The world is in the midst of a serious fight against a virus that has wrought havoc on the world economy with grave consequences on the political and social stability of most countries. In the wealthiest powers, for example the United States, struggling against the coronavirus has demonstrated that not every American will have the chance to find quick treatment if he is down on the social ladder.
The US administration, in a rare demonstration of bipartisanship, collaborated with both Houses of Congress to pass a bill to inject $2 trillion into the economy. The Saudi government, in its capacity as the chair of the G-20 this year, had called for an emergency summit, through videoconference, 26 March to deal with the coronavirus. Group leaders agreed on a financial package worth $5 trillion for the sake of jumpstarting the world economy.
The Arab world has not demonstrated yet a collective will to work as a group of nations to deal with the outbreak. Aside from bilateral contacts at the level of heads of state, no attempt has been made to call for an Arab summit to tackle the pandemic. For example, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was on the phone with the king of Jordan and the Tunisian president separately to discuss how to coordinate bilateral efforts to better fight the pandemic.
The United Arab Emirates sent aid to Iran and Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed called President Bashar Al-Assad last week to assure the Syrian government that the UAE will stand by Syria and will provide much-needed assistance to the Syrian people, and more particularly Syrian refugees and displaced persons.
In a war-torn Arab world, a collective response is much needed. No Arab country, save the oil-producing Gulf States, can tackle on its own the ravages of the pandemic. Millions of people are out of jobs and hence a decent income to enable each of them to secure the basic minimums for survival, let alone paying bills and rent.
Maybe part of the $5 trillion promised by the G-20 will be earmarked to Arab governments that badly need a strong injection of liquidity to avoid a complete shutdown of their economies. However, this is still to be determined. Moreover, the World Bank decided to provide $160 billion to help the world economy to recover, and the International Monetary Fund has said the most fragile states in the developing world will need assistance among which figure some Arab countries that have suffered tremendously from the ravages of armed conflict, on the one hand, and the failure of revolutions on the other.
The pandemic descended on the Arab world when it was least prepared to deal with such an existential threat. And despite the call by the UN secretary general to respect a ceasefire in the Arab countries that are still in the throes of military conflict, the call has not been heeded, regardless of expressions of good will in this regard. On Friday, 28 March, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army threatened to bomb the headquarters of the Libyan Government of National Accord in Tripoli in case violations of the UN-mandated ceasefire are not stopped.
The cases of Lebanon and Syria are not dissimilar from Libya. Although Lebanon has not been the scene of armed conflict, its economy was in shambles, and accordingly lacking in financial resources to deal with the pandemic. No Arab or foreign assistance has been promised thus far to the Lebanese government, though there have been press reports that the government is holding talks with the IMF to discuss the modalities of a future assistance agreement.
The special representative of the UN secretary general to Syria called for a ceasefire in Syria in order to dedicate all resources, financial and otherwise, to halt the spread of coronavirus. In the case of Syria, the situation could get out of hand if the warring parties don’t heed the ceasefire call. The threat in this eventuality will not be limited only to Syria but felt throughout the Levant and Iraq.
The situation in Yemen is not much different. Although fighting has abated, relatively speaking, there are no coordinated efforts to face the pandemic.
The Arab world is at a crossroads. Not only has it to strive to put an end to conflicts raging within it, but also to deal collectively with the pandemic now, before it gets worse.
Strangely enough, no Arab country has called for an emergency Arab summit, through videoconference, to discuss ways and means of enabling Arab governments to work together to contain the pandemic before it spirals out of control.
The other question, which is no less important, is a path forward once coronavirus is no longer a public health threat. One proposal in this regard will be for Saudi Arabia, as the present G-20 chair, to formulate, in agreement with other member countries in the group, a financial package for the Arab world out of the $5 trillion that the G-20 decided to set aside to ensure the recovery of the world economy. Similarly, Arab powers, including Egypt, should initiate talks with both the World Bank and the IMF to come up with a special financial assistance plan for the Arab world, with special attention to war-torn Arab countries.
These moves would ensure Arab economies don’t crash land under the combined weight of two deadly scourges: wars and the pandemic. Add to that the dramatic fall in oil prices which will hamper the ability of oil-rich Gulf countries — if still we can call them that — to provide direct financial assistance to their Arab “brethren”.
The situation is not doomed provided there is political leadership to deal with the challenges immediately and forcefully.
I would imagine a joint initiative by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could save the day. There are no alternatives. The status quo could be highly destabilising for decades to come.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly