Middle East and North Africa Research Note

Return to CoronaNet

Naela Elmore (The University of Texas at Dallas)

Falling in line with the global trend, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) reported its first cases of COVID-19 in late January and early February of 2020.1 As the pandemic continued to sweep across the globe, the MENA region attempted to curb the increasing number of cases by instituting several containment policies. The preventative measures included halting the free movement of millions of individuals, restricting and banning foreign entries by way of air travel, closing borders, and limiting trade.2 Most countries have closed schools and universities, banned mass gatherings, implemented curfews and social distancing policies, and enforced mandatory quarantine periods.3 As of May 6th, the MENA region has 224,071 confirmed cases of COVID-19, resulting in 8,378 fatalities.4

While the world is struggling with the pandemic, the MENA regions’ response to COVID-19 is of particular interest due to its geopolitical importance and persistent regional conflicts. Despite high rates of poverty in some MENA countries, the Persian Gulf is home to some of the wealthiest states due to their oil reserves.5 Currently, most MENA countries have constricted their economies, leading to the closures of all non-essential businesses, tourist sites, and religious facilities. Important Muslim holidays, such as Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr have either been canceled or strenuously controlled. Global events, such as the EXPO 2020 – which was to be hosted by Dubai – have also been canceled. The tight limitations placed on the region’s economies have created a transformation of consumer and business behavior that can be observed by the increase in electronic commercial services and transactions. This increase in e-commerce can be of particular benefit to states that possess high-quality infrastructure in terms of technology and internet capabilities, especially in the Gulf.

COVID-19 poses countless challenges in the MENA region, particularly to its public health systems. For over twenty years, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait have invested in improved healthcare infrastructure in their countries. These efforts are being threatened by the strain COVID-19 has placed on the health systems in the Gulf. The restrictions on travel and transportation have affected the importing of health resources and supplies, such as medical equipment and sanitation products. Furthermore, some MENA states have experienced past or ongoing conflicts that have caused detrimental damage to their health infrastructure and systems. Thus, enacting preventative health measures and policies to limit the spread of COVID-19 can prove challenging in such countries, where public health sectors are lacking sufficient support. Within the region, Syria, Yemen, and Libya possess health care facilities that have been damaged during the war and therefore lack the necessary capacity to respond to the pandemic. To prevent their healthcare systems from being overwhelmed and depleted, MENA administrations – Tunisia, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular – have passed measures and donated resources to support their medical staff and populations. Priority was placed on providing Intensive Care Units (ICUs), and hospital accommodations, and improving testing capacities by creating drive-through infrastructure.6

The MENA region continues to suffer economic hardship from the pandemic. The economic impact is illustrated by the drastic plunge in oil prices and tourism, primary exports of MENA countries. Disruptions in international trade with increased shortages in health supplies and resources threaten GDP growth, potentially triggering economic recessions. In addition to public health measures, most MENA states have passed policies aiming to diffuse the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. Administrations across the region have enacted policies to support households and small businesses through the crisis. However, some countries with weak infrastructure and government capacity are unable to implement social, political, and economic policies that would adequately tackle the destructive force of the outbreak.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a rare crisis, in which we are observing an issue that is rapidly affecting the international community, with the virus impacting even the most developed nations. As many MENA countries continue to suffer economically and politically, many states are ill-equipped to handle a large scale public health crisis. The full extent of the impact of the virus on the MENA region remains mostly unknown. However, what is certain is that this pandemic will have lasting economic, social, health, and political effects across the region.

  1. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. April 29, 2020. OECD. http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-crisis-response-in-mena-countries-4b366396/↩︎

  2. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. April 29, 2020. OECD. http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-crisis-response-in-mena-countries-4b366396/↩︎

  3. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. April 29, 2020. OECD. http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-crisis-response-in-mena-countries-4b366396/↩︎

  4. Karamouzian, Mohammad, and Madani, Navid. May 14, 2020. The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(20)30233-3/fulltext↩︎

  5. World Health Organization. May 6, 2020. https://app.powerbi.com/view?r=eyJrIjoiN2ExNWI3ZGQtZDk3My00YzE2LWFjYmQtNGMwZjk0OWQ1MjFhIiwidCI6ImY2MTBjMGI3LWJkMjQtNGIzOS04MTBiLTNkYzI4MGFmYjU5MCIsImMiOjh9↩︎

  6. UNICEF (2020) the Middle East & North Africa Region COVID-19 – Situation Report No.1 https://www.unicef.org/mena/media/8061/file/MENA%20SitRep_COVID%2019%20#1_31%20March%202020.pdf%20.pdf↩︎