COVID-19 in West Asia: Implications for India
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF

The COVID-19 crisis has reflected the significance of nation-state and national boundaries continue to remain the principle barrier to contain the transmission of the pandemic. The initial response in most states included the sealing off of land borders and blocking air travel. Prof. Emeritus at the Michigan State University, Mohammed Ayoob has noted that despite the prevalence of global governance and supra-national bodies, it has limited scope to manage the everyday lives of people. The nation-states could however, frame laws and evolve systems and methods to control their citizens. However, there are risks involved in continued implementation of extra-constitutional methods which may have long-term implications in the West Asian region.

Impact of Democratic Procedures

The political regimes in several states in the region prior to the COVID-19 crisis were facing protests stemming from economic instability, inflation, unemployment, corruption, poverty, poor health care etc. COVID-19 will worsen the state capacity to implement reforms. The political regimes facing internal vulnerability could resort to authoritarian measures to curb freedom of speech, right to privacy, protests etc. under the pretext of public safety and security.

The COVID-19 crisis has strengthened the surveillance state through phone tracking in Israel and hacking of social media accounts in Lebanon. The critical news coverage on government handling has been censored in Egypt. The governments are ruling by decrees and emergency law provisions have been introduced in Jordan. In the post-COVID-19 setting, the governments would be slow to give up on the emergency measures to preserve control over the political process. The COVID-19 linked restrictions have also diluted the long running anti-government protests in Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.

The COVID-19 crisis has deepened the economic crisis in the region and endangered regime stability in several states. Brookings Analyst, Ranj Alaaldin has warned that unless the pandemic and the economic ramifications are contained, the crisis could transform into conflict multiplier in the region and it could be ‘weaponised’ by political regimes, non-state actors and external actors to serve their interests.

Humanitarian costs

The refugees and the internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in overcrowded camps with limited essential supplies and medicines are at high risk of transmission. During the present crisis, it would be difficult for the host states facing economic recession and shortage of resources to fully involve these groups in the national preparedness plans. However, the rapid transmission of the virus in refugees’ camps would be major national and regional security risk. Therefore, bilateral and multilateral response is urgently required to provide refugees with critical supplies. Moreover, capacity-building efforts directed towards the refugees in terms of early detection, prevention and response for containment are vital.

Strategic Trends in the region: Iran, the US and the Gulf states

The strategic tussle between the US and Iran is likely to continue after the Covid-19 pandemic is contained. The US presently has the highest number of reported cases at 582,594 on 14 April. Iran is the most affected state in the West Asian region and has reported 73,303 cases. The US after withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May 2018, resorted to maximum pressure strategy including sanctions and limited military strikes on Iran. The US policy lacks support from several of its allies and it has failed to produce the desired strategic results.

Both states affected by the pandemic could optimise from their respective vulnerabilities. The US has imposed additional sanctions on Iranian firms and individuals adding difficulty in procurement of essential supplies and medical equipment. The US hopes that Iran’s ongoing crisis would push the Islamic Republic to renegotiate the nuclear agreement. The US will continue to undertake measures to further weaken the regime’s capacity and its effectiveness to control the pandemic. The US is reportedly planning to block Iran’s request for US$ 5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has accused the US of indulging in medical terrorism.

Iran and its allies at the same time could perceive Donald Trump administration’s preoccupation with COVID-19 as an opportunity to force the US’ exit in Iraq. The efforts by both sides to exploit one another’s weaknesses could escalate the military risk.

In Syria, the potential for direct conflict between Israel and Iran is likely to remain low. Iran had largely restrained from retaliating against the Israeli attacks on Iranian assets. It indicates Iran’s reluctance to directly engage with the Jewish state that may invite two-way offensive from the US and Israel. The weakened Iranian regime is likely to focus on limited coordinated action including cyber-attacks and espionage with minimal risks against Israel, the US and its Gulf allies.

The US in 2019 re-oriented its strategic objective in the region by reducing ground troops from Syria and instead focusing on enhanced military cooperation and repositioning especially in the Gulf region. In Iraq, the strategic grip of the US is likely to remain functional in the post-COVID-19 situation. However, in Gulf States, it would seek to further entrench not only to counter Iran but also preserve control over crucial trade routes in the region. These routes are pertinent for the restoration of the global economic health.

The COVID-19 crisis at the same time could open the scope of rapprochement between Iran and the Persian Gulf states. The Gulf States are sceptical of the US’ methods of containing Iran. Few states are engaging in military and naval security talks with the Islamic Republic reflecting a growing atmosphere of accommodation with the Iranian interests. There have also been exchanges of humanitarian aid in the form of medical appliances during the ongoing crisis. According to RAND Corporation Political Analyst, Dalia Dassa Kaye, the Gulf States are facing the risk of economic recession, therefore it would be difficult to control the ramifications of a failing regime in Iran.

Israel-Palestine Detente

The crisis has led to instances of cooperation between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Joint operations room has been set up to coordinate measures between both governments and arrangements have been made for the Palestinian labourers stranded in Israel. The optimists have posited that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza in light of the pandemic could open the possibility of blockade relaxations and lasting ceasefire. These positive measures could however, be short-lived. Israel is not likely to withdraw control over Palestinian territories and would continue to pursue the policy of annexation in Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem thus persisting with the conflict.

Opportunities for Russia and China

Russia as a consequence of the US’ re-alignment in the region has emerged as a significant power-broker and maintained tactical ties with all major powers in the region. In the post-COVID-19 period, Russia would be economically weak to lead the rebuilding process in Syria. Russia’s core interest however, does not lie in the reconstruction process or to offer source of investment, it is rather based on control over the flow of investments and managing the outcomes. In Syria, there is need for a major structural overhaul of the health infrastructure to face the COVID-19 crisis. The state capacity of the Assad regime is likely to suffer from draining of resources. Non-state actors which are largely concentrated in Idlib may increase its activities in the coming years.

China through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has made significant inroads in the region. The missteps taken by the US is likely to benefit China to restructure the global economic order. During the ongoing crisis, China has used health diplomacy as an effective tool in states facing dire crisis to upgrade the medical infrastructure. It would occupy an important position in the economic redevelopment of the West Asian region.

Regional Economic Trends

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the regional economies leading to reduction in external and domestic demand, disruptions in trade, production and manufacturing, poor equity prices, bankruptcies, lack of consumer and investors’ confidence etc. The crisis has already affected the high job seeking sector such as retail, tourism and hospitality leading to layoffs, homeward migration of expatriate workers, reduction in remittances etc. Moreover, global oil prices have reduced due to low demand and oil supply has saturated in the absence of new agreements among the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members as well as competition between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The oil exporting states on one hand are affected by lower commodity price and reduction in revenue. The oil importing states on the other hand are suffering from lower remittance flows and poor demand of goods and services. It would be difficult to reduce the fiscal gap through domestic borrowing and international borrowing could burden the already rising sovereign debt in several states. The portfolio flows in the region have reduced by around US$ 2 billion since February 2020 due to lack of investors’ confidence and flight of capital to safe assets. The disruptions in global trade links could have dire consequence on the long-term economic health of these states. Moreover, the poorer sections in all states are the hardest hit due to strained security nets, reduced food subsidies and unemployment. Therefore, in the absence of stable source of sustenance, the lockdown measures would be difficult to prolong in the West Asian states.

The IMF has recommended that the health care sector and social security nets should be adequately addressed to tackle the current crisis. The economic policies require being far-sighted to not only overcome the crisis but also avoid recession, restore economic stability and maintain social warfare programmes. Several states in the region are offering temporary tax reliefs, cash transfers, loans deferment, granting liquidity to banks to promote loans to small and medium enterprises etc. Poorer states facing high fiscal deficit however have limited scope to implement stimulus packages. The IMF Director of Middle East and Central Asia Department, Jihad Azour has opined that poorer states should relax credit conditions while avoiding risks in capital outflows and allow the exchange rate to protect against possible shocks.

Concerns for India

The economic situation of the Gulf States is of special concern to India. The region hosts around 10 million Indians, a large chunk of which comprises of blue-collar migrants living in overcrowded dormitories with poor sanitation and medical services. The migrant camps have emerged as major hotspots of transmission. Moreover, the Gulf States are facing the risk of recession which may severely affect the employment capabilities of enterprises leading to job losses.

The continued lockdown has adversely affected the income options of Indian migrants and impacted the flow of remittances. In 2018, India received US$ 78.6 billion worth of remittances. India is the top recipient of remittances globally. Analysts have predicted down sliding in the volume of remittances to India in the coming months. India at the same time has been concerned about the safety and security of migrants.

The government has been coordinating with the states in West Asia to cooperate on the various aspects during the ongoing crisis including the conditions of the migrants. India had suspended air travel with Iran on 27 February and air traffic with all Gulf States was largely withdrawn by mid-March.

The Indian government has been highly pro-active in securing systematic evacuation of nationals working in the region. The Ministry of External Affairs on 18 March announced that 278 Indians have been tested positive including 255 from Iran, 12 from the UAE and one from Kuwait. After Iran emerged as the regional hotspot of the virus, the government introduced testing and screening procedures to evacuate Indians with negative result and assured positive cases of medical care and monitoring within the Islamic Republic.

According to government estimate, there are around 6,000 Indians in Iran including 1,100 Shiite pilgrims largely from Ladakh, 1,000 fishermen and 300 students. The first batch consisting of 58 Indians were evacuated on 10 March and the sixth batch of 275 Indians was evacuated from Iran on 28 March. The government has evacuated 941 Indians until the end of March. Reportedly, three Indians have died in Iran, two in the UAE and one in Egypt.

Indians living under lockdown and facing job crunch in other Gulf States have also requested the government to allow evacuation. Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan has however requested Indians to remain put to contain transmission risk. The External Affairs Ministry has introduced toll free phone helpline in case of emergency and assured that it would provide arrangements for their welfare. Moreover, the Ministry of External Affairs has instituted 24*7 COVID-19 control room managing 16 regions i.e. Gulf; Iran and Afghanistan; Africa; USA and Canada; Latin America and Caribbean; Russia and Central Asia; China; Japan, Korea and Mongolia; Nepal and Bhutan; South East Asia except Singapore; Singapore and Philippines; Philippines and Malaysia; Sri Lanka and Maldives; Bangladesh and Myanmar; Europe except Italy and Spain; Italy and Spain to monitor the global trends and assist Indian expats.

In the post-COVID-19 setting, West Asia would continue to play a crucial role for India’s strategic planning encompassing in areas such as labour and remittances, oil, trade and investment, connectivity and defence cooperation. India is aware of the volatile nature of the region and internecine regional conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya as well as the Iran-US tussle. India is particularly concerned about the economic consequence of the pandemic on the Indian labour working in the region. The Indian government in the context of the West Asian states should be prepared for cancellation of contracts, slashing of salaries, pressure for retrenchment and return of migrants and monitor the developing trends on homeward migration in the coming months.

India and the West Asian region are facing similar challenges in overcoming the pandemic. India could therefore share its insights in capacity-building process including monitoring, surveillance and nurturing mutually benefitting investments to upgrade the health infrastructure. India has already emerged as a major producer of essential medicines and it must lead the discussion on health security on regional and global level.


(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 >>

Image Source: Map by Elora Chakraborty

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