By Waleed Rikab, Ph.D. candidate
Department of Religion, Rice University
Although China appears to have contained the novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) to a small number of new infections daily (some of these are “imported” rather than domestic), the disease now rages in Iran and Italy, the new hubs of contagion in Asia and Europe, respectively. Throughout the Middle East, countries that maintain political and commercial ties with Iran have been in a state of panic, trying to prevent infection across their borders.
In Iran, the disease started spreading with the activities of a merchant who traveled between Wuhan, China and Qum, an Iranian city that is a major religious site for Shiite Islam and is frequented by Iranian officials and Shiite worshipers from the Middle East and beyond. The disease has wreaked havoc with the political establishment in Iran, with officials contracting the disease daily.
Following an initial attempt to suppress reports about the severity of the situation in Iran, epitomized by the filmed efforts of its deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, to deny reports about the spread of the disease while showing its symptoms, Iran has now shifted to a concerted media effort aimed at easing the U.S. sanctions imposed on it to facilitate the shipment and entry of medical equipment to fight the epidemic.
Iran’s internal challenges in halting the spread of the virus are compounded by the severe blow to its regional image because of loss of prestige, and the practical obstacles it now faces in providing material aid to its regional proxies (in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen) after the killing of Qasem Soleimani. The country now faces intense hostility on social media from its rivals in the Gulf (mainly Saudi Arabia) that often stresses the doctrinal differences between the Shiite country and its Sunni neighbors. These comments often see the crisis as evidence of the religious triumph of Sunnism over Shiism. At the same time, Iran is insinuating that it is under a “biological attack” by an unnamed enemy or enemies. As internal pressures mount, it might pursue active measures to retaliate against those perceived “attackers.” Facilitating the transfer of medical equipment and supplies might dissipate such intentions and assist humanitarian relief.
Saudi Arabia is also trying to prevent the spread of the disease. It temporarily banned pilgrimage to Mecca in an extraordinary decision and is severely limiting travel to the country. It has also reportedly put under quarantine an entire region populated by Shiite minorities. Bahrain, a country with a Shiite majority ruled by Sunni elites, accused Iran of “biological aggression” by hiding the spread of the disease and not conveying information about Bahrainis traveling to Iran. Bahrain has about 200 cases of coronavirus infections as of March 15. Qatar faces challenges as well, likely because of its ties to Iran.
Notably, Israel has instituted some of the most stringent measures in the region to combat the spread of the disease, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone who visits the country. Its government is promoting cellphone tracking of suspected carriers of the disease, a move that is encountering opposition. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is currently attempting to form a national emergency government, an attempt that is seen by rivals as a cynical manipulation of the crisis to hold on to power and subvert the results of the latest Israeli elections, which were inconclusive.
A combination of both political and religious ties to Iran seems to be the main indicator of risk regarding the spread of the virus in the Middle East because of travel patterns these ties entailed. Iraq and Lebanon, which both have major Shiite populations and local Iranian proxies, have been struggling to contain the disease. Jordan and Kuwait appear at risk as well, because of their proximity and ties to Iraq, and now report instances of infection. Syria’s claim of zero coronavirus infections, meanwhile, appears dubious, and it has recently instituted a strict travel ban that effectively seals off the country from the outside world. This comes at a convenient time for its president, Bashar al-Assad, who might seize the moment to further consolidate his control over the country following the civil war. However, if the disease is spreading in Syria, it is potentially putting huge populations at risk, especially the refugees in the Sunni and Kurdish regions, who already suffer from a humanitarian crisis.
In Lebanon, fears about the coronavirus have encouraged “social distancing,” or personal isolation from public spaces, effectively halting political protests that were recently widespread. Though Beirut seems to be under lockdown, protesters are already experimenting with remote forms of protest, such as banging on drums at a specific hour every day. Hezbollah’s popularity in Lebanon, challenged during the protests, appears to have taken a further hit because of its association with Iran. A similar effect on the protests is also seen in Iraq where public protests involving large groups of people are dying down in the effort to halt the spread of the virus. Failure to contain the disease will likely exacerbate existing grievances against the political establishment in both Lebanon and Iraq when the crisis has passed.
The spread of the coronavirus presents severe challenges to several Middle Eastern countries, especially in light of existing economic and social problems. Currently Iraq and Lebanon appear to have substantial cases of COVID-19, but the potential of the disease to hit Syria and Yemen, which are both within the Iranian sphere of influence, and Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain, puts hundreds of thousands at risk who already suffer from lack of medical treatment and supplies. Politically, the crisis is providing governments in the region with a chance to consolidate their powers, suppress opposition and introduce intrusive measures of control and surveillance.
COVID-19 Infections in the Middle East and North Africa
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 Kuwait has a large Shiite population.
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 Fawra Media, Twitter post, March 13, 12:45PM, https://twitter.com/fawramedia/status/1238521455589163010
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About the author
Waleed Rikab is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religion at Rice and an analyst and researcher focusing on politics and security in the Middle East. He is writing at the invitation of David Cook, a Baker Institute Rice Faculty Scholar and an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Rice University.