Global distancing

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 21 Apr 2020

While the economic and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic might persist for months or even years, within the Arab world there exists a community of interest able to weather all storms, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Concern for the post-Covid era now seems to overshadow concern for the crisis itself. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that those having to cope with the pandemic and its immediate consequences have enough on their plate without having to speak about the aftermath, leaving the field open to conjecture among those concerned about the “day after”. 

Among the latter are those who take the planet as whole as a unit for analysis or, somewhat more modestly, the “world order” and the struggle between world powers for pre-eminence and hegemony. Other analysts focus on a particular sector of human activity, generally one that is quantifiable and has already existing indexes that serve as a basis for projections for what the world will be like a year from now, or even during the current and forthcoming economic quarters. Among these analysts, we find general consensus over a set of truths: first, economic burdens on governments are mounting; second, the repercussions of the crisis are compelling the state to get more involved in the economy; third, poverty rates are climbing and food security is at risk; fourth, macroeconomic indicators are going haywire; fifth, while major transnational companies may be able to weather the crisis, many smaller and less stable enterprises will go under; and sixth, the online and virtual economy will flourish. 

In his prognosis of the contours of the global economy in the post-corona world, Ali Saleh of the Abu Dhabi-based Future Centre for Advanced Research and Study adds a seventh inescapable factor: “Global Distancing”. This aptly titled study was published 12 April in the Future Centre’s “Special Studies” section. It obviously plays on the term “social distancing”, the major weapon in the fight to contain the spread of the novel disease that has sometimes entailed erecting transport barriers between administrative regions within a single country and even isolating entire “contaminated” neighbourhoods from “uncontaminated” ones. Internationally, “global distancing has taken the form of national bans on inbound and outbound flights and pressures on other governments into repatriating their “stranded” citizens. Countries have also dug deeply into their own financial and food reserves while scrambling to increase domestic production of essential needs for local markets. Unfortunately, while such a strategy might work for continental sized countries like the US and China, and perhaps for small countries with small populations, it is hard to achieve for densely populated mid-size countries. 

In fact, global distancing already set in well before the Covid-19 crisis and its transnational and transcontinental transmission. It was a product of the “identity politics” that propelled the ultra-right to prevail in many democratic societies and that favoured the rise of “strongmen” in countries with centralised systems of government. If anti-globalist outlooks on politics, the economy and culture predated the coronavirus crisis, leaders of the ilk of Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson undoubtedly welcomed the opportunity to create more walls and barriers. But regardless of how far some countries have gone or some leaderships would like to go with distancing themselves from other countries and peoples, the question of self-sufficiency in food or other basic commodities is of a different order. 

Self-sufficiency in this or that commodity is not a goal to be attained at whatever cost but, rather, cost-effectively, without needless economic losses and without inhibiting essential factors that contribute to economic growth. In the Middle East and the Arab world in particular, isolationism, global distancing and such notions do not sound very beneficial. Insularism would only reduce opportunities for growth and, more importantly, jeopardise the reform processes that are currently underway in many Arab countries. 

The “Arab Spring pandemic” that marked the beginning of this decade plunged many Arab countries into futile civil wars or other forms of profound internal strife, which invited regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Israel to variously meddle in their domestic affairs, acquire territory or invade. This is the fate that afflicted Syria, Yemen and Libya. Alternatively, the Arab Spring induced other Arab countries to embark on sweeping reforms that necessitated extremely difficult decisions that previous generations of leaderships had been reluctant to take. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco have taken this route. Other Arab countries continue, in their various ways and to varying degrees, to hover between the two alternatives. 

If the reform process is to achieve its ends during this decade, we need, firstly, to emerge from the coronavirus crisis. Fortunately, according to the available figures, the abovementioned countries that are proceeding down the path of reform are faring reasonably well in terms of infection rates, especially when compared with China, the US and Europe, and regionally with Iran, Turkey and Israel. Secondly, if the global distancing trend continues, a large market will be needed for Arab products to effectively contribute to boosting growth rates and to sustain reform momentum. Thirdly, it will be essential to optimise the advantages of the maritime border agreement that Egypt and Saudi Arabia concluded several years ago. Already, then, the agreement was a pragmatic option within the framework of the development process in progress in Egypt, which was shifting the country’s geo-economic keel outward from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea and Mediterranean, and in the framework of the Saudi reform process, which also was shifting towards the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba, with sights set on extensions into Sinai and Jordan. 

Clearly, if global distancing grows more entrenched as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, a 200 million people strong market will offer plenty of space to absorb the outputs of growing industries in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other GCC countries and Jordan. It will make agricultural investments profitable, water desalination processes economical and the manufacture of cars, household appliances and other technological products feasible and lucrative. Moreover, given the new antiquities discoveries in Saudi Arabia and the well-known pharaonic and Greco-Roman heritage of Egypt and Jordan, we share a vast tourist market, not to mention markets for oil and gas, renewable energies and the industries connected with them. 

The point here is not to suggest a form of regional self-sequestration. Rather, it is to propose an approach to dealing with future scenarios and their grim consequences, especially in light of expectations of increasingly heated great power rivalries and conflicts. To such powers, the Middle East and the Arab world in particular is only a region for sapping its resources and shedding blood. But this is another story. 

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.


*A version of this article appears in print in the  23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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