Amid the coronavirus crisis, the Gulf Arab countries have provided significant humanitarian aid to many states in dire need, despite the severe blow their economies have suffered from the combined effects of suspended international air travel and the collapse of oil prices. Gulf monarchies have notably extended their hand to Iran, suggesting that some Gulf leaders might want to work toward greater regional cooperation in the face of shared, human-security challenges. Within the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia has also allocated a $525 million aid package to Yemen, announcing a unilateral ceasefire to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus in a country that presents a perfect target for the contagion, owing in large part to the war in which the kingdom is a combatant.
In addition, most Gulf Arab countries have sent substantial aid to Beijing, with Kuwait donating $3 million worth of medical supplies, and Doha, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi also providing assistance. Moreover, Kuwait offered $40 million to the World Health Organization to help combat the spread of the virus. Qatar sent aid to Italy as well as Lebanon and Gaza, and the United Arab Emirates sent aid to Greece, Ethiopia, and Somalia, among others. Overall, as advertised by UAE Aid, the country has sent “more than 260 metric tons of aid to over 24 countries, benefiting approximately 260,000 medical professionals.” These illustrations of the Gulf countries’ humanitarian diplomacy in the time of coronavirus point to some interesting trends in their evolving foreign policies.
For the Gulf countries, providing humanitarian relief well beyond their borders is not uncommon, nor is it new. As Karen Young points out, it has historically been “a quiet tool of their respective foreign policies within the wider Middle East.” In fact, it has been an increasingly popular arrow in their diplomatic quiver, which is particularly true for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar. Céline Billat notes that while they were already contributing 1.5% of their GDP to foreign aid in the 1970s, Gulf Arab country contributions to global humanitarian aid went from 1% in 2000 to 7% in 2014. An inherent part of the diplomatic DNA of most Gulf Arab countries, humanitarian aid was typically an act of solidarity and a tool of soft power aimed at Islamic communities. Will Todman writes that it is generally directed to populations of “shared religious heritage,” including outside the Middle East and North Africa region, for example, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The fact that Gulf donors extended their help to China to fight the coronavirus outbreak could thus be a sign of change, an evolution of purpose within a continuity of diplomatic action. As noted by Jonathan Fulton, the intensification of channels of cooperation between the Gulf Arab countries and China might suggest that Beijing’s soft power is winning support within the Gulf states.
A second observation is that the current crisis has the potential to revive foreign policy patterns within the Gulf Cooperation Council that predate the Arab Spring and even go back to the early decades of the regional entity when the priority of Gulf leaders was to stand united in the face of common threats. A decade ago, combined shifts at the international level (the 2009 global economic crisis) and the regional level (the political uprisings), led Gulf Arab states to adopt assertive and competing policies, the backbone of which was their foreign aid to different groups competing for power in the political vacuum created in many countries in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. One major consequence of these rivalries has been to weaken the GCC as “a loose yet somewhat effective collective entity bringing together Gulf monarchs in their common quest for regime survival and territorial integrity.” The June 2017 diplomatic rift that pitted Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain against Qatar has further marginalized the GCC, since it failed to facilitate negotiations between its member states. Today, however, the coronavirus crisis seems to have provided an opportunity for Gulf leaders to revert to more traditional patterns of foreign assistance, less focused on competing goals and more on a common interest to fight the spread of the virus. A possible byproduct of this is that it could help ease neighborly disputes. While hardly decisive, it is worth noting that a number of GCC meetings were held with the virtual participation of all member states recently. In a joint effort to identify coronavirus countermeasures, all GCC ministers of finance convened on March 23, ministers of commerce on April 2, and ministers of interior on April 7.
Of course, humanitarian aid during the current crisis could, on the contrary, become a new field for competition between Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, whose rivalry has characterized international relations in the Gulf over the past decade. As noted by Young in 2016, once they reached the economic and military power they had craved for so long, these three Gulf states were indeed “faced with the dilemma of demonstrating their dominance without destroying the neighborhood.” To be sure, rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria, between the UAE and Qatar in Libya, and, at times, between Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, have illustrated the importance of this issue. Peter Salisbury noted in 2018 that the quarrels of these “quiet giants” (known for their low degree of transparency), and increasing trends of “hard transactionalism” in Gulf aid, have spurred concerns in the West. Perhaps the shared threat of the current public health challenge dilutes the risk of the coronavirus being used in such powerplays.
A third and final observation is that Gulf leaders’ different choices regarding which country to help in the face of the global pandemic tend to confirm divergent strategic goals. Kuwait has provided funds to the international organization coordinating the global response to the pandemic while eschewing political statements or picking sides. In keeping with their respective strategic concerns, Saudi Arabia focused its efforts on Yemen, and Qatar did so with the Middle Eastern countries it already has a history of supporting. Meanwhile, the UAE provided aid to a broad range of destinations, particularly on the African continent, in a manner similar to China’s use of soft power.
It remains to be seen if the double blow to the economies of the Gulf Arab states forces them to reconsider how much assistance they can provide abroad. Similarly, time will tell if the small hints of a return to intra-Gulf cooperation that the pandemic has prompted will help rebuild the trust that has been eroded. It is, however, still too soon to make any firm prognostics on either count, and more clarity will surely come once the dust of the global pandemic settles.