The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic will likely alter the contours of the Middle East and North Africa region's security environment and will pose challenges in terms of food security, conflict resolution, geopolitical tensions, and terrorism in the near-to-medium term. COVID-19 has prompted low oil prices, which have been brought about by the Saudi-Russian price war and a 29 million barrels per day (bpd) reduction in the demand for crude oil. COVID-19 has also significantly degraded the tourism sector upon which many countries in the MENA region heavily depend, including Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Additionally, trends that were at play – such as protests in Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran; US-Iran geopolitical tensions; and the threat of militancy in Iraq and Syria before the COVID-19 outbreak – will almost certainly accelerate.
Macroeconomic Instability and Civil Unrest Possible in MENA Region
Despite the COVID-19 restrictions and ban on large public gatherings in Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon, protests have already sprung up and are likely to intensify in the coming weeks and months. The widespread business closures in the MENA region due to COVID-19 have contributed to high rates of unemployment, which will likely translate into social unrest. Algerian authorities have arrested dozens of political activists, social dissidents, and members of the opposition groups; these moves will likely further galvanize the anti-government protest movement that began in February 2019, when former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika decided to run for a fifth term. Thousands of people took to the streets of Iraq May 10, demanding economic reform and an overhaul of the country's entire political system. Protests have erupted despite Iraqi political parties coming together and electing a new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, May 6.
COVID-19 Likely to Worsen Economic Crisis in Lebanon
Nationwide anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon, which began in October 2019, have rarely been violent until recently. The country's dire economic situation, which COVID-19 has worsened, along with the collapse of the Lebanese currency, rising food prices, and growing unemployment rates, have forced the Lebanese to protest, where they have regularly clashed with security forces. Clashes between security forces and protesters in Tripoli April 27 left dozens of people injured, including at least two soldiers. Protesters have been burning tires, engaging in acts of vandalism against public and private property, and setting several banks on fire. The attacks on banks in Tripoli and Sidon prompted Lebanon's Banking Association to close all banks in Tripoli for a few days in late April.
Further similar disruptions in the Lebanese financial sector remain likely. Protesters are particularly frustrated with banks and financial institutions, which have imposed capital controls on withdrawals and transfers. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will likely worsen Lebanon's ongoing economic crisis and prompt additional nationwide protests. The April 27 clashes follow months of anti-government protests due to deteriorating economic conditions and poor public services. Critics of the government state that the critically low currency reserves have impeded Prime Minister Hassan Diab's ability to import necessary medical supplies and formulate an effective public health response to COVID-19. Widespread business closures and unemployment under the country's nationwide lockdown further contribute to the public's economic grievances and increase the potential for civil unrest.
Resurgance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Possible
COVID-19 has also raised serious concerns about the resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) throughout the region, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Militant groups have urged their rank and file to take advantage of the world's preoccupation with COVID-19 and strike while the opportunity presents itself; IS said as much in a recent editorial in its weekly newspaper, Al-Naba or the Dispatch. COVID-19 and heightened tensions between Washington and Iran prompted key coalition members of the fight against IS – France, Spain, and the UK – to withdraw their troops from Iraq over concerns that they may contract the disease. IS has increasingly ratcheted up its operations in Iraq and Syria since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. IS militants freely operate in the desert area between Iraq and Syria and regularly launch attacks against government forces and civilians throughout the region. Hit-and-run attacks have become particularly common since the group's territorial loss in Iraq and Syria in December 2017. The threat of IS is particularly prevalent in the Jazira and Badia regions along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
COVID-19 Could Become a Conflict-multiplier Across MENA Region
UN has made repeated calls to cease hostilities; however, conflicts in the MENA region have persevered COVID-19 will almost certainly aggravate the security environment in MENA's conflict-ridden countries – Syria, Yemen, and Libya. The lack of one unified government in these countries has exacerbated this dire security environment.
Syria's President, Salvation Government, and Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria Compete for Power
In Syria, there are practically three parallel governments that are competing for power and resources. In Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad has been trying to take advantage of COVID-19 and further consolidate his grip over power in the country. In Idlib, the Salvation Government (SG) – the civilian administration for the region's jihadist alliance, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – suffers from a lack of resources and is thus completely unprepared to manage the challenges of COVID-19. In northeastern Syria, the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), also known as Rojava, deals with threats posed by Turkish and Turkish-backed forces as well as IS militant and prisoners in its detention centers.
Militant Groups in Yemen Contend for Control
Despite a tenuous temporary ceasefire between the Saudi coalition and the Shi'a Al-Houthi rebels in Yemen, the conflict persists and will likely intensify in the coming weeks and months. The Al-Houthis control the capital Sana'a and most of northern Yemen. These rebels rely on support from Iran, and regularly launch rockets, missiles, and drones into Saudi Arabia. In southern Yemen, several rival groups are vying for control of Aden, which serves as the interim capital of President Abed Rabo Mansour al-Hadi. Additionally, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist movement backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), operates in the area. On April 25, 2020, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-rule in Aden and Yemen's southern governorates.
Conflicts Between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA) Persevere
Mediation efforts by the international community and regional countries to bring about a peace agreement between the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, have failed and the resolution of the conflict appears remote. The GNA rejected the LNA's unilateral Ramadan truce April 30. The LNA announced April 29 that it would cease all hostilities for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, April 29, at the request of the UN and its foreign allies. Fighting between the LNA and forces aligned with the GNA has been ongoing since April 2019, when the LNA launched a military operation to seize control of Tripoli. The fighting has killed hundreds of people and displaced thousands of others. Even if the LNA and the GNA sign any peace agreement or truce, it is unlikely to last. The GNA has said it would continue its legitimate self-defense operations. Any peace deal will also be tenuous, partly because of the number of foreign countries that support competing factions in Libya. While Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Russia back the LNA; Turkey, Italy, and Qatar provide support to the GNA. These countries pursue divergent interests in Libya that further complicate negotiations.
In addition, the GNA has said that it could not trust Haftar. The LNA's plea for a truce comes amid the group's loss of several strategic coastal cities in recent weeks. The GNA, with Turkish military support, has been targeting the LNA's key bases, including supply bases of Al-Watiya and Tarhuna. Haftar canceled the UN-brokered political agreement that was signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015 and declared himself the rightful leader of Libya by a popular mandate April 27. The 2015 agreement attempted to resolve tensions between the two rival parliaments – the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli. Haftar had maintained that he drew his legitimacy from HoR; however, now that HoR appears defunct, Haftar seems to be attempting two goals: to consolidate all power and remove any potential opposition to his rule in the eastern city of Benghazi; and to regroup and launch another full military assault on Tripoli.
COVID-19 Tests Resiliency and Efficiency of Public Institutions as Oil Prices Drop and Budget Cuts Continue
The contraction of the global economy and the lack of consumption have left a major surplus of oil in the global market. The collapse of oil prices will likely have major consequences for MENA's oil-exporting countries. Oil revenues represent some 50 percent of the Saudi Gross Domestic Product (GDP), between 70 to 80 percent of its export earnings, and 87 percent of the government's expenditure. The Kingdom essentially needs oil prices to be at least USD 90 per barrel in order to balance its budget and maintain a highly subsidized economy.
The low oil prices will also halt the Saudi government's attempts to diversify the economy away from oil and postpone Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS)'s Vision 2030, a strategic framework that aims to develop the Kingdom's public service industries, such as health, education, and infrastructure. Libya needs USD 100 per barrel in order to be able to balance its budget, while Algeria requires USD 109 per barrel. Oil accounts for 90 percent of Iraq's government expenditure; the country is the second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
The low oil prices and COVID-19 have forced several countries, including Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, to cut subsidies. These measures will likely bring about anti-government demonstrations and contribute to unemployment rates. Algeria has cut the government's 2020 budget by 50 percent. COVID-19 will force most countries in the MENA region to make similar adjustments to maintain financial and economic stability; however, these economic adjustments will exacerbate the political and security environment in the near-to-medium term. COVID-19 will also test the resiliency and efficiency of public institutions throughout the region. The breakdown of such institutions and mechanisms will further intensify local conflicts and serve as an advantage to militant organizations, which thrive on chaos and political instability.
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