The World Unpacked

The Day After: A Post-Pandemic Middle East

Episode Summary

Kim Ghattas joins Laura for a special episode about the post-pandemic opportunities and challenges facing the Middle East.

Episode Notes

Author Kim Ghattas joins Laura as part of Carnegie’s new digital magazine, “The Day After: Navigating a Post-Pandemic World.”


Kim and Laura discuss how countries across the region are handling the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic and social impacts. As we look ahead to a post-pandemic world, they talk about what governments should ask themselves to help mitigate the damage, the contrasting views from Tehran and Riyadh, and the hope of the region’s youth.

To read Carnegie’s digital magazine, click here.

Episode Transcription

Laura Lucas Magnuson (01:38):

Kim Ghattas is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie endowment for international peace. She is also the author of black wave Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the 40 year rivalry that unraveled culture, religion, and collective memory in the middle East. Thanks for joining us, Kim.

Kim Ghattas (01:53):

Thanks for having me, Laura.

Laura Magnuson (01:54):

Kim the middle East has been hit with a series of transformative shocks over the past decade, the 2011 Arab spring, 2014 decline in oil prices, the 2019 resurgence of protest movements. Uh, and more recently the coronavirus pandemic. Let's talk very broadly about the countries of the region and how they're faring, which countries have done well and which countries have not really met expectations.

Kim Ghattas (02:18):

Overall, It felt as though the middle East got quite lucky. Initially when the pandemic hit in March, it looked like for once the middle East go through a world crisis without bearing the brunt of it overall, most countries did, ok particularly because as I said, the number of cases were not that high, the country that was hit the most in the region at first, was of course Iran, partly where the pandemic first started spreading. And there were all these headlines about Iran being the epicenter,

Laura Lucas Magnuson (03:05):

And we saw senior officials themselves contract COVID actually early on. Yes.

Kim Ghattas (03:10):

Absolutely. since then it's, gotten worse. The situation has gotten worse. Um, it looks definitely like there is this sort of second wave coursing through the region. Although I have to say that at least even today as numbers are rising is still doing better than the United States than Brazil, than India, uh, among others. There are differences between how each country is tackling it. Um, what are the, um, the considerations that each country is taking in its, approach? You have countries like Iraq or Lebanon, or even Egypt that have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to further, uh, crush protests or descent, by imposing lockdowns or, stopping protests from taking place. You have countries like Gulf countries where, today the number of per capita infection is quite high. 86,000 in Kuwait, for example, and a population of 4 million that's, that's quite high in comparison, you have a country like Lebanon where things do feel like they're unraveling, but actually comparatively the Lebanese authorities and of any civil society have managed to keep it somewhat under control, despite everything that Lebanon is dealing with. And I know we're going to talk about this in a bit as well. The number of cases is 18,000 out of five out of population of about 5 million. And the number of deaths is still in the low hundreds. So comparatively to the region, that's still, that's still, okay, every death is one death, too many. Uh, and then you have Iraq where you've had 7,000 deaths deaths so far.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (05:23):

So just like the rest of the world, a huge variety in the way that countries are being impacted and responding. And how has the pandemic impacting conflict zones like Syria and Yemen?

Kim Ghattas (05:33):

That's the biggest difference? That's the biggest sort of an equalizer. I mean, in a way the pandemic has been the great equalizer around the world. Everyone has been hit more or less. Every population has suffered either from the economic impact or the high number of deaths, but it has also in all countries fed, further inequality within the country. And in some regions like them, at least it has fed further inequality not just within the country, but in between countries. So you've had, you know, rising number of cases in Gulf countries and therefore also rising number of deaths. But Gulf countries are rich enough that they have the health system, the health care that is adequate to some extent or to, to a great deal, with high hospitalization number of beds, ICUS, et cetera. But then you have countries like the ones you mentioned, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, that already are going through conflict crises whose, whose health systems are, either partially or completely devastated.

