SEATTLE, Washington — While the long-term impacts of COVID-19 are unknown, the virus is shaping society in the Middle East and North Africa.
The pandemic has hit the already changing region, which spans as far east as Morocco to as far west as Iraq. As per UNICEF’s June 2020 COVID-19 region report, there were more than 600,000 cases of the virus in the region.
Struggling Economies and Key Industries
Like most of the world, the MENA region’s economies are struggling. A report from the International Monetary Fund has determined that the region’s GDP will fall by 4.7% in 2020. The efforts to slow the spread of the virus, such as lockdowns, restrictions on travel and business closures, have contributed to the decrease. Economic output in countries with active conflicts, such as Yemen and Syria, could shrink by 13%.
Hania Abou al-Shamat, a specialist in the MENA at the University of Florida, told The Borgen Project that the pandemic has devastated the tourism sector for many countries in the region. Tourism accounts for more than 12% of Egypt’s GDP. While expectations determined that more than 15 million tourists would visit the country in 2020, tourism sector workers have lost their jobs. Some have even had to sell their animals, such as camels, to make ends meet.
Abou al-Shamat said that the restriction of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims must make once in their life if they are able to, was a blow to Saudi Arabia’s economy. The Hajj generates about $12 billion every year, and the country’s GDP should decrease by 6.8% during 2020. The change has upended the country’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify its economy from dependence on oil.
With reduced incomes, the IMF has provided about $17 billion since the beginning of 2020, the report said. The fund committed to supporting these countries to save lives and rebuild economies.
However, some countries in the region are trying to move forward. Dubai, an emirate in the United Arab Emirates, opened its airports to encourage tourists to visit. As visitors were hesitant, Dubai began to offer health insurance to curb COVID-19 concerns. If tourists contract the virus, they will receive care and have to quarantine for two weeks.
“That’s crazy,” Abou Al-Shamat said. “You just can see how, to which extent, they are desperate to get the tourism sector back.”
Civil Society and Trust in Institutions
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, trust in public institutions has also shifted in the region. The Arab Gulf, comprised of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, has been transparent and effective in informing the public and combating the virus, Abou al-Shamat said. Other countries, such as Egypt, were in denial about the pandemic and spread misinformation.
However, other aspects shape MENA’s civil society. More than 30% of the region comprises of youth, Abou al-Shamat said, and because of this, the mortality rate from the virus is not as high as it is in other countries, such as Italy, Spain or the U.S. Prior to the shutdowns, youth were active on the streets, even protesting in Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria.
The virus put a halt to most protests, although some continued. Syrians took to the streets in June 2020 to protest living conditions and corruption as well as the economy.
Syria has been in a nine-year conflict that has left more than 12 million displaced. Even Syrian children in the country have joined protests after the detainment of a British aid worker in the Idlib province.
Women’s Rights and Protections
With lockdowns impacting most of the world, violence against women has risen. The trend followed suit in the Middle East and North Africa, with women’s rights groups expressing concern about the rise. In Lebanon, calls to domestic violence hotlines doubled. In Tunisia, domestic violence reports are five times as likely as in 2019. Meanwhile, in Jordan, a sobbing woman sharing her story went viral.
The pandemic leaves women more open to increased sexual exploitation, which, in turn, incites violence against them, a report from the Middle East Institute said. Women living in conflict zones and refugees are among the most affected because international assistance is going toward supporting public health instead.
Combating the pandemic became the priority of governments, which shifted other issues, such as women’s rights, to the background. Abou al-Shamat pointed to Tunisia, a North African country that had made great strides for women in the last three years.
Women in conflict zones, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya, struggle more. As the female-led households increase, the virus threatens their livelihoods. Because of COVID-19, expectations have determined that early marriage will also increase. With economic burdens, girls who are no longer in school may have to enter marriages so that their families can support themselves.
The Unpredictable Future and the Road Ahead
As countries ease restrictions, aspects of life in the region will change. According to Abou al-Shamat, countries will notice people become more resentful of governments and mobilize. However, she also believes that conflicts in the region will simmer down more than usual.
Abou al-Shamat also said that countries involved in conflicts outside their borders, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will not be able to continue their involvement because of economic pressure. With these forces out, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya may temporarily cool.
“Many of these hotspot conflicts will have to freeze a little bit, not necessarily [they]will be solved, but [they]will be freezed because the external regional and international interference will have to be recalculated,” Abou al-Shamat told The Borgen Project.
While the future of the Middle East and North Africa is unpredictable, there is hope that governments and nonprofit groups in the region will work to address concerns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and overcome challenges for the greater good.
– Grethel Aguila