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Coronavirus Crisis: An Opportunity for Intra-Gulf Rapprochement

The Middle East is facing yet another threat to its stability, albeit, this time a biological one, but could there be a silver lining to the situation that would allow more rapprochement between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran? The outbreak of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) has hit Iran the hardest out of all countries in the region. With roughly 2,230 confirmed deaths, the disease is ravaging Iranian society.[1] The Trump administration’s decision to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic on March 17 will further strangle the Iranian economy, which was already suffering from 22 months of a “maximum pressure” campaign, following the US decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While authorities in Tehran deserve their share of the blame for negligence, corruption, and an initial coverup that all contributed to COVID-19’s quick and “undetected” spread in Iran, American-imposed sanctions on the country have significantly exacerbated the impact of this disease across Iran, and potentially the entire region.[2] Meanwhile, some GCC member states, have taken the initiative to send humanitarian aid to help Iran fight the outbreak of the deadly virus, providing a unique opportunity to improve Tehran’s relations with monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula.

Amid the ongoing crisis, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently claimed that Washington has offered Iran assistance, only to be rejected by Tehran.[3] However, a New York Times report suggests that Pompeo had recently suggested that “tough actions” against Tehran during this time can push Iran’s leaders into direct negotiations. While Tehran and Washington remain at loggerheads, international organizations and countries from across the world have provided Iran with aid in order to help the government battle COVID-19. For example, the Geneva-based Doctors Without Borders sent a 50-bed inflatable hospital and an emergency medical team to Iran to help fight the virus.[4] Political infightings within the Islamic Republic, however, led to some Iranian officials making the appalling decision to dismiss the organization’s doctors from the country.[5]

Despite major political differences, some GCC countries have sent assistance to their Persian neighbor to help contain the spread of this deadly disease. On March 17, Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Shaikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah told his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif that the Kuwaiti government will provide Iran a $10 million aid package to help counter COVID-19. Kuwait City’s chief diplomat said, “the Kuwaiti government and people stay with the Iranian government and people in these hard days.”[6] This statement is not surprising considering past Kuwaiti attempts to maintain a dialogue with Iran and to urge other GCC states to start talks with Tehran to lower tension. Also, Omani and Iranian officials have been holding discussions about bilateral cooperation in the battle against the coronavirus.[7]

Qatar, which has received assistance from Iran during the blockade by its powerful Arab neighbors, announced it is dispatching six tons of medical equipment and supplies to Iran.[8] On March 22, Iran’s Assistant Minister of Health for International Affairs Jalal Naeli and Doha’s Ambassador to Tehran Mohamed ben Hamad al-Hajri received Qatar’s second shipment of medical assistance, sent via Qatar Airways by the Qatar Fund for Development.[9]

On March 3, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) delivered 7.5 tons of medical supplies (antibacterial gel, masks, gloves, etc.) to Iran along with five experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) before dispatching a second delivery of humanitarian aid to the heavily-sanctioned and disease-hit country. On March 15, Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s top diplomat, spoke to Zarif and affirmed “the UAE’s support to the Iranian people as they come through this crisis.”[10] Abu Dhabi’s Cabinet Member and Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem bint Ebrahim Al Hashimy said that the UAE’s help to Iran was in keeping with the Emirati tradition of standing “shoulder-to-shoulder with nations in their time of need.” The UAE’s assistance to Iran is important in the sense that the two countries have had tumultuous relations in the past few years, and have long held territorial disputes over three islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb in the Gulf.

To date, the two Iran-bound humanitarian assistance deliveries from the Emirates came from Dubai’s International Humanitarian City (IHC), a major global hub for humanitarian emergency preparedness and response. By virtue of Dubai’s close proximity to Iran as well as the UAE’s determination to play a critical regional role in terms of containing the spread of the virus, for the coming weeks, if not months, IHC may become the main logistics hub that countries around the world use to deliver medical supplies and other forms of aid to Iran as the world continues its struggle to counter COVID-19.

