Brookings Doha Center
Arab Center Washington DC
Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
International Crisis Group
Human Rights Watch
Assistant Executive Director & Senior Fellow
Arab Center Washington DC
On April 16, 2020, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) sponsored an expert panel to discuss the topic, “COVID-19 and Conflicts in the Arab World: A Closer Look at Libya, Syria, and Yemen during the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Speakers were Noha Aboueldahab, a Fellow at Brookings Doha Center; Yara M. Asi, Lecturer of Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida; Afrah Nasser, Yemen Researcher at Human Rights Watch; and Joost Hiltermann, Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, at the International Crisis Group. Serving as moderator was Tamara Kharroub, ACW Assistant Executive Director and Senior Fellow. What follows is a brief summary of the speakers’ remarks. Please view the accompanying video for their full presentations and analyses.
Noha Aboueldahab asked whether the coronavirus pandemic will provide an opening to end war and conflict in the world, especially in light of the current calls for global cease-fires and solidarity. While heartening, she said, she was skeptical that these calls will change anything; in fact, the pandemic has exposed the structural inequalities in countries throughout the world and has given a pretext for many governments, including authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, to grab more power and entrench their rule. She stressed the important work of civil society organizations now and in the future, when the COVID-19 outbreaks subside.
Yara M. Asi characterized the health care systems in Libya, Syria, and Yemen as weak and fragile, having suffered from years of the direct effects of war, like death and destruction, as well as indirect such as blockades, infectious diseases, contaminated water, famine, and intense psychological stress. Noting that “war is a social determinant of health,” she said that the progress that countries like Libya and Syria had made on significant health indicators before COVID-19 has been erased by these direct and indirect effects of violent conflict. Indeed, she added, civilians by the tens of thousands are now suffering and dying from preventable and treatable diseases.
Afrah Nasser affirmed that the coronavirus pandemic adds to the serious years-long humanitarian crisis in Yemen resulting from war, conflict, and poverty. A shattered health care system has rendered millions of Yemenis without the most basic humanitarian assistance. Nasser said that relief organizations are overwhelmed by the scope of the situation and struggle to develop joint plans to battle COVID-19. The pandemic, she asserted, will not change the internal dynamics in Yemen but may affect the proxy wars there, as both Iran and Saudi Arabia are dealing with their own domestic outbreaks and may therefore limit their involvement in the country. She argued that Saudi Arabia and the Houthis have shown that they do not care for the plight of Yemeni civilians; they will make changes only if they suffer politically and economically, such as from the decline of oil prices.
Joost Hiltermann said that the pandemic highlights the endemic crisis of poor governance in the region. COVID-19 numbers from Libya, Syria, and Yemen are likely understated and underreported, he continued, and although the virus has not caused massive death—yet—future repercussions will be global. In Syria, international aid funneled to the central government in Damascus reaches only areas under its control, thus leaving large swathes with internally displaced persons without assistance. He said the unstable political situation in Libya, with two rival governments in the east and west of the country, in addition to diminished oil revenues and food imports present major difficulties for the Libyan people. Economic problems will deepen after the pandemic, thus fueling more street protests and a continued role for non-state actors.