Toby Matthiesen. Photo credit: Matteo Legrenzi

Saudi Arabia and Iran: the effects of Covid-19 in the heart of Islam

Covid-19 has been spreading through the Middle East, making it one of the hotbeds of the pandemic right after China and Europe. The first wave of contagion took place in the holy city of Qom, Iran - a country which reported 90% of the cases in the area - and it quickly began spreading in the Gulf region, where it’s also negatively affecting the already tense religious and political situation, as well as international relations in general.
Saudi Arabia is also on high alert and Hajj - the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city - is now at risk of being cancelled for the first time in modern history.
We talked about this delicate situation with Dr Toby Matthiesen. Dr Matthiesen is currently Senior Research Fellow in International Relations of the Middle East at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford and recipient of a Marie Curie Global Fellowship at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage of Ca’ Foscari University under the supervision of Professor Matteo Legrenzi. Dr Matthiesen will spend the first two years of his Marie Curie Fellowship at Stanford University.

What have been the effects of the pandemic on Saudi Arabia? Is the current situation likely to exacerbate the Sunni-Shi’a impact on the international relations of the Middle East?

After Saudi Arabia’s first COVID-19 cases were found in the predominantly Shiite eastern region of Qatif, the region was put under quarantine, and the Saudi Health Ministry called on people who had traveled to Iran to declare themselves to the authorities. Dozens of Saudi Shiites admitted that they’d traveled there; as coronavirus cases in the kingdom have risen, hundreds of their countrymen have taken to Twitter to blast them as traitors.
Bahrain has begun using the coronavirus crisis as a pretext to track the movements of its Shiite citizens, and has asked those who have traveled to Iran to identify themselves by calling a hotline (though travel to Iran is not a crime as it is in Saudi Arabia, Bahraini Shiites who admit having done so have reason to fear repercussions). The crisis is thus further contributing to the securitisation of Shii communities in the Gulf. Subsequently, more cases were recorded amongst a group of Egyptians in other parts of the country. And a major cause for concern evolves around the other side of the country, the Hijaz, which is home to Islam’s two holiest cities Mecca and Medina, both major locations for pilgrimage. Saudi authorities thus suspended the minor pilgrimage in late February.

How is the cancellation of the annual pilgrimage, the Hajj, for the first time in modern history, likely to impact the Saudi state?

Saudi Arabia has cancelled Umrah, the minor pilgrimage, and has asked pilgrims to postpone their Hajj bookings. If the Hajj is officially cancelled, that would be a step that has not been happening in the modern history of Saudi Arabia. It would probably be a wise decision from a public health point of view. But it would also be a major loss for the Saudi economy, which is also suffering from a very low oil price that is low, however, in particular because Saudi Arabia vowed to increase production in an attempt to gain market share. Whether the Saudi attempts to win this oil-price battle will be successful remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Saudi Arabia and other oil producers are severely undermining their own finances.

Could you imagine a new post-pandemic setting in the region?

Pre-existing tensions and rivalries are being stirred as authoritarian regimes seek to blame one another for the spread of the disease. The outbreak has also further inflamed sectarian tensions, with the virus spreading from Iran via Shii networks of pilgrimage. It has thus contributed to the securitisation of Shii communities and their links to Iran. Given the dire political, economic, and public health situation in some countries in the region, and the de facto absence of a functioning state in others, the impact of the virus could be devastating, deepening pre-existing political cleavages despite the fact that, as elsewhere, it primarily shows the interconnectedness of the region and the wider world.
And after years of war, the spread of the coronavirus in Syria or Libya, or in the camps hosting millions of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, or poor and populous countries such as Egypt, is likely to be devastating. An outbreak would be particularly devastating in war-torn Yemen, where the Houthi-ruled part of the country maintains ties to China and Iran. Malnutrition, lack of clean water, previous outbreaks of diseases such as cholera that have weakened immune systems over years, and a defunct healthcare system are a recipe for yet another Yemeni disaster.
From a security perspective as well as a humanitarian one, the coronavirus crisis in the Middle East is shaping up to be a crisis of epic proportions. It should be a reminder that there is no security without human security, and that countries need to work together to overcome challenges. Unfortunately, it seems that the Coronavirus epidemic is deepening rather than healing divisions.
The wealthier countries in the region, in particular the Gulf States, are theoretically in a better position to weather the crisis. But they will suffer from the economic fallout of the crisis, and smaller states, who put a lot of effort into hosting major international events, may lose out.

