The impact of COVID-19 on the Middle East and North Africa: consequences and opportunities

Emmanuel Cohen-Hadria, the Director of IEMed's Department for Euro-Mediterranean Policies, gives the fifth seminar in the MDAE Alumni series

DIPLOCAT has today hosted the fifth seminar in the series on COVID-19 and its global and European impact. The event was organised in conjunction with the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI) under the auspices of the MDAE Alumni Network and entitled "Nothing will ever be the same again...How about the Mediterranean region post-COVID?"

The event was kicked off by Laura Foraster, Secretary General of DIPLOCAT, who apologised for the absence of Jacint Jordana, Director of the IBEI, and stressed the significance and also the difficulty of answering the question in the seminar's title. Emmanuel Cohen-Hadria, Director of IEMed's Department for Euro-Mediterranean Policies and coordinator of the EuroMeSCo: Connecting the Dots project, was the guest speaker. Jordi Arrufat, a graduate from the first MDAE programme and a project officer at DIPLOCAT, moderated the debate.

Cohen-Hadria began by saying that his presentation would be divided into four key themes to answer the question: the health impact of COVID-19 in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region; the clash of the region's earlier vulnerabilities with COVID-19; the socio-economic effects and the policies put in place to mitigate them; and the future opportunities and long-term political projects.

He said that COVID-19's health impact in the MENA region has been less than in Europe, North America and Latin America. However, he pointed out that these figures should be taken with a pinch of salt because of the likelihood that deaths at home have not been counted, that the sick have not been treated in hospitals and the unfeasibility of counting infected people in conflict areas. He noted that some of the reasons why the pandemic has been milder are demographics due to a younger population and also the quick and uncompromising response since the start of the pandemic (he cited temperature screening at Tunisia's borders in January 2020 and penalties of up to three months in prison for not wearing a facemask in some other countries).

Nevertheless, Cohen-Hadria stressed that within the MENA area there have been great differences between countries owing to their diverse health systems. He argued that healthcare investment in recent years in the Gulf countries has led to higher recovery rates than in other countries in the region which have weaker systems in place, or in the case of Libya because three of the country's large hospitals were inoperative due to the explosion last August.

The region's earlier vulnerabilities not only involved the health system and poor social security since Cohen-Hadria also underscored the significance of high levels of corruption as one of the major causes of the region's failings. Corruption makes it difficult to deliver effective and efficient responses to people's needs and also adds to the distrust of government and the breakdown of the social contract. Economic fragility additionally plays a role with systems which are insufficiently digitalised and unprepared to cope with a conversion to working from home and where the main sources of funding are remittances sent by workers living abroad, tourism and oil. Furthermore, most remittances come from workers in the oil and tourism industries in the Gulf area, both of which have been hard hit by COVID-19.

As for the role performed in the area by foreign powers such as the EU, China and Turkey, Cohen-Hadria stressed the importance of the latter two in recent years and suggested that the EU needs to regain a more active position. He also talked about the part played by domestic policy with the welcome example of the union of the parties in Libya to overcome the crisis together, although he made the point that the autocratic countries in the area have leveraged lockdown and the pandemic for their own political gain.

Turning to the third theme, the socio-economic consequences and mitigating policies, Cohen-Hadria believes that Egypt is the only economy in the region which will not shrink significantly. This may be due to the construction and telecommunications boom in the country as well as its quick response to the pandemic. By contrast, the worst hit will be Libya and Lebanon. The fact that the Gulf countries are going through an economic crisis will impact the rest of the region owing to the large number of immigrant workers they host and the fall in investment. The losses brought about by the absence of tourism and the cancellation of two major events in the Dubai Expo and the annual pilgrimage to Medina are also evident.

Policies to address the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic have mainly been fiscal and have sought to cover both the formal and the informal economy, the latter being extremely significant in the area. These fiscal policies have pushed up already very high levels of public debt.

Finally, Cohen-Hadria put forward three action strands for the future. The first is the chance to harness the recovery to move towards the green economy in which the EU might have an exciting opportunity as a partner. The second is the need to reform the private sector by digitalising it and reworking its supply chain, reconfiguring the informal economy and trying to make it legal as Morocco is already trying to do. And the third is offshoring: endeavouring to offer incentives and encourage an influx of businesses and investment and the immigration of skilled workers into the area. Here he mentioned the importance of keeping young people and women in mind in this recovery and fostering their entrepreneurial spirit as they have also been the hardest hit by the crisis.

Cohen-Hadria then discussed the issues raised with the members of the audience who had followed his online talk and answered the questions they put to him. Jordi Arrufat wrapped up the event by reminding everyone that the last seminar in the MDAE alumni series will take place on 9 December.

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