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New Normal in the Middle East

One of the most commonly encountered terms in the coronavirus literature these days is “the new normal”. It refers to the norms that societies will adopt as they gradually resume “normal” life. The concept draws on the notion that societies like to live in accordance with a kind of pattern or routine that ensures that day-to-day life can proceed peacefully and harmoniously in an orderly fashion with a distribution of roles for production, reproduction and consumption as one generation succeeds the next. This does not mean that it is stagnant. There will always be contradictions that will boil up in times of war, revolution or natural disaster and become disruptive. Perhaps it is a kind of law of nature or, at least nature of societies, that after being thrown out of kilter, they will regain balance but generally on a new equilibrium that emerges after some elements are added to or subtracted from what prevailed before. 

To take a familiar example, there once was a time when travellers could arrive at the airport shortly before their flight, check in their luggage, proceed through passport control and board their flight. Since the onset of the age of terrorism, passengers have had to arrive several hours early, get their luggage X-rayed when entering the airport and pass through any number of metal detectors where they have to remove shoes, belts, watches and anything else that might trigger the alarm. One imagines that in the post-coronavirus age additional measures will be required for international travel. Perhaps passengers will need to obtain a health certificate conforming with WHO standards to testify that they are corona-free. Or they might have to undergo body temperature checks or maybe even a blood test for COVID-19 antibodies on arrival at the airport. International travel will still be possible, but there will be a new normal.

In our discussions in this column about how the COVID-19 crisis will leave its mark on the world, we noted how the crisis has driven already existing contradictions to the surface. After all, the tensions we see today did not emerge out of the blue. In the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring precipitated a state of anarchy and disruption in Arab states that whetted the ambitions of non-Arab regional powers. Iran pushed westward towards Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. Turkey invaded southwards into northern Syria. Israel seized more territory in the West Bank through settlement expansion and annexation. Ethiopia encroached on the Nile by proceeding unilaterally with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Meanwhile, the Arab states that managed to weather the storm launched extensive reform processes with visions set on 2030. Then, before the end of this decade, popular uprisings erupted in four other Arab states: Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq. They, too, expressed a rejection of foreign intervention and pressed for a reform process centred on the Arab nation state.

The COVID-19 pandemic that kicked off this year has put all the foregoing Middle Eastern trends to the test. As we can see already, the non-Arab regional powers are emerging from the test more aggressive than before. Although Iran was particularly hard hit by the virus, it remains as meddlesome as ever in Arab domestic affairs, as though this took priority over the welfare of the Iranian people. Turkey has grown more belligerent than ever even though it is now the regional leader in COVID-19 infection rates. Instead of withdrawing from Syria to free up more resources for the battle against coronavirus at home, it has dug itself deeper into the Syrian quagmire, redeployed terrorists from Syria to Libya and embarked on a military intervention in support of a crew of terrorist groups in western Libya. Israel brazenly launched its new government with a proposal to officially annex Palestinian territory. Ethiopia refused to sign the draft agreement on GERD that Washington brokered between Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum, and then encroached into territory in eastern Sudan. 

As for the Arab states that embarked on reform processes before the coronavirus struck, they realised that what they have accomplished so far has given them the ability and strength not just to fight the pandemic but also to contend with the crisis of plummeting oil and gas prices and the abovementioned interventions by non-Arab regional powers. 

In other words, the “new normal” in the Middle East is that the COVID-19 pandemic has made non-Arab regional powers fiercer in the pursuit of their expansionist drives at the expense of the Arabs. It has simultaneously shown that Arab reform countries are on the right path. Higher growth rates are of the essence for Arab states, whether or not they are oil producers. Diversification of sources of income will be more of an imperative than ever in the rapidly fluctuating world that awaits us in the post-corona era. 

The current pandemic compels us to focus on another crucial pre-existing phenomenon: the regional imbalance that non-Arab powers hastened to exploit in the post-Arab Spring era. The imbalance grew even more skewed against the Arabs when the US began to withdraw from the Middle East, beginning with Syria and Iraq. Most recently, Washington signed a peace treaty with the Taliban so that the US and its NATO allies can withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, abandoning that extremist riddled country to its fate. The solution to this regional disparity is for the Arabs to press forward with their reform drives with greater speed, depth and resolve. In this regard, if COVID-19 demonstrated the resilience of the healthcare capacities in the Arab reform countries, it has also shown that healthcare is one of their most promising growth sectors. With its potential for diversification, not just in services but also in related manufactures, it could evolve into one of these countries’ most lucrative industrial and service sectors. 

Still, if reform is to pick up pace, increase in scope and contribute to rectifying the regional imbalance, it should proceed in the framework of a vast Arab market straddling the Red Sea, a market that offers the millions of consumers and producers to meet the industrial, agricultural and food needs of its member Arab states. In other words, the Arab regional dimension must be part of the “new normal” in the Middle East. As long as the regional aggressors have set their crosshairs on us as Arabs, then why not respond as Arabs?

 A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Dr. Abdel Moneim Said
Head of the Advisory Board

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