Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 08, 2020
COVID-19 and the gameplay of West Asia’s geopolitics

It is now fairly clear that the global spread; reaction and containment efforts of the COVID19 pandemic will have an adverse effect on the global order as we have known it in the post World War II era. Globalization is under duress, and multilateral systems such as the UN and its associate bodies, specifically the World Health Organisation (WHO), are (rightly) becoming theatres of rivalry between the US and China.

The effects of the virus have been glaring in West Asia (Middle East) as well. Most countries in the region are suffering from outbreaks, the UAE has clocked over 2,300 cases, Iran is home to the biggest crisis in the region with over 60,000 cases and 3,000 deaths, and even Gaza has reported more than 10 cases with an imminent threat of a rapid spread in the embattled enclave. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has reported more than 2,700 cases and 41 deaths while Israel has over 9,000 cases and 71 deaths.

Previously, the West Asian region has had experience with a similar kind of virus, albeit at a smaller scale. The Middle East respirator Syndrome, or MERS Co-V was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and spread across 27 countries. The virus as of January 2020 had only 2500 cases since 2012, with 866 deaths. Most cases in West Asia remained in Saudi Arabia (1029), followed by UAE (74), Jordan (19) and Qatar (10). The MERS virus was much more contained, allowing individual countries to manage their own outbreaks in consultation with organizations such as WHO, not requiring regional common solidarity to tackle the same. COVID19, however, has been drastically different.

In midst of the state responses to COVID19 in the region, the Syrian civil war continues, with the country having next to no capacity to diagnose or test in between the conflict. Amidst the region’s geopolitics and continuous conflicts from Syria to Yemen, there reside millions of refugees staying in camps with bare minimum resources. Areas such as Idlib are still seeing military activity on a daily basis amidst the rapid spread of the pandemic. If unchecked, millions of refugees in the region face the infection without any defences, and hundreds of thousands of them may die from the disease without having a chance.

However, the fight against COVID19 has also provided opportunities in the region to build bridges, working toward a common goal despite the fissures of political adversity. The UAE, a steadfast ally of Saudi Arabia and the US’s increasingly vocal narratives against Iran since the dissolution of the JCPOA nuclear agreement by the Trump administration, extended humanitarian aid to Tehran. In what is being seen as a peace gesture, however, previously as well the UAE has attempted to distance itself from the erratic policies the US against Iran, which puts country’s megacities and mega markets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in direct threat. More than geo-political gameplay, an outreach to Iran by UAE in a time of need is also the emirate securing its own future as a major economic recession sets in, even if the Saudis, US and Iran continue to march forward in with the pre-pandemic status quos.

This juncture also puts Saudi Arabia in a dilemma. The rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as the king in waiting came via the past few years of him cementing his authority, quelling dissent within the House of Saud and the kingdom, and forging a pathway to rejig Saudi’s economy away from its complete dependence on oil. To achieve this, MBS had started to shift the Saudi society and polity away from its rigid conservatism, allowing women to drive, opening up the economy for foreign investments, Western entertainment, culture, concerts and so on. This economically critical and politically precarious shift in Saudi relied on a robust and stable global economy, managing a long-term transformation away from the petro dollars. At the end, Saudi wanted what the UAE has achieved over the past two decades.

In midst of the unfolding global pandemic, Saudi also managed to embroil itself in an oil price war with Russia as the global economy jittered. One of OPEC’s main ideals is to stabilize prices in the global markets, which maintains the oil producing nations coffers and steadies supplies to the large oil consuming nations, which today for West Asian producers reside in Asia and led by China and India. In January, Moscow wanted to provide a dent into the American shale industry, which has allowed the US till a large extent to become energy self-sufficient. As the COVID19 virus spread, industrial demands dropped drastically, and global transportation came to a halt pushing the price of oil below $24 per barrel. Russia, a non-OPEC member, refused to cut production, making the prices tank further, significantly hurting economies such as Saudi Arabia. In February, the US sanctioned Russia’s largest energy company, Rosneft, for supporting the regime of oil rich Venezuela, as the oil war intensified. The tug-of-war between Riyadh and Moscow was taking place as the world stood on the cliff of a recession.

Meanwhile, as is the nature of geo-politics, there was also a certain level of realpolitik visible amidst this ensuing chaos. Antoine Halff, a research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, presented an interesting geo-political take of the price war. Halff argued that for the geo-politics of oil between Saudi and Russia, the two largest producers, COVID19 has provided a cliff where Riyadh and Moscow get to test global oil capacity storage limits. Halff invokes the concept of game theory, led by the thinking of Fields Medal laureate Pierre-Louis Lions and Jean Michael Lasery. Halff argues that Saudi and Russia walked into this price war amidst a global pandemic, by design, knowing fully well the kind of impact it would have on their economy, but perhaps more importantly, how it would impact the global economy and how both of them will be able to weather it while testing capacities, relations and balances. Perhaps more importantly, both Riyadh and Moscow took the opportunity of the pandemic to reign in American shale, arguably making it an outlier instead of US being center stage in global oil production. A geo-political “masterstroke”, if you will, by both an ally and an adversary.

“It usually takes some kind of shock to get the dominant monopoly to go into cliff mode. In the late 1990s, the catalyst was the negative demand shock of the Asian financial crisis. During the most recent oil market crash, in 2014, it was the supply shock of US shale oil. For some time, the model shows, the market had been waiting for the right signal. The coronavirus has provided it,” Halff  argued.

The effects of COVID19 on the geo-politics of one of the most volatile regions in the world are playing out on multiple levels. While the internal dynamics of the power struggles between the three poles of power, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, continue to evolve, how much COVID19 is going to change the nature of the region’s political balances will ultimately depend now on larger economic themes. Anecdotally, since COVID19 had hit Iran, Saudi, Israel and UAE, the number of reported attacks by militias in Syria, air strikes by Israel in that country and so on have seen a drop, as operating ‘normally’ in these times can have serious repercussions domestically, with the number of cases, and number of deaths rising in all of these countries. While these warring countries would accept domestic political strife made by COVID19 as a long-term benefit against one and other, playing on the governance deficits that remain in the region, analysts such as Frederic Wehrey have already started to ask the question, that will the COVID19 fallout end up triggering a second Arab Spring?

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Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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