Kim Ghattas (06:54):

And in these countries, you can't really tell whether it is spreading unchecked, whether it is actually under control because the official numbers are low, uh, or whether it is simply, being under reported. So in Libya, we've had 15,000 cases that's quite high, but in Syria we only have 2000. I find that hard to believe it's in Yemen only 2000 official cases. I find that hard to believe as well. So a lot of the cases are going under reported. Um, that's the assessment of, of health officials also from, uh, the world health organization and local officials, countries like Yemen and Syria, uh, not only have, healthcare systems that are devastated, but in the case of Yemen in particular have to do with other health crises like cholera and also hunger to be, to be brutally honest, people must be reminded of the hunger and the malnourishment that is taking hold in Yemen. And these, inequalities are there to stay for awhile and are not being addressed because they're not being addressed properly. They weren't being addressed properly before. And they're certainly not going to be addressed properly now. And this has a multiplier effect on so many aspects of society from education, from, the health of children from, uh, potential for growth in the future. It's just, it's devastating. Right?

Laura (08:33):

Well, we've seen the pandemic have an impact, even if cases aren't so high is that it's sort of an accelerant to other trends that are happening or attention on it. Displaces attention on other very serious issues, including the ones that you just met.

Kim Ghattas (08:47):

Absolutely. Laura, I mean, I just think about the number of children who've missed school for the last few months, since March, whose futures are going to be terribly impacted by this worldwide 1 billion children have been at home since March. And in some cases they've had access to online education, but in many cases they have not, and that is not only in developing countries, read the stories about, young people, not being able to access zoom classes in Italy or in the US because there's no internet at home or there's no laptop, but this is really happening everywhere. But in countries where on top of that, you have war, strife, conflict, derelict education systems, derelict health systems. It just makes it even worse.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (09:44):

You mentioned the Lebanon, you know, that has really dominated the news since the very tragic blast in the port of Beirut in early August. What is the feeling on the ground in Lebanon at the moment? And can you talk a little bit more about how COVID plays into that, or maybe not, as you said, right now,

Kim Ghattas (10:04):

So Lebanon seems to be dealing quite well with the pandemic so far, up until about July when it reopened the airport, because it depends on travelers, tourists, expatriates into the country, and then the number of cases started rising. But up until then, and even to this day, although people are very worried and very concerned about, how things might unravel, uh, if the health systems and the hospitals are overtaxed, um, the pandemic still seems to be somewhat contained. Somewhat, again, the numbers are not alarming per capita, but they're not good. The trend is not good. So you've had almost a year of protests. You've had devaluation of the currency. You've had unofficial capital controls. You've had rising food prices, rising rapidly, rising poverty. Then comes the pandemic compounding all of that. Imagine an economic shutdown in an economy that is already sort of grinding to a halt.

Kim Ghattas (11:22):

And then on top of that, you get this awful, massive explosion on August 4th, which devastates large parts of, um, the Eastern sector of the city by, by the port, adds yet another burden on hospitals, two or three of which were, uh, almost entirely damaged by 6,000 people in hospital. Some of them less threatening injuries, 200 people dead, several still missing, and 300,000 people instantly homeless. Now, a society has an incredible ability to arise to its feet in this country and step in where the state fails again and again, and again, so much of the rebuilding of much of the humanitarian aid is, is going through local NGOs, volunteer efforts, neighbors, helping each other. It's just been astounding to see but what it has meant for the pandemic is that a lot of people will tell you, we don't care about this pandemic anymore.

Kim Ghattas (12:35):

We're dying anyway. So we might just as well dying, trying to repair houses and get the virus. Uh, we cannot stay at home. We cannot not work. We cannot afford it. We simply cannot care at the moment about this pandemic. Hospital officials will tell you, you can't do this. You must be a responsible citizen. You must wear a mask. You must maintain social distancing because very soon the hospitals will not be able to cope. I know I'm painting a very grim picture. uh Things are rather depressing at the moment in Lebanon, um, civil society, or rather opposition groups that are come out of the grassroot protests, which have not been able to really impose change other than bring down the cabinet. Now we have a new prime minister designate who will form a cabinet after the visit of French president Emmanuel Macron to Lebanon who is really trying to force the political establishment in this country to take reforms.