It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have not joined other GCC members in terms of delivering humanitarian aid to Iran amid this global pandemic that has hit the Islamic Republic so hardly. In fact, Iran and Saudi Arabia have not allowed the virus to get in the way of their political disputes. Within this context, while Iran has slammed Saudi Arabia for “preventing the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) from issuing a statement condemning US sanctions against Tehran,” the Kingdom accused Iran of not stamping the passports of five people who have since tested positive for COVID-19 when they travelled through the country, allowing them to go undetected when they returned to Saudi Arabia.[11] Unsurprisingly, Bahrain has also accused Iran of “biological aggression” by covering up the spread of coronavirus.[12]

Looking ahead, one could argue that for a region engulfed in historical resentments, the UAE’s humanitarian move is a positive step towards reducing tensions and volatility in the Middle East. Officials in Tehran, as well as many ordinary Iranian citizens, will remember which countries provided them with assistance amid this global crisis. Given the magnitude of the suffering and panic across the country, Iranians will not forget either how the Trump administration’s refusal[13] to ease the sanctions during the outbreak exacerbated the coronavirus’s spread throughout the country, as compared to those who stepped up to help Iran while putting geopolitical issues on the side.

In terms of Iran’s relations with GCC countries—mainly the UAE—it would be ideal if new bonds are formed based on compassion, universal values, and a mature realization that cross-border cooperation is necessary for protecting all countries from this COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid the outbreak of the deadly virus that has impacted many countries across the globe, perhaps the advice of the 13th century Persian poet Saadi can be instructive for the countries of the region, and by extension, for the international community. Saadi’s words, which are written on the walls of the United Nations, are as follows:

Human beings are members of one another,

since in their creation they are of one essence.

When the conditions of the time brings a member to pain,

the other members (limbs) will suffer from discomfort.

As Tehran and Washington remain in a state of brinksmanship, the outbreak of coronavirus and the positive gesture of GCC countries to send aid to Iran can be exploited by both sides to initiate a long-overdue regional dialogue between Iran and GCC member states. The deadly impact of the outbreak showcases how any threat to the stability of the Gulf region will not spare any countries in the neighborhood.


Sina Azodi is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a Foreign Policy Advisor at Gulf State Analytics. He is also a PhD candidate in International Relations at University of South Florida. Follow him on Twitter @Azodiac83.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy. Follow him on Twitter @GiorgioCafiero.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum




[1] Parisa Hafezi, “Iran’s death toll from coronavirus climbs to 2,234: ministry,” Reuters, March 26, 2020

[2] William Feuer, “WHO says coronavirus entered Iran ‘undetected,’ warns outbreak could be worse than is known,” CNBC, February 27, 2020l

[3] Rebecca Kheel, “Pompeo: US has offered to help Iran fight coronavirus,” The Hill, February 28, 2020

[4] “MSF sends inflatable hospital and emergency team to Iran to help fight coronavirus outbreak,” Doctors Without Borders, March 22, 2020

[5] “Iran Rejects Offer Of Help By Doctors Without Borders To Fight Coronavirus,” Radio Farda, March 24, 2020

[6] “Kuwait allocates $10 million to intensify fight against coronavirus in Iran,” Tehran Times, March 17, 2020

[7] “Iran, Oman discuss fighting COVID-19, parliamentary ties,” IRNA, March 15, 2020

[8] Ramadan Al Sherbini, “Coronavirus: Qatar sends medical aid to its ally Iran,” Gulf News, March 15, 2020

[9] “Second shipment of Qatari medical supplies arrives in Iran,” Gulf Times, March 22, 2020

[10] “UAE sends medical aid to Iran as coronavirus outbreak intensifies,” Al-Monitor, March 17, 2020

[11] “Coronavirus: Iran slams Saudi Arabia and its allies for blocking NAM statement on US sanctions,” MEE, March 19, 2020

[12] Nafisa Eltahir and Lisa Barrington, “Bahrain accuses Iran of ‘biological aggression’, Gulf states try to curb coronavirus,” Reuters, March 11, 2020

[13] Amanda Macias, “Trump will not offer Iran sanctions relief as coronavirus spreads rapidly in the country,” CNBC, March 20, 2020

Sina Azodi is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a Foreign Policy Advisor at Gulf State Analytics. He is also a PhD candidate in International Relations at University of South Florida. Follow him on Twitter @Azodiac83.   Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.

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