A golden opportunity for Middle East autocrats?
In the Middle East and North Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding across a political and social map that has been undergoing a process of reorganisation since the start of the Arab uprisings. Although different circumstances prevail in the various countries – ranging from the wealthy nations on the Arabian Peninsula to nation-states torn apart by civil wars – this pandemic will confront the region with huge and lasting challenges, producing tectonic changes as a result.
Change relevant to the region may be observed on three levels: (1) the international level, with China as the "medical gravity centre"; (2) the regional level, with countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continuing to strive for regional hegemony; and (3) the national level, with the fight against COVID-19 offering some autocrats new leverage in their ongoing efforts to consolidate their power.
China and the Middle East: pretty good friends?
The past years have witnessed growing interdependencies between China and Middle Eastern countries in terms of deepening political relations, volume of trade, arms deals and also the establishment of Chinese educational institutions in the region (e.g. universities and Confucius institutes). Evidence of this close relationship became apparent at the outbreak of the pandemic, when several Arab states (including Saudi Arabia) courted Beijing's favour, attempting to outbid one another with offers of support and assistance.
Meanwhile, China is styling itself as a gravity centre for successfully combatting COVID-19. Whether the case statistics China has reported are correct or not is of secondary importance here. What matters is the narrative of a successful battle against the virus through the collective efforts of society led by the party leadership. Criticism in social media is stifled by comprehensive censorship. The fight against the pandemic thus offers a chance to take total control of society through sophisticated surveillance techniques that were already in place before the crisis hit (e.g. nationwide facial recognition software, a social credit system, etc.).
In its coverage of the crisis, the Chinese media never tires of pointing out that the pandemic spread of COVID-19 in Europe and the USA is proof that the Western system of government is inferior and that their own system is better equipped to deal with the situation. This feeling of superiority and the self-assurance to boast of such governmental practices are part of a trend that relevant publications have observed in many regions of the world over the past several years.
Studies have demonstrated how autocratic figures in countries including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, China and others are not only fostering other autocracies, but also encouraging emulation. This is affecting countries in their immediate vicinity as well as those in more distant regions of the world, causing indices such as the Freedom House Index to speak for some time now of a "retreat from democracy". In short, the Chinese leadership's strategy for fighting the pandemic offers an attractive model for Middle Eastern autocrats to follow.