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COVID-19: A Unifying Enemy for the Gulf Region?

In an era of hyper-globalization, the global pandemic known as “COVID-19” (also referred to as ‘coronavirus’) threatens all countries worldwide. Located between Africa, Asia, and Europe, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states are particularly vulnerable to the disease by virtue of how interconnected these countries are to the world at large (and particularly to China and Iran), through their aviation, energy, logistics, trade, and tourism sectors. Amid this global outbreak, how the Arab Gulf monarchies take on the challenges of this virus will help inform countries the world over concerning strategies and tactics for containing COVID-19.

To the credit of the Arab Gulf states, officials have proven capable of acting decisively in order to contain the spread of the virus to the greatest extent possible. Education initiatives, along with restrictive measures such as canceling public events, airport screenings, closing of universities, and the quarantining of thousands, appear to have enabled the Arab Gulf states to keep this pandemic under control within their own borders, at least for now. On March 11, Kuwait announced its decision to suspend all flights, with the exception of inbound trips for Kuwaiti nationals and their first-degree relatives, as well as cargo flights. The Kuwaiti government also declared that it will ban its residents from meeting in restaurants, commercial centers, and cafes.[1] The same day, Qatar announced that its number of cases has reached 262—a major spike from 44 one day earlier.[2] Nonetheless, it is fortunate that, there has not been a single recorded death from COVID-19 in any GCC member-state.

Panic on the Other Side of the Gulf

In neighboring Iran, the situation is significantly worse. As of writing, coronavirus has caused 429 deaths in Iran, where authorities claim that the disease has infected 10,075 people.[3] Among those dead or infected include a former deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), parliamentarians, the Deputy Health Minister, a Vice President, and an Advisor to the country’s Supreme Leader.[4] Domestic travel throughout Iran has come to a grinding halt and restaurants have virtually no customers. Tehran has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for emergency funding to the tune of $5 billion to help Iran’s government battle COVID-19.[5]

Critics of the Islamic Republic maintain that governance issues (corruption, opaqueness, and inertia within Iran’s ruling elite) and politicization of the crisis by officials in Tehran are to blame for the diseases’ inordinate impact on the country. “We were doctors in the Iranian health system for years,” wrote Kamiar Alaei and Arash Alaei in their recent New York Times article. “This is what happens when you make health policy subservient to politics.”[6]

Yet, there is no denying that the Trump administration’s policies are exacerbating the harm coronavirus is inflicting on Iran. While U.S.-imposed sanctions already made daily life increasingly difficult for citizens, Iranians are now increasingly worried about the lack of available medicines and masks. The country lacks the “most basic personal and disinfectant protection” as one nurse in the province of Gilan recently told The Independent.[7] Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has called on the U.S. administration to lift sanctions so that Iranians can access medicine. Nonetheless, the White House remains firmly committed to “maximum pressure” notwithstanding Iran’s special needs amid this cross-border pandemic. Although officials in the Trump administration have stated that they are willing to help Iran battle coronavirus, their counterparts in Tehran have responded with accusations that Trump officials are merely wearing “masks of sympathy” while having no genuine interest in helping Iranians. [8] The so-called hardliners are pointing their fingers abroad, blaming hostile actors (America) for unleashing COVID-19 with the expressed purpose of weakening Iran and China.

Regardless of how this global health crisis plays out in Iran, the Arab Gulf states cannot ignore the spread of coronavirus that is occurring within their Persian neighbor. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and others in the GCC have put a halt to all travel to and from Iran in order to help contain the disease. Yet, it is also worth noting that for all their differences with Iran, the effects of this pandemic have caused officials in Arab Gulf states to have a new common enemy, albeit a biological one, with their counterparts in Tehran. Despite the gravity of the overall situation, it is possible that a silver lining of COVID-19 could emerge in the form of public health cooperation that proves capable of transcending geopolitical rivalries and long-standing tensions. The UAE’s role in helping to facilitate a dispatch of 7.5 tons of medical aid to Iran from the World Health Organization (WHO) was a hopeful sign of how this virus may result in countries of the Gulf rethinking their approach to regional rivalries.[9]

