How Will COVID-19 Shape the Future of the Arab Region?

How Will COVID-19 Shape the Future of the Arab Region?

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Forcing MENA countries to address threats from exacerbated youth unemployment to food insecurity, the crisis is underscoring the importance of solidarity and regional cooperation.

Beyond the devastating human consequences of a pandemic that has swept across the Middle East and North Africa, COVID-19 is causing significant social and economic turmoil in the region, driven in particular by a drop in domestic and external demand, reduction in trade, disruption of production, falling consumer confidence, and tightening of financial conditions.

According to the World Bank, the economic shock is expected to aggravate unemployment and poverty in the Arab region. Initial estimates show that the region could lose approximately $42 billion in income this year because of the pandemic. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) estimates that the economic slowdown will drive an additional 8.3 million people in the region past the poverty line.

A surge in unemployment

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Arab region is expected to witness a loss of 6 million full-time jobs in the second quarter of 2020.

“This will directly translate into lower levels of income, especially in countries where fiscal space is limited and labor market institutions are weak,” said a May 2020 briefing. In addition, the Arab region may witness a diminished middle-income class, pushing 8.3 million more of the region’s people into poverty and leading to an additional 1.9 million people becoming undernourished.

The International Monetary Fund (IMFestimates that remittances, which “serve as a lifeline for many households” across the region, will fall by 20%. Moreover, the Arab region, whose average food import expenditure levels are estimated at approximately $110 billion, could witness food shortages and price hikes if a prolonged pandemic continues to disrupt global food supplies.

Additionally, COVID-19 will disproportionately have an adverse impact on disadvantaged segments of society which include refugees, displaced populations, the elderly, people with disabilities, workers in the informal sector, as well as women who dominate the care sector and have less social protection.

The pandemic risks exacerbating inequalities, as poor households — presenting a significant share of Arab communities — migrant workers, and refugee populations face a stronger strain on their sources of income.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the economic slowdown will further magnify youth’s vulnerability within the labor market across the region. Moreover, this crisis could have a “negative impact on the densely inhabited refugee camps of the region, representing another major humanitarian threat that needs immediate preventive actions.”

A post-pandemic MENA region

It is clear that in a post-COVID world, the Arab region will not be the same. Many Arab governments have taken a series of measures to limit transportation and economic activities, halt regular schooling, ban public gatherings, and impose quarantines and curfews. The situation is not the same from the viewpoint of Gulf countries, the Levant, or North Africa; nor is it equal in fragile and conflict-ridden countries.

Some countries in the region have adopted rapid, decisive, and innovative measures to contain the virus, such as introducing virtual doctors and sanitization robots or ramping up domestic mask production. Gulf countries announced economic stimulus packages totaling $97 billion. Qatar’s QAR 75 billion package ($20.5 billion or nearly 13% of its GDP) to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 aims at shoring up small businesses and hard-hit sectors.

Other countries such as Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine have little ability to respond to the devastating effects of contagions. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of regional solidarity and cooperation while exposing the fallacy of go-it-alone isolationism.

As such, the present crisis reinforces the need to establish a regional solidarity framework that leaves no one behind. This framework will help mitigate the negative health and socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 and boost intraregional cooperation. “What form the post-pandemic region will take is dependent upon the choices the governments make.”

Dr. Anis Ben Brik is an Associate Professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s College of Public Policy in Qatar.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.

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