown.

The stories told by institutions and the media also express some sort of patriotic pride. Saudi Arabia was quick to communicate on the choice of 6,000 citizens pursuing medical training abroad who stayed in the hospitals that welcomed them during the crisis. The minister of Foreign Affairs promoted their courage and their solidarity toward the health structures, in particular European ones, under great tension. The message was clearly patriotic but also neglected to question the fact that these health professionals could eventually be greatly missed in their homeland if the situation were to worsen there.

Qatari Man Wearing Masks To Prevent Against The Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

Qatari man wearing a mask while shopping ahead of Ramadan. Doha, Qatar, 23 April 2020. Copyright: Shutterstock

The supposed superiority of each of the monarchies in the region is part of a general context of regional rivalries. Tensions between Qatar and its neighbours that have existed for more than three years have not disappeared. There has been no regional cooperation even when it came to repatriating citizens scattered around the world. On another level, Iran appeared in February as the first locus of the pandemic in the region. The management of the situation by Iranian authorities was very much criticised in the Gulf monarchies media and the first cases identified in the peninsula were two travellers coming from the Islamic Republic. Bahrain, whose government is strongly opposed to Iran even refused at some point to repatriate some of its citizens stuck in Iran after a Shiite pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia applied its first confinement measures in the Eastern region (previously Hasa), mostly Shiite, imposing on its citizens the need to inform police stations of their previous travels to Iran.


Making “National Preference” Explicit?

Projecting an image of efficiency goes together with different logics that the pandemic has come to exacerbate, accelerate, and make plain. First, while the seven states of the Arabian Peninsula are rentier economies gaining most of their national revenue from hydrocarbons, they have all, over the last years, launched ambitious projects of economic diversification. These planning projects—more or less authoritarian and publicised—are made more necessary than ever and are, at the same time, put at risk by the drop in the price of oil and gas, worsened by COVID-19. With a barrel sold at around $30 when the budgets were made following prospects of $80, deficits are abysmal and investments difficult. Maintaining a welfare state system in the six monarchies (with the notable example of retirement pensions that often allow civil servants after less than 25 years of service to earn 80% of their last salary) seems difficult to envisage. Fiscal measures are expected: Saudi Arabia has announced the tripling of VAT that will reach 15%; in Oman, the salary grid for newcomers of the civil service has been reduced by 23%.

At the same time, the pandemic has probably made “national preference” dynamics explicit. The six monarchies are characterised by a high proportion of foreign workers (called wafidin), that account for more than a third of the population and even reach 90% in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Expatriates represent the majority of the workforce everywhere. In the face of economic and demographic pressure, public policies for the nationalisation of work have been launched for several decades. “Saudisation,”“Omanisation,” and “Kuwaitisation” have led to forbidding access to an increasing number of professions to foreigners (by not delivering visas), combined with neo-liberal policies aimed at the flexibilisation of work.5

In such a context, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have increased the will to have foreign workers serve as a variable to face the crisis.6 Yet the states have made efforts to contradict xenophobic dynamics by communicating on free health care for all, even illegals, or on the penalisation of anti-foreigner discourses. Nevertheless, statistics given on COVID-19 cases systematically differentiate between nationals and foreigners. The current health situation has made it possible for states to acknowledge the limits of a deregulated system that lets employers house poor workers in dormitories where physical distancing and barrier gestures are impossible. Diverse decisions have confirmed the unease surrounding foreigners: Saudi Arabia expelled Ethiopians in April, only to be heavily criticised by human rights NGOs; Kuwait has differentiated healthcare between citizens and others, reserving a cutting-edge hospital for its nationals. Starting there, it is not really surprising to observe that some businesses in this country have instituted quotas depending on citizenship: five packs of bread for nationals (muwatinin), three for the wafidin.

Experiencing the Flaws of Yemen

In the face of the dynamics linked to the transformation of the state’s perimeter and its public policies, Yemen constitutes an undeniable exception. For a long time, the pandemic did not really interest the citizens, confronted with war since 2015. Conspiracy theories have even appeared in mosques held by Houthis pointing to an American or Zionist origin of the virus. But maybe more significantly, many Yemenis have expressed their distress in the face of the international reaction to a situation that they have found heavily exaggerated compared to the difficulties they have been suffering from for five years at least.7 War crimes, appalling malnutrition, bombings, cholera and a quarantine of some sort, or blockade imposed by the coalition, as well as massive flooding have affected their everyday lives far more than what the COVID-19 virus may have done. Their fate, however, remained perpetually ignored by media and political leaders.

Despite this initial misunderstanding, as elsewhere in the region, institutions and authorities at war had to show that they were concerned by the pandemic and had to respond to the injunction to act. In times of COVID-19, claiming the attributes of the state in front of one’s enemies and to the so-called international community requires counting the sick, disinfecting the streets, imposing quarantine to the few newcomers, and organising campaigns explaining physical distancing. In Yemen more specifically, this also means acting against qat, a plant chewed every day by a large part of the population and accused of exacerbating the spread of the virus. The closure of markets or the prohibition of the plant in several governorates has remained wishful thinking—a good illustration of public authorities’ incapacity to act.8 Qat has become the symbol of the carelessness of the many actors who claim to act in the name of the state: Houthis in Sanaa, southerners in Aden, and the “government recognised by the international community” in a small area close to Marib.

Hiding the failure of institutions and “pretending” cannot last for long. Hidden burials close to Sanaa and Aden have been shown on social media and reveal the real scale of the pandemic, which justifies the alarmist discourse of humanitarian actors. On 11 May 2020, when Aden was qualified as an “infested” city by the legitimate government, it had a surprising aspect to it, given that this government has taken refuge in Riyadh and has in fact no authority in the city of South Yemen. Why let this minister of health make his statement if not to keep the illusion of sovereignty? Even if Houthi leaders accept to appear in the media wearing masks, they refuse to admit the reality of the pandemic in the regions under their control, which signals both the weakness of their institutions beyond security and the extreme fragility of a society that war has left bloodless.

Access the other articles published on COVID-19 on the CERI website, in French and in English

Access the CERI Resources on the pandemic here.

Access the CERI Resources on Saudi Arabia here.

Access the CERI Resources on the Middle East here.

Access the CERI Resources on the Arab Uprisings here.

Cover image: Yemen, Taiz, 24 March 2020. A medical examination for those coming to the city of Taiz. Copyright: Shutterstock

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