By the same token, there is the unfortunate fact that COVID-19 could conversely worsen existing tensions between various countries in the region. Already, the fact that the holy Iranian Shi’a city of Qom has been so badly affected has led to a variety of voices across the GCC portraying COVID-19 as a “Shi’a disease.” On March 12, Bahrain’s government accused Iran of “biological aggression” because of Tehran’s handling of the coronavirus and alleged failure to stamp passports of Bahraini citizens travelling to the Islamic Republic.[10] Additionally, a UAE-based Saudi journalist accused Qatar of being behind the virus. These developments underscore how negative stereotypes, assumptions, and views of “enemies” can dim the prospects for multi-state cooperation in the struggle against coronavirus in the Gulf.[11]

Challenges for Economic Diversification and Long-Term Stability

In any event, no GCC member-state will be able to avoid economic costs as a result of coronavirus and its impact on the global economy. A Chinese slowdown would severely damage the health of Gulf economies given that China is the GCC’s top economic partner and a major strategic partner for each of the council’s member states.

Given how much the GCC member-states’ various “visions” for economic diversification depend on oil and/or gas revenues, the current set of financial problems stemming from COVID-19 represent major challenges to countries seeking to end their dependence on hydrocarbons. In addition to energy, religious tourism in Saudi Arabia is suffering from coronavirus, with the Kingdom even temporarily suspending Umrah pilgrimages, itself a significant source of non-oil sector revenue for the Saudis.[12]

At the same time, COVID-19 puts a big question mark over Dubai Expo 2020, which is scheduled to kick off in October 2020 and last until April 2021. It is not clear whether the disease will cancel the “mega-event.” As Kristian Coates Ulrichsen wrote, “Of course, when compared to the public health implications of a potential global pandemic, such considerations as the fate of a glorified trade fair are trivial, but to a country that has invested so heavily in branding itself to the world, on its own terms and often in disregard for accepted norms, the prospects for marking 2020 as the global breakout of the UAE (and Saudi Arabia) have dimmed.”[13]

Ultimately, while the Arab Gulf states have proven to, so far, do a good job protecting their citizens from the health dangers posed by COVID-19, it is clear that this virus represents a major threat to the ambitions of GCC members to diversify their economies. Against the backdrop of a failed OPEC meeting earlier this month in Austria, the coronavirus is spreading throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world at a terrible time for Saudi Arabia and other GCC states. These dynamics coupled with reported arrests of Saudi Arabia’s former Crown Prince and other high-profile members of the Al Saud family, call into question political and economic stability within the Kingdom. Yet, the main challenge now will be the uncertainty hovering over the economic future of the GCC states in light of this epidemic and its ramifications.


Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

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] Omar Shariff, “Kuwait to suspend all flights from Friday over coronavirus,” Gulf News, March 11, 2020

[2] “Coronavirus cases in Qatar jump by 238 in one day,” Middle East Eye, March 11, 2020

[3] Kate Mayberry, Tamila Varshalomidze and Usaid Siddiqui, “Iran’s coronavirus cases exceed 10,000: Live updates,” Aljazeera, March 12, 2020

[4] Borzou Daragahi, “Coronavirus death toll in Iran surges to more than 230 as medical staff ‘unable to get safety equipment’ The Independent, March 10, 2020

[5] Parisa Hafezi and Davide Barbuscia, “Iran says it has asked IMF for $5 billion emergency funding to fight coronavirus,” Reuters, March 12, 2020

[6] Kamiar Alaei and Arash Alaei, “How Iran Completely and Utterly Botched Its Response to the Coronavirus,” The New York Times, March 6, 2020

[7] Borzou Daragahi, “Coronavirus death toll in Iran surges to more than 230 as medical staff ‘unable to get safety equipment’ The Independent, March 10, 2020

[8] “Iran’s president urges U.S. to lift sanctions to help fight COVID-19,” Xinhuanet, March 4, 2020

[9] Paul McLoughlin, “A tale of two outbreaks: How Gulf countries succeeded where Iran failed on containing coronavirus,” The New Arab, February 6, 2020

[10] Nafisa Eltahir and Lisa Barrington, “Bahrain accuses Iran of ‘biological aggression’ as Gulf tries to stem coronavirus spread,” Reuters, March 11, 2020

[11] Paul McLoughlin, “A tale of two outbreaks: How Gulf countries succeeded where Iran failed on containing coronavirus,” The New Arab, February 6, 2020

[12] “Saudi Arabia suspends Umrah pilgrimage due to coronavirus fears,” France24, March 4, 2020

[13] Krtistian Coates Ulrichsen, “Will the coronavirus cancel Dubai Expo 2020?,” Responsible Statecraft, March 3, 2020

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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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