How did Rouhani’s government respond to the emergency and how are Iranians facing this new medical disease?

The novel coronavirus is advancing across the Middle East, straining frail public health services and exacerbating pre-existing political and sectarian tensions, both within states and between regional rivals. Most of the region’s earliest cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, were traced to the holy city of Qom in Iran, whose renowned Shiite seminaries and Sayyida Fatimah al-Masumah shrine draw aspiring clerics and devout pilgrims from across the Shiite world.
Iranian officials have given conflicting accounts of how the virus first arrived in Qom, alternately blaming Chinese Muslim students in the city’s religious seminaries and Chinese workers building a high-speed rail line there. What has since become clear, though, is that once the virus reached Qom, a city of about 1.2 million people, it spread quickly.
Iran’s government reported two deaths from COVID-19 in Qom on February 19, the first time it admitted that the virus was present in the country. While most Iranian airlines were subsequently banned from flying to China, one airline, Mahan Air, which is often used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), continued to fly between Iran and China, evacuating Iranian students from Wuhan and then bringing in testing kits and other material to combat the Coronavirus outbreak at home.
While Iran’s early response was muzzled and it took the government weeks to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, the heavy sanctions imposed on the country by the UN and the US have meant that the economic lifeline to China has been growing ever more important for the country (Iranian foreign minister Zarif has appealed to the UN to abandon sanctions in light of the crisis, while there have been widespread urges for the US to suspend sanctions against Iran by both US politicians and European states).
Qom’s shrines initially remained open, and it was not until weeks later that congregational Friday prayers were suspended and travel between cities was restricted.
Once in Iran, it is likely that the virus spread through visitors to the city’s shrines and other travellers. It swiftly infected senior Iranian officials and MPs, some of whom have died.
By February 27, cases had been reported in 24 of Iran’s 31 provinces. And as of March 22, the virus had infected more than 21,000 people in Iran, and killed 1,685, including at least a dozen government officials; because, as in other countries, coronavirus testing in Iran is limited to the most severe cases, the World Health Organization has said that the true number of infected people in Iran could be up to five times higher than the official figure.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government was slow to respond to the outbreak, resisting calls for widespread quarantines and travel restrictions, and downplaying the scale of the crisis. After weeks of hesitation, on March 16, Rouhani ordered many of the country’s most important shrines to close, and ordered Iranians to limit contact during the weeks-long Spring holidays. The decision—unprecedented in Iran, where shrines are typically open 24 hours a day—was furiously denounced by clerics, and sparked demonstrations by conservative Iranians.

What is the role of the US (and China on the other hand) in the Iran situation?

On the whole, the crisis has not managed to lead to better US-Iran relations. So far, it has worsened those relations. Iran’s relations with China, on the other hand, seem strengthened, as China is extending support to Iran in this difficult time.
Officials in Iran’s government have also started claiming that the virus originated in the US. The recently appointed commander-in-chief of the IRGC, Major General Hossein Salami, suggested that the global spread of the Coronavirus may in fact be US biological warfare against China and Iran: “Today, the country is engaged in a biological battle” (this is a narrative increasingly being pushed in China as well). Iranian media also argued that the US is taking advantage of the crisis. Sadly, it looks like a major chance to improve relations is not being used. Tensions between the US and Iran are also being played out in Iraq with tit-for-tat attacks despite the ongoing health crisis.