Kim Ghattas (13:46):

Seriously. I know this is not an episode about Lebanon, so I'll, I'll wrap it there by saying, two things what Lebanon has the averted in the wake of all this force is a further conflagration of violence on the streets for now because of the initiative of president Macron the rise, but what his, what his initiative also does is give you another lifeline to the political establishment. But it looks as though there's no other way forward at the moment. The other thing I will say about Lebanon is that although it's a tiny country and, of course I'm biased because I'm Lebanese. Lebanon matters to the region and to the world in so many ways that it is essential to keep an eye on it. Not only from a security standpoint, not only because of the connections to Iran, because of the presence of Hezbollah, the political party military group in Lebanon, but also because of the high number of refugees, Syrian and Palestinian in the country, and because of rising poverty in Lebanon, the answer is not to build a wall around Lebanon and make sure that the problems don't spill out and that refugees don't leave to, Europe. Um, the answer is to look at this country in context, and make sure that somehow true reforms are possible and that there is a qualitative change in the way it forges a path forward.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (15:18):

We'll be back in a moment to talk about how the regions two main geopolitical rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia are viewing this moment.

Speaker 4 (15:25):


Laura Lucas Magnuson (15:34):

Your recent book talks in detail about the origins of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Let's talk a little bit about how these two countries are fairing. Now. Saudi Arabia, for example, was hit hard by the global decline in demand for oil back in early March. And as we already mentioned, Iran was initially struggling to get the coronavirus under control. Where do they stand, about six months later?

Kim Ghattas (15:57):

The impact of the pandemic on Saudi Arabia has been tremendous because not only have the prices oil fallen, the kingdom, which is the custodian of the two holy sites of Islam has also had to, um, in essence, cancel the pilgrimage.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (16:15):


Kim Ghattas (16:15):

well, not unprecedented because it's happened in the past, but, um, but for this, um, this, uh, custodian of the two Holy sites, some of Islam it's been unprecedented to have to do that, and it's been unprecedented in its economic impact on the country.

Kim Ghattas (16:36):

Um, Saudi Arabia was expecting some 18 million Muslims to come for both the Haij and the Umrah, the smaller pilgrimage, in 2020. That's not happening. Uh, by this year Saudi Arabia, I was hoping that it could, um, you know, live without oil that it would raise non oil revenues to $160 billion that hasn't happened either. That is not a reaction or consequence of the falling oil prices. That is a consequence of, if you want the hubris of the Crown Prince, Muhammed bin Salman, who launched these big headlines and big ideas about where he wanted to take the kingdom, but did not follow through properly in a sustained way because there is, there is a certain trap that the Saudis keep falling into speaking, talking a big talk about reforms and moving away from oil, uh, over the last few decades, they've done this reperepeatedly , but never quite seizing the moment to do that. So now having not been able to restructure the economy in a way that allows the kingdom to live without oil, they're now facing a deep, , budget, uh, deep income revenue shortcoming, um, because of the drop in oil prices.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (17:54):

Well, that change the sort of vision 2030 plan.

Kim Ghattas (17:57):

Oh, absolutely. It will have to be cut back dramatically. and if it's not, then it shows again how disconnected, uh, from, from reality. Uh, the ruling family is in Saudi Arabia and namely crown prince Muhammad Bin Salman. Um, they're also keeping an eye on the region, on Iran, uh, on the elections in the United States, how the outcome will affect them depending on who the next president of the United States is, is going to be. So the impact of the pandemic has been mostly economic for, uh, for Saudi Arabia, for Iran. Not only are they still dealing with the impact, um, the of the pandemic with, um, 378,000 cases and 21, 21,000 deaths, they're also dealing with falling oil prices and all that they can still sell. Um, they've been dealing with ongoing protests, uh, around the country for the last few years and they keep, , appearing here and there, but they're also having to deal with increased pressure on them as a system, not only with the maximum pressure and sanctions imposed by the US but also by the series of, shall we say, unexplained explosions tax that or explosions that we think are sabotage attacks that have occurred over the last few weeks, since July, really a series of explosions in the Bushehr port in the nuclear plant, et cetera, and to her on that really show, um, how much pressure Iran is, uh, is under.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (19:48):

And how do you, I mean, I don't ask you to prognosticate, but it, you know, someone who watches around closely, what are you looking for in terms of what's next for them or the election in the United States? You know, what are sort of your milestones to think about how they will be fairing?

Kim Ghattas (20:05):

So Iran will have a presidential election next year, which the world will be watching closely. It will come right after the US election. Everyone is always watching to see whether there is going to be a breaking point in Iran where the system fails implodes, where there's a massive outpouring of protests on the street that bring down the system, whether, another kind of breakdown will be sitting down at the table and acquiescing to all the conditions of, uh, of the West at this moment in particular of the US I don't really see that happening at the moment. I see more of the same. Um, but again, I don't like to put out prognostics. I don't like to try to predict what is going to happen because the history really is full of surprises. And when I did my research for, for my book, and I looked at the years, proceeding 1979, really no one expected Iran to turn into an Islamic Republic up until the moment where Ayatollah Khamenei started came back from exile.

Kim Ghattas (21:27):

And in essence took over the revolution before he took over the country. No one saw that Khomeini would rise as, as the leader that he, that he became. In fact, the CIA at the time saw in Khomeini potential, uh, influence that will temper the orders of the left, which at the time was, you know, the West's obsession. You know, this was the time of the Soviet union and the spread of communism. And the West was very concerned as was Saudi Arabia about the possibility that the Shah would be replaced by pro Soviet regime. So the CIA saw that the leftists who were really driving the revolution could potentially lead to pro Soviet regime and therefore Khomeini and the clerics would help temper that. So I find it very hard. I would shy away from making big pronouncements. what I see is more of the same, including more continued pressure on Iran, by Israel, by the US and now by this sort of growing, some of it's still unspoken, but some of it's still now very official Alliance between Israel and Gulf countries. We've just seen the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE Sauadi Arabia is not going to follow suit publicly, but there is intelligence sharing, and it's all about Iran,

Laura Lucas Magnuson (22:55):

You know, and we've also obviously mentioned Lebanon around being closely aligned with Hezbollah are the issues in Lebanon, cause for concern in Tehran, or are there, as you said, a myriad of other issues that they're more focused on

Kim Ghattas (23:11):

the Iranians are better than others at talking and chewing gum at the same time as the American expression, they're not as omnipotent and powerful as strategic as, some people like to believe they often benefit from the ineptitude of their adversaries, but they're quite good, at maintaining their course and thinking strategically and biding their time. Furthermore, they're also very good at buying time, not just biding their time, but buying time and using chaos to their advantage. They are under tremendous pressure. And what they've had to deal with over the last 12 months or so is quite unusual protests in Lebanon, which were initially against the corrupt political establishment, but also very quickly, included Hezbollah in that because Hezbollah has become part of the political establishment. So protests in Lebanon that were indirectly threatening Iran protests in Iraq, where Iran was very much the direct target of the anger and the ire of protesters on the streets and protests in Iran at the same time, all of that was happening at the same time. And there was a chant on the streets of Beirut from, Tehrain to Beirut one revolution that does not die.

Kim Ghattas (24:56):

So that was quite the challenge for them. And then, and I think it was quite the challenge for Qasem Soleimani the head of the Qudz force of the paramilitary arm of the Iranian revolutionary guards, who was then killed in a targeted strike by, by the US in January that has caused some reshuffling of the deck, um, who is up or who is down. and so it's been just an ongoing series of moves to pressure, uh, Iran, but in Lebanon . The pandemic helped. It helped curve the protests in Iran, the pandemic help curb the protests in Iraq as well. And now with the latest moves in Lebanon by the French president Macron's visit. But even by the US I would say the Iranians on Hezbollah have just bought themselves more time because the international community is demanding reform, not wholesale change. It has put the issueof Hezbollah a little bit to the side, as long as they allow reforms. And so the pressure is off just a little bit, but they're not out of the woods yet. And they're also, I think, going to be very concerned about how the next months unfold and particularly, they'll be very concerned if president Trump wins because they realize then that the pressure is only going to continue. Whereas if Joe Biden wins, there's more opportunity to buy time again, uh, with some kind of negotiations,

Laura Lucas Magnuson (26:38):

These challenges fundamentally shifted the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran You mentioned the upcoming US election, for instance,

Kim Ghattas (26:45):

unless there is a dramatic event within Iran or within Syria or a dramatic event, like a US strike or an Israeli strike really overtly, not sabotage against Iran. Um, I don't see a shift in the power of balance between these two countries in the near future. Perhaps if a President Trump wins, there might be a crescendo of pressure on Iran, uh, with the help of Israel and the UAE answer driver that could eventually lead Iran either towards, uh, negotiations, um, with a very bad set of cards for, for Iran, very little room to maneuver, or, uh, potentially an implosion within Iran, from the pressure with an outburst of protests. I don't see that scenario, under a Biden presidency, which is why to be honest, it's important for listeners in the US or elsewhere to, to know that there are a lot of people around me who are hoping for the Trump second mandate for second presidencies. Second Trump presidency, regardless of the consequences for America or the rest of the world, because their focus is so much on Iran, that they want the pressure on Iran to continue, and therefore they want a second Trump presidency. There are other things that could happen that could take us by surprise in Saudi Arabia. Um, you know, Muhammad Bin Salman is young and he, if he is exceeds to the throne, he could rule for 50 years, but it's a Viper's nest he could face quite a bit of quite a few challenges in a searching, continuing to assert his power both now, or, or if he aceds to thethrone later. So barring unexpected move like that. I see just more the same and no real change in the shift, in the balance of power between the two countries, it.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (29:06):

We will be right back to look at how these current challenges might impact the region.

Speaker 5 (29:16):


Laura Lucas Magnuson (29:18):

Kim. This podcast is part of a larger Carnegie digital magazine called the day after navigating a post pandemic world in which scholars from across our global network consider what's next, whether for the Arab world on cybersecurity or the future of us, China relations, obviously we're a long way from a return to normalcy in that post pandemic world. We all seek, but what big questions Should Arab governments be asking themselves now, in terms of what's next

Kim Ghattas (29:47):

Arab governments should be asking themselves the same questions that they should have been asking themselves over the last few decades. Do we want to continue to play silly power games, um, continue to, uh, hold on to power at all costs, or do we want to serve our citizens, build productive societies that produce happy, productive citizens that can live with dignity, um, justice and freedom of expression and jobs. I don't see that the pandemic has focused people's minds on these essential questions, but what it has done is, um, made it even more obvious to citizens, to people in the region that their governments are not delivering for them. You know, there are big issues that are not being addressed. You know, um, the IMF estimates, very sharp contraction in economies in the Gulf by 4%. Um, the dependence on migrant workers in the Gulf is going to have to be revisited because travel isn't what it used to be migrant workers cant come and go. They've been stuck in the Gulf without pay the way they've been treated has been absolutely atrocious, including, especially in Saudi Arabia, um, migrant workers from Africa thrown in, in rooms, naked, half naked, barely fed, beaten up. This cannot be a way to build the economies of the 21st century. So I know it sounds almost basic and naive to say that Arab governments really need to ask themselves what kind of societies, what kind of nations they want to build in the 21st century.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (31:59):

And you've talked about this sort of pent up frustration with political systems in different countries of the region, Lebanon being potentially the best example, the reforms that Lebanon is, needs to pursue. Can those be applied more broadly in the region?

Kim Ghattas (32:15):

Oh, absolutely. Um, I mean, with, with some differences, obviously, you know, the economy of the gulf is not the economy of, of the MENA region. you know, suadi arabia cannot be compared to Tunisia and Lebanon cannot be compared to, even to, to Iraq. We have a very specific set of issues that we're, we're having to deal with in Lebanon, but overall it is about, um, you know, building meritocracyIt is about, um,

Laura Lucas Magnuson (32:44):


Kim Ghattas (32:45):

education. Absolutely. It is about social reforms. It is about freedom of expression. Um, and overall it is about moving away from corrupt politics and corrupt practices and for the case of Lebanon, but also Iraq, it is about moving away from sectarian politics, sectarian politics that are used and abused by countries like Iran, which, um, has a foothold in both Lebanon and Iraq through the Shia community. There is so much that needs to be done in this region that it's hard to know where, where to start with, but I think that, again, not to sound Pollyannish or, or, or naive, I really hope that this pandemic focuses people's minds and government's minds on the huge potential that is there within their own countries, within their own citizens to properly develop their country, to properly develop a future of functioning economy. But, but it requires a complete change in the mindset of some of the rulers, like Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt. And then I would say that I hope the equation doesn't become functioning economy, uh, under authoritarian rule, which is somewhat the model that Muhammed Bin Salman has been putting forward. And to some extent, that's also the model in the United Arab Emirates. Um, don't talk politics, don't criticize the ruler, but you can have a job and, you know, you can have a somewhat free social environment to, to move in. And, and in a way that is something that a lot of people in the rest of the region would aspire to, to just have this sense of peace, this flat lining of their existence, where there are no surprises, there are no wars to wake up to. There are no assassination to wake up to, but in the longterm, again, I don't think that's, that's the model to, to follow, although it is also the model that most of the world seems to be going, I'm going towards from Hungary to, to Brazil,

Laura Lucas Magnuson (35:13):

Right. And that's a whole, whole nother pod also potentially depressing. Um, but let's, let's talk about the positive, I mean, in terms of addressing issues like healthcare education, are there any countries you think are bright spots

Kim Ghattas (35:29):

With all its faults, The United Arab Emirates is, is a bright spot when it comes to access to education when it comes, healthcare, uh, when it comes to, just, uh, the basic of having a normal, a normal life. Um, but it has many faults. Tunisia for me, remains a bright spot. Uh, an experiment in maturing towards a true democracy. With true, Freedom of expression and gender equality institutionalized in the law. With elections. I mean, you don't have to, the Arab Emirates has a ministry of happiness. Uh, you don't really need a ministry of happiness if the state and the system provides, dignity and justice and provides a system that is equal for everyone. I always find that to be a little bit of sort of, you know, window dressing, something like a ministry of happiness. And then the bright spot for me is the young generation across the region, the young generation who will not give up on trying to fight for a better future on protesting for the end of corrupt politics on protesting against sectarian politics and just not, you know, not shutting up from Sudan to Algeria, Lebanon, to Iraq, to Iran. I find it unbelievable to see how, and even just Syria, let's not forget Syria. Let's not forget how every time there is a little bit of a moment of quiet in some of the areas, um, in Syria protests erupt again, calling for the departure of, of Assad. People are tired of the same old system. And again, you know, we know that the new isn't born, the old, the old isnt dead yet, the new isn't born in between it's is quite chaotic. And I guess that's the theme of this year of this new century, but the bright hope in this region really is the younger generation.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (37:52):

Thanks so much for joining us, Kim,

Kim Ghattas (37:53):

thanks for having me laura

Laura Lucas Magnuson (37:54):

until next time. Thank you for listening to the world. Unpacked produced by the Carnegie endowment for international peace. We're grateful for your listen and eager for your feedback. We welcome your, and please rate and review us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can find me Laura Lucas Magnuson on Twitter @ Laura L Magnuson. These discussions are only made possible by our wonderful team behind the pod, our audio engineers, Tim Martin, and our executive producer is Maya Krishna Rogers. We'll see you next time.