West Asia Roundup - March 2020
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

COVID-19 Pandemic continued to cause havoc globally as well as in the Middle East where most of the returning or evacuated nationals as well as travellers from the infected countries carried the virus. Iran was the most infected country in the region with large scale casualties and infections. It may have inadvertently transmitted further in the gulf region or elsewhere. No doubt that no government in the world was prepared to deal with pandemic at such a scale especially when China kept the vital information under the wraps for weeks together. However, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia Oman, Qatar and UAE have been fighting the virus on a war footing by clamping down on movements, flight restrictions and strict quarantine. These countries also have very large number of expatriates including millions of blue collar work force from South and East Asian countries that includes over 8 million Indians. India evacuated over 14000 of Indian citizens and other nationals from China, UAE, Italy and other countries. PM Modi spoke to Crown Prince of UAE Sheikh Zayed and Amir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim thanking them for their care and support to the Indians in their countries and also offered assistance while informing them about the decisions taken at the Virtual SAARC Summit. On March 12, PM Netanyahu of Israel also spoke to PM Modi to discuss cooperation the fight against Covid -19.

G20 Virtual Summit of Leaders

PM Modi also spoke to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman , since Saudi Arabia is the Chair of G20, requesting them to host a video conference of G20 countries which account for over 80% of global GDP and 90% of corona cases and deaths to call for an Extraordinary Conference through video conferencing which was held on March 26. G20 leaders understanding the gravity of the situation committed themselves to mutual support and pooling for resources as well as to reform of World Health Organisation (WHO) that in view of most had not lived up to the expectations. The leaders further stated “We are currently undertaking immediate and vigorous measures to support our economies; protect workers, businesses—especially micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises—and the sectors most affected; and shield the vulnerable through adequate social protection. We are injecting over $5 trillion into the global economy, as part of targeted fiscal policy, economic measures, and guarantee schemes to counteract the social, economic and financial impacts of the pandemic.” PM Modi also emphasised on the need of international solidarity and need for early warning systems as well as timely information-sharing in fighting the pandemic. PM Modi underscored the need “to put human beings at the centre of our vision of global prosperity and cooperation, freely and openly share the benefits of medical research and development, develop adaptive, responsive and humane health care systems, promote new crisis management protocols and procedures for an interconnected global village, strengthen and reform intergovernmental organisations like WHO ( which has been criticised for its pro-China stance and inadequate response) and work together to reduce economic hardships resulting from COVID-19 particularly for the economically weak”.


Israel had its third elections ( March 2) in a year with no clear result. Although President this time had given an option to Benny Gantz the main contender and leader of Blue & White Party to form the government which he eventually failed as the coalition with the Arab party List could not materialise. Keeping the public sentiment and discontent with repeated elections Gantz decided to cast the lot with Netanyahu in forming a Unity government calling it a ‘government of emergency national unity’. He has 20 seats since his other partner Yair Lapid decided to sit in the opposition declining to sit with a PM with ‘triple charges’. According to the arrangement Gantz will take over the Prime Ministership from Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud after one a half years. Whether it will materialise remains to be seen but in the wake of Corona virus threat they felt it was the correct approach. Gantz became the Speaker of the Knesset perhaps a strategic decision being a junior partner in the coalition.

While Iran continued to suffer from sanctions and Corona’s ferocious impact it blamed the US for its plight and asked for all sanctions to be lifted. War of words continued. Apparently US offer of medical assistance and relief was turned down by Khamenei as coming from “Charlatans”. Iranian FM Javad Zarif tweeted “US has gone from sabotaging & assassinations to waging an economic war & economic terrorism to Medical Terror amidst # Covid 19 Iran. This even exceeds what would be permissible on the battlefield”.

On the other hand Houthis continued their drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia including those intercepted over Riyadh and the militia groups in Iraq launched missile attacks on US and Iraqi bases hosting foreign troops in Iraq. In both cases Iran was implicitly criticised for rendering support to the perpetrators. Iraq’s 2nd Shiite Premier designate this year Adnan Zurfi , although respected for his focus on public services and security faces stiff opposition from various factions and disgruntled public due to his close ties to USA. Washington is hoping to have a positively inclined government in Baghdad so that local clamour against the presence of the American troops and assets does not go beyond the rhetoric.

Despite call and appeal by UNSG Antonio Guterres to cease all conflicts in view of disastrous corona pandemic, however, the onslaught in Syria, Libya and Yemen continued apace with rival sides supporting their rooks.

More details;
Unity government in Israel

The 2020 legislative election was held in Israel on 2 March. The March election was the third attempt to form government after two previous elections were held on 9 April and 17 September. Israel’s incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to form the government after 9 April election. However, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu withdrew support from Likud Party leading to the second election in September. After the September election, the two largest parties, i.e. Likud led by Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan led by Benny Gantz failed to form the ruling coalition along with its allies. The idea of national unity government between the two largest parties was flouted. However, the talks failed.

In the March 2020 election, Likud secured 36 seats and Kahol Lavan secured 33 seats. However, Likud along with the allies could manage 58 seats and failed to secure the 61-majority mark in the 120 seat Knesset. The Joint List comprising of Israeli Arab parties and left-wing parties won historic 15 seats in the present election. Benny Gantz held talks with the Joint List and in fact announced his willingness to serve both Jews and Arabs. Eventually, Kahol Lavan and Likud reached a political compromise to form national unity government. According to the arrangement, Netanyahu would continue as the Prime Minister while facing corruption trial. Benny Gantz would subsequently assume office in 2021. Benny Gantz is presently occupying the position of the speaker of Knesset and would be appointed as the Foreign Minister. The possibility of new government formation and avoiding further political uncertainty is prudent in light of ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, Prime Minister Netanyahu is under quarantine after one of his aides has been tested positive.

Saudi Arabia organises Extraordinary G20 Virtual Summit

Saudi Arabia which is currently chairing the summit for Group of 20 (G20) states organised an extraordinary virtual summit on 26 March 2020 to discuss policies and coordinating global efforts for tackling the COVID-19 crisis, preserving financial stability, reviving growth and reducing the humanitarian impact. The G20 states expressed their commitment for resolving global supply chain disruptions. All states decided to develop coordination among the finance ministers and central bank governors. The leaders also decided to pump US$ 5 trillion into the economy and requested the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Health Organisation (WHO) and regional banks to develop financial packages to support developing states. Saudi Arabia pressed for boosting international funding to develop vaccine, reopening the flow of goods and services and restoring global chains of supply.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested that new approaches to globalisation and multilateralism must be pursued to overcome the pandemic. He also called for strengthening international organisations such as WHO. India’s efforts to develop a coordinated policy under the ambit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) were appreciated by the G20 leaders and WHO.

Saudi Arabia-Houthi tensions

On 28 March 2020, Houthi forces launched series of ballistic missiles towards Riyadh and the southern areas close to the Yemeni border. The missiles were intercepted by Saudi air defences. Two civilians have been reportedly injured due to missile debris in Riyadh. There were also reports of attack in Jazan. Saudi forces claimed that three drones have been intercepted and destroyed. The attack coincided with the fifth anniversary of Saudi intervention.

Saudi Arabia responded by launching 19 air raids in Houthi-controlled Sanaa. There have however been no reports of any casualty. UN Yemen Envoy Martin Griffiths has urged for immediate de-escalation. The civil war in Yemen has destroyed the health infrastructure and in the event of the spread of the virus, it could have catastrophic impact on the war-torn state.

Russia-Turkey agreement on Idlib

Russia and Turkey signed ceasefire agreement on 5 March 2020 to de-escalate in the rebel held Idlib governorate and the surrounding areas. Idlib governorate close to the Turkish border has been the last refuge of opposition activists, militants and radical Islamist groups. Syria after restoring its control in major parts of state has focussed its efforts on reclaiming Idlib. Turkey however has emerged as a major impediment for Syria’s strategy. Turkey has established vital links with several groups in Idlib and contributed to social and economic development in the region. It has also maintained observation points within Idlib to stabilise the situation and deter Syria’s advances. Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees and attacks by Assad’s forces could intensify the refugee crisis.

Syria has renewed its efforts to retake Idlib since December 2019 and Assad’s forces have come in direct confrontation with Turkish forces leading to casualties on both sides. Russia backs Syria’s efforts to reclaim Idlib. It is also keen to maintain the diplomatic balance with Turkey. Eventually, Russia intervened to facilitate the ceasefire agreement. Turkey and Syria agreed retain control over their respective territories in Idlib. Moreover a 6 km (4 mi) wide security corridor was established along the M4 highway. Turkey and Russia agreed to conduct joint patrols on the crucial highway between Trumba and Ain al-Havr from 15 March.

COVID-19 crisis in Iran

COVID-19 crisis has severely affected the West Asian region. Iran has emerged as the hotbed of transmission to other states in the region. The first case in Iran was recorded on 19 February 2020 after a Qom based businessman who returned from Wuhan was tested positive. In the following days, the number of cases soared in Iran. In the initial period, the government’s attitude was highly callous, and the government officials were responsible for hiding the true scale of the crisis. Iran has received international condemnation for its ill-preparedness in dealing with the pandemic. Iranian clerics and officials have blamed the US and Iran for the spread of the virus. The US has imposed further sanctions on Iranian officials and entities.

There have been rampant instances of fake news leading to grave consequences. In late March, around 300 people have died after consuming methanol as a preventive remedy against COVID-19. India has evacuated 590 Indians from Iran and is presently offering medical aid to stranded nationals.

Tunisia Protests

On 31 March 2020, protest emerged in Tunisia despite the ongoing lockdown in light of the COVID-19. Tunisia has recorded 362 cases and 10 deaths until 31 March. The economic situation in the North African state has been highly unstable which has been worsened by the lockdown. The protestors were demanding government support and criticised against insufficient schemes for the poor sections of society. Tunisia has allocated US$ 875 million to meet with the economic challenges. It has also received support from Italy and the European Union.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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