SMA hosted a speaker session, presented by Prof. Simon Mabon (Sectarianism, Proxies & De-sectarianisation (SEPAD)), Dr. Luciano Zaccara (Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University), Dr. Lucia Ardovini (Middle East and North Africa Programme, Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)), and Dr. Rashed Alrasheed (Richardson Institute, Lancaster University), as a part of its SMA UK MoD Speaker Series.
Prof. Simon Mabon began by stating that the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic increased dialogue among many of the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC): a group which had the potential to geopolitically reconstruct the region. He also compared COVID-19’s ability to improve the region’s political relationships to the softening of GCC geopolitics after past natural disasters. An example that illustrates the enhancement of political relations in the Gulf is the United Arab Emirates’ use of humanitarian aid to improve its own political image by helping countries with less resources early on in the pandemic. However, as GCC countries began suffering economically and COVID-19 rates increased, countries began to point blame, mostly at Iran, and the prospect for a GCC geopolitical renaissance faltered.
Dr. Luciano Zaccara then focused on the impact that COVID-19 had on Iran internally. He emphasized that there is controversy surrounding almost every aspect of the epidemic in Iran. These controversies include when Iran had its first official case, how Iran concealed data on the spread of COVID-19, how the epidemic has impacted members of Iran’s parliament and ruling elite, and who has access to available vaccines. Furthermore, the ability for several GCC countries to trace their first official COVID-19 case to individuals who recently returned from Iran led to the blame being placed on Iran for the spread of epidemic throughout the region. As a result, several countries closed their borders to Iran, which only exacerbated Iran’s domestic hardships.
Next, Dr. Lucia Ardovini provided a summary of how the ongoing pandemic has strengthened political Islam throughout the GCC. She defined political Islam as non-secular politics that blends the religion of Islam and government together. Dr. Ardovini then asserted that even though political Islam has been under attack by the region’s governments, because government elites are concerned that other religious movements could threaten their control by gaining popular support, the COVID-19 epidemic has only further entrenched religious institutions’ roles as support systems and providers of services. For example, governments in the region have relied on religious institutions to encourage citizens to socially distance and receive vaccinations. Overall, Islamic institutions in countries that have less resources to endure the epidemic have carried more political weight and a larger role in fighting the epidemic.
Dr. Rashed Alrasheed concluded the discussion by focusing on the contention between the large population of expatriate workers in GCC countries who traveled to work in oil fields and those countries’ domestic populations. He stated that these expatriate workers have become targets for the rest of those countries’ populations’ blame as oil prices sink and jobs become scarcer. Moreover, the expatriate population is frequently blamed for the spread of COVID-19, perceived as a drain on the domestic economy, and seen as competition for domestic jobs. Dr. Alrasheed finished by stating that hate speech targeting expatriate workers, increasing xenophobia, criticism of companies that can’t afford to pay their employees, and competition for scarce jobs have resulted in both heightened tensions and the potential for conflict between the expatriate worker population and GCC nations’ domestic populations.
To access the recording of this panel discussion, please email Ms. Nicole Peterson (email@example.com).