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COVID-19 Is Pushing a Quarter of the Arab World to Poverty, UN Warns

The pandemic and low oil prices have left Arab leaders cash-strapped and facing unrest.
27 July 2020, 1:05pm
COVID-19 Is Pushing a Quarter of the Arab World to Poverty, UN Warns
The deserted streets of Dubai during a two-week lockdown aiming to curb the spread of coronavirus in April. Credit: Hady Ashraf / Alamy Live News.

The United Nations has warned that worsening coronavirus outbreaks and low oil prices could leave a quarter of the Arab world’s population in poverty, straining an already turbulent region and putting pressure on its leaders.

In a video message, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said that COVID-19 has “exposed endemic challenges” in Arab countries just as a collapse in oil prices is expected to shrink the region’s economy by 5 percent.

His concerns come alongside new data from the University of Washington that suggest Arab states have yet to see their peaks of COVID-19 cases and that as many as 160,000 people could have died from the virus by November.

“With millions more pushed down the economic ladder, fully one-quarter of the Arab population may live in