DUBAI: As new COVID-19 cases spread outside of China, the Middle East has become a hotspot for infection.
The virus has appeared in Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Lebanon, Israel, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia, and sickened people in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco.
Iran, however, has been disproportionately affected and is regarded as the epicentre for the regional outbreak.
IRAN WORST HIT
Iran is one of the worst-hit countries in the world. In less than a month, the number of confirmed cases jumped from two to over 9,000.
Authorities have closed schools, universities and government offices and restricted many social events as well as transportation to prevent the spread of the virus.
Yet the virus continues to spread across the country, killing over 300 people so far – the second-highest outside of China, behind only Italy.
Dozens of Iranian officials or dignitaries have been sickened and at least six, including an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, have died.
That the virus has been able to spread to the highest levels of Iran’s administration underscores the government’s astonishing failure to manage the outbreak so far – even though the country has significant scientific capabilities and a well-regarded public health system.
In a bid to avoid panic, Iranian authorities directed hospital staff not to wear masks and other protective equipment and even encouraged unchecked mass voting as it carried on with its Legislative Elections on Feb 21.
Tehran did not institute quarantine measures in the early days of the outbreak either.
While Saudi Arabia has suspended access to Mecca and to the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina for Umrah pilgrims, religious leaders and the Iranian government refused to close or restrict access to its holy sites, though Friday prayers in Tehran and other major cities in Iran were cancelled in the last week of February.
UAE STANDS OUT
Across the Persian Gulf, the Arab Gulf States have reacted differently, with results spotty. Most have, at minimum, installed non-intrusive thermal screening for all airline passengers and cancelled many cultural and sporting events.
Some countries have employed more effective tactics to stem the spread.
The UAE in particular has shown to have taken careful, well thought-out steps designed to contain the spread of coronavirus and protect its role as major business hub.
Specifically in the UAE, hand sanitisers are placed in all hotels, and government and semi-governmental departments have been urged to limit face-to-face meetings and conduct online meetings instead.
Emirati authorities have closed all schools for four weeks beginning on March 8. All public schools have been preparing for this eventuality, by piloting a nationwide e-learning platform the past few weeks.
Religious institutions across the Emirates are also acting proactively, installing temperature scanners at the entrance of prayer halls and dissuading mass gatherings. Saudi Arabia has since followed suit.
The Emirates’ Department of Health is investigating and examining anyone who may have been exposed to the virus.
It has urged the public to take protective steps such as washing hands with soap and clean water, and covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing. The Department of Health has also issued a directive that all diagnosis, admission and treatment of suspected COVID-19 cases will be covered by the country’s national health plan.
According to Ghanem Nuseibeh, Middle East expert and founder of strategy and management consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, the UAE is well-positioned to take on the coronavirus.
“The UAE really has a fully integrated response that it has practiced for so long precisely to deal with these instances. It has robust containment policies and plans to minimise any adverse economic impact. Clearly, it will be affected like the rest of the world, but the impact of the virus in the UAE will be relatively minimised due to those contingencies,” he said in a discussion with me last month.
READ: Commentary: COVID-19 - time for businesses and workers to have the guts to embrace the new normal
However, the coronavirus may have knock-on effects on the UAE’s economy. Dubai is a major international air transit centre, and a tourism and business hub hosting tens of millions of visitors annually.
The virus could also have a negative impact on Dubai hosting this year’s World Expo, which is scheduled in October 2020 and expected to attract 11 million foreign visitors. Many anticipate that the six-month expo would reinvigorate Dubai’s slowing economy.
MANAGING DELICATE TIES
What adds to the complexity as well is the UAE’s close ties with China and the sensitivities that restrictions on travel could rouse.
China has valuable interests in the region and considers the Gulf Cooperation Council a vital trade partner.
Bilateral trade between China and the UAE, for example, reached US$34.7 billion in the first nine months of 2019 – with Chinese exports totalling about two-thirds of that amount – and is expected “to maintain the momentum of rapid growth throughout 2020 and beyond,” according to a top Chinese diplomat.
Direct investment in the country climbed 171 per cent to US$660 million in the first nine months of last year, accounting for more than half of China’s outlay in the region.
The Emirati economy minister said last year that China was his country’s leading trade partner in terms of non-oil commodities, accounting for 9.7 per cent of its total non-oil trade in 2018 – valued at more than US$43 billion.
The UAE, which hosts the largest number of Chinese businesspeople and workers in the Middle East, is also a travel destination for more than a million Chinese tourists every year.
Indeed, the UAE seeks to retain its strong ties with China, where COVID-19 first emerged. The government has prioritised bilateral trade with Asia and is hedging its economy by remaining as close as possible with the region.
READ: Commentary: Amid gloomy outlook, Hong Kong wrestles with novel coronavirus. But it’s surprisingly resilient
While a few world governments suspended almost all passenger flights to mainland China, the UAE still permits travel to Beijing.
The country further underlined its position of support in early February, when the famous Burj Khalifa skyscraper and several other landmarks across the UAE were illuminated in red and gold – the colors of the Chinese flag – in solidarity with China over coronavirus.
As the United Arab Emirates has shown, being both economically defensive and medically proactive is the best way to hedge against the effects of coronavirus. Other states in the region could learn a thing or two.
Mohammed Abdul Shihab is Managing Director of Al-Sharq Advisory.