The spread of coronavirus has shone light on the various alliances and conflicts throughout the region, but the unfolding pandemic seems only to be deepening divisions rather than healing them.
Every year, millions of Shia pilgrims from all over the world head off to visit a circuit of shrines in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They kiss or touch each one in the hope of obtaining a blessing by their proximity to those the shrines are dedicated to, the Prophet Muhammad’s family. During the early days of the coronavirus epidemic, shrines became major viral vectors, infecting Shiite pilgrims – some of whom had underlying health conditions or were elderly – who then carried the disease throughout the region.
The virus quickly also spread to the major Shii shrines in neighbouring Iraq, in particular Najaf and Karbala, from where pilgrims further transmitted the contagion. An Iranian student at Najaf’s religious seminary was the first case recorded in Iraq. Najaf’s Iman Ali Shrine then became another major epicentre for the transmission of the virus. There were soon cases recorded across the country, including fatalities among clerics, leading the Iraqi government to close the shrine, ban public gatherings and cancel Friday prayers across the country for the first time since 2003, thereby effectively putting Najaf in quarantine. Although Muqtada al-Sadr kept going to the Iman Ali Shrine in a publicised act of defiance and an effort to keep it open.
It also took the Iraqi government several weeks to limit access to the shrines, ban public gatherings, cancel Friday prayers and close the usually busy border with Iran, further facilitating the spread of the virus.
The heavy sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN and the US have meant that the economic lifeline to China has been growing ever more important for Iran.
On 21 February, Lebanon confirmed its first case of Covid-19, a 45-year old woman who had recently returned from the Iranian city of Qom. On 24 February, the governments of Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait announced their first coronavirus cases and by 2 March, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had reported cases as well. It seemed that the earliest coronavirus patients had recently travelled to Iran. Many of the initial cases diagnosed in Qatar were from a group of citizens and their foreign staff who were repatriated to the Gulf country from Iran.
Shia pilgrims and businessmen also likely brought the virus with them to Pakistan, home to tens of millions of Shia Muslims. Recent arrivals from Iran are also likely to have first brought the virus to Afghanistan, where the city of Herat, near the border with Iran, has the highest number of cases in the country. Further east, the five states of Central Asia were among the first to slam shut their borders with China at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. They have also halted all travel and trade with Iran. While the first cases are being reported there, supply disruptions and economic anxiety have swept the region.
Iran’s handling of the outbreak quickly made it the target of fear and anger. US officials blamed Iran for its slow response, their Iranian counterparts, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, voiced conspiracy theories that the virus originated in the US. Ironically, the heavy sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN and the US have meant that the economic lifeline to China has been growing ever more important for the country, probably facilitating the early arrival of the virus.
Bahrain’s interior minister accused Iran of “biological aggression that is criminalised by international law”.
The maximum pressure strategy followed by the Trump administration contributed to Tehran’s initial reluctance to shut down the country, so as not to do further harm to the economy. Sanctions have contributed to the dire state of Iran’s health system. Being virtually cut off from international transactions, US sanctions effectively make it very difficult for Iran to buy medical supplies. Iran then appealed to the UN and other countries for a lifting of sanctions to facilitate the fight against the virus and has appealed for unprecedented loan from the IMF.
Iran’s neighbours were also quick to attribute blame. Bahrain’s interior minister, Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa, accused Iran of “biological aggression that is criminalised by international law” for covering up the outbreak and failing to stamp Bahraini travellers’ passports. On its official Twitter account, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Iran for “creating a health threat which endangers mankind.” And an Emirati newspaper claimed that all coronavirus cases in the region were linked to Iran – even though the UAE’s first COVID-19 cases were Chinese tourists from Wuhan. Officially, the UAE, alongside Qatar and Kuwait, then offered help to Iran to fight the virus.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have cracked down heavily in recent years on political dissent among their Shia populations, which are politically marginalised, stigmatised for their religious beliefs and practices, and often suspected of loyalty to Iran. The coronavirus crisis now appears to be amplifying anti-Shia prejudice and discrimination. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016, after the execution in Saudi Arabia of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr sparked protests in Iran and led to the storming of Saudi diplomatic facilities. Thereafter, travel to Iran was officially prohibited for Saudis, although pilgrims continued to go via third countries.
The crisis is further contributing to the securitisation of Shia communities in the Gulf.
After Saudi Arabia’s first Covid-19 cases were found in the predominantly Shia eastern region of Qatif, the region was put under quarantine. When the Saudi Health Ministry called on people who had recently travelled to Iran to declare themselves to the authorities, dozens of Saudi Shias did so. As coronavirus cases in the kingdom have risen, hundreds of their compatriots have taken to Twitter to brand them traitors and call for their execution. Bahrain has begun using the coronavirus crisis as a pretext to track the movements of its Shia citizens, and has asked those who have been to Iran to identify themselves by calling a hotline.
The crisis is therefore further contributing to the securitisation of Shia communities in the Gulf. Subsequently, however, more cases have been recorded amongst a group of Egyptians in other parts of the country. A major cause for concern revolves around the other side of the country, the western region of the Hijaz, which is home to Islam’s two holiest cities Mecca and Medina, both major locations for pilgrimage. Saudi authorities therefore suspended the Umrah, or minor pilgrimage, in late February.
In Lebanon, which was already in a state of deep political and financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic has also exacerbated political and sectarian tensions. The nation’s most powerful political and military force, Hezbollah, has strong ties to Iran, and Lebanon allowed flights from Iran to continue until the second week of March. Iran’s support of Hezbollah is fiercely contested, and the rival parties have politicised the virus, using it to criticise Iran’s influence in Lebanon.
The coronavirus crisis in the Middle East is shaping up to be a crisis of epic proportions.
The recently appointed Lebanese health minister, Hamad Hassan, had the backing of Hezbollah in a recent government formation in the wake of large anti-government protests. The country has been on total lockdown since 21 March, but many Lebanese fear the scale of the crisis is much bigger than the government is admitting. Lebanon’s health system is in a dire state, exacerbated by neoliberal reforms, and a huge number of refugees. Given the lack of healthcare facilities in particular for more vulnerable groups, an outbreak in Lebanon could be devastating.
Syria’s health minister had initially claimed that the country was free of Covid-19, and praised the Syrian army for cleansing the country of “germs”—a reference to the killing of Syrians who oppose the ruling Baath Party. But given Iran’s close economic and military ties to both countries, it seems unlikely that either will be spared. And after years of war, the spread of the coronavirus in Yemen, Syria or Libya, or in the camps hosting millions of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, or poor and populous countries such as Egypt, is likely to be devastating.
From a security perspective as well as a humanitarian one, the coronavirus crisis in the Middle East is shaping up to be a crisis of epic proportions. It should be a reminder that there is no security without human security, and that countries need to work together to overcome challenges. Unfortunately, it seems that the coronavirus epidemic is deepening rather than healing divisions.
Toby Matthiesen is a senior research fellow in the International Relations of the Middle East at the University of Oxford. His latest book is The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism, and Matthiesen is currently writing a global history of Sunni-Shii relations.