COVID-19: Middle East and the Arab League

by Chris Alden and Charles Dunst

The lack of collective Arab responsiveness is not unique as it mirrors Europe’s own systematic failure, exhibiting ‘solidarity’ when it is financially convenient.

Ramzy Baroud, journalist

Broadly speaking, the Arab League does not appear to be coordinating a meaningful response to the outbreak of the pandemic. This reflects long-standing divisions within the organisation which have limited its significance in delivering coordinated policy responses on a range of issues over time. This is in spite of the fact that, according to the UNDP, the region is set to lose $42 billion in revenue due to the pandemic. Responses remain overwhelmingly national and vary in line with developmental levels, with oil-rich UAE marshalling a multi-billion dollar stimulus package while middle-income countries like Egypt able to put forward only modest funds to boost the local economy.

That being said, in early April Chinese and Arab medical experts met over an Arab League-hosted video conference to share experience and expertise on combatting COVID-19. Fourteen Arab experts representing their health ministries of their countries met with experts from various Chinese institutions, along with Liao Liqiang, the Chinese ambassador to Egypt and China’ representative to the Arab League, and Maha el-Rabbat, the World Health Organization’s special envoy on coronavirus and Egypt’s former health minister. “The Chinese side said that their country is completely ready to provide advice and consultation on the novel coronavirus and the methods of its treatment and prevention, either orally or through the video conference technology,” said Arab League Assistant Secretary General for Social Affairs Haifa Abu-Ghazaleh. Chinese state media has similarly emphasized the “solidarity” it has shown with the Arab League, while also noting that Beijing has not actually provided the bloc with any tangible support. Beyond that, Western governments and China have been criticized for sending only limited medical supplies to Syria.

Where there has been a reaction to COVID-19, it is through the prism of conventional regional politics. For instance, an April statement by the bloc’s 22 nations warned that a humanitarian disaster could occur if the pandemic spreads to refugee camps in Syria, which houses many in poor health conditions. Later that month, the bloc convened to condemn Israel’s potential annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank (which are illegal under international law) and the Jordan Valley outright. The Arab League also voiced concern about how the pandemic might affect Palestinian prisoners but has been silent regarding the impact on vulnerable populations in Yemen and Libya’s civil war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Arab League’s failure to act has prompted criticism. As U.S.-Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud wrote: “The lack of collective Arab responsiveness is not unique as it mirrors Europe’s own systematic failure, exhibiting ‘solidarity’ when it is financially convenient, and turning its back, sometimes at its own brethren, when there are no economic incentives.” 

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