Gulf Arab countries are facing two daunting, simultaneous challenges. First, the coronavirus outbreak has affected their incipient efforts to diversify their economies by disrupting the tourism and hospitality industries. Second, plunging oil demand and market oversupply – and a disagreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia about how to tackle both – have prompted an oil price war. These hardships are bound to have significant and long-lasting negative economic consequences, but there is a potential silver lining. This crisis might serve as a wake-up call for Gulf leaders to identify more sustainable fields to develop, such as media production, financial technologies, and telecommunications, and to adjust their policies accordingly. Similarly, this dire situation might be a perfect turning point to rethink the definition of security in the Gulf (and beyond), and the best way to address future challenges.
While discussions about Gulf security usually focus on the political and military aspects, the coronavirus should bring nontraditional dimensions of security to the forefront of political agendas. As it has broadly – although not equally – threatened the health and wealth of individuals, as well as companies across the world, the current pandemic is a reminder of the importance of considering security in a more inclusive way, including how people are affected. The Gulf Arab states seem to have taken note of this need to reprioritize people-centered security challenges. For instance, a draft law was passed at the end of February by the Federal National Council in the United Arab Emirates to ensure the country has a strategic food reserve in case of crisis, acknowledging that “a basic index of human security is having an adequate supply of food.”
Moving toward human security, defined by the United Nations as an approach to “[identify and address] widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of [people],” does not only call for the implementation of new domestic policies, however. As a framework encompassing comprehensive actions across sectors, it also implies and promotes enhanced cooperation between countries to collectively tackle and prevent complex crises – such as the current ones – that “undercut prospects for peace, stability, and sustainable development.”
Today, Gulf Arab leaders are faced with difficult foreign policy choices, an alternative between two paths we might call “ego-balization” and “eco-operation,” which could determine the future of regional – and global – security. Interestingly, the reactions of Gulf Arab leaders to recent events can already be seen as an indicator of which path each of them is more likely to pursue.
Facing current multifaceted global security challenges, some leaders in the region and elsewhere have seemingly chosen to focus more on their political survival or gaining a strategic advantage against an opponent than on the need for coordination and cooperation. This applies to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both seem ready to shoulder significant losses in a power play to get their opponent to bend to their will regarding oil supply and pricing, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the world. Both appear to be locked in what might be seen as little more than a contest of egos.
On March 19, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain formally opposed the issuance of a request by the Non-Aligned Movement to the United States asking that sanctions against Iran be lifted in light of the coronavirus pandemic, illustrating a prioritization of political rivalries over humanitarian concerns. Earlier in March, Bahrain described Iran’s lack of transparency about the spread of the virus as “biological aggression,” rhetoric that echoes President Donald J. Trump labeling the coronavirus as a “foreign virus” – a clear strategy to blame the pandemic on China and Europe. Iran has been facing one of the world’s biggest outbreaks of the virus, where it has already claimed almost 2,900 lives. While China and Russia have publicly called on the United States to lift the sanctions, and the United Kingdom more privately did the same, the United States doubled down on March 19, announcing Iran-related sanctions against five firms in the UAE, a rare action against one of its closest Gulf partners. Meanwhile, some experts see the coronavirus crisis as a diplomatic opportunity to ask for the release of prisoners in exchange for humanitarian relief.
All of this may appear to be “business as usual,” in what realists see as an anarchic international system, relying on zero-sum games and the associated strategic calculi of world leaders. Similarly, such politicization of human security issues is not surprising as it effectively illustrates ego-balization. This term points to the growing incidence of ego-centered foreign policy decision-making processes, both in the way ultra-personalized politics seem to feed off one another and the way they have an increasing impact on the international stage. It also points to the idea that globalization has largely contributed to the systematization of such reflexes.
This does not need to be a fatality, however. As Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, puts it, “realism … reminds us that achieving effective international cooperation on [the coronavirus issue] may not be easy, despite the obvious need for it,” but there might still be room for hope. Realism indeed also suggests that, “in a competitive world, states cast a wary eye on what others are doing and have a big incentive to imitate success.” The exceptional circumstances the world is experiencing might thus provide an indirect opportunity for countries around the world to cooperate rather than compete with each other if some start demonstrating a choice to prioritize human concerns over political concerns.
In the Gulf, initiatives have displayed a capacity to set geopolitical differences and political schemes aside to come together during these times of duress. Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE have extended their hands to Iran, providing humanitarian assistance. The Qatar Fund for Development, following the directive of the emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, sent six tons of aid supplies to Iran. Kuwait donated aid to Iran ($10 million) and to the World Health Organization ($40 million), with the Kuwaiti foreign minister, Sabah Khaled al-Sabah, calling his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to express solidarity with the Iranian government and population. And the UAE dispatched aircraft for a WHO team with approximately 40 tons of medical aid to travel to Iran from Dubai’s International Humanitarian City – offering what some consider a “regional roadmap to deal with Iran.”
The UAE’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, also called his Iranian counterpart to stress solidarity with the Iranian government and people as they fight the coronavirus. All of these actions are remarkable for their lack of politicizing the issue, placing humanity above regional tensions.
Ultimately, when every hour counts, there is a choice between short-sighted decisions focused on personal political or nationalist geopolitical gain and initiatives that transcend adversarial politics, anchored in concern for the global population’s well-being in the long run. Gulf leaders could choose eco-operation as they reshape their foreign and security policies. This term evokes the environment, with climate change being one of the most significant nontraditional security threats of our time. Eco-operation points to policies adopted by actors mindful of operating in regional and international ecosystems that have a much brighter future if countries cooperate in the face of universal human security challenges.
A 2010 Brookings report, “Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization,” warned that global vulnerability to shocks was exacerbated by “our own tendency to weaken the systems on which we rely,” thus eroding capacity for collective action. Today, the coronavirus gives the world an opportunity to correct its trajectory. The virus could be a unifying enemy for the Gulf region and serve as a test to try collective efficiency to tackle other challenges, particularly in environmental security.
Defending a new model for human security back in 2018, Javier Solana, former secretary-general of NATO and EU high representative for foreign and security policy, wrote, “If we are to build a truly international society, we must think of sovereignty in terms of not just authority, but also responsibility.” Today, Gulf governments’ actions point to an awareness that fighting the spread of the coronavirus is a shared responsibility. In a similar, yet much more immediate way than global warming, this global health crisis could be a wake-up call for leaders in the region and beyond to collectively shoulder their responsibility to their populations – and the planet. It may be the perfect opportunity for leaders to invest real means and renewed efforts to address, in concert, global human security challenges, including pandemics and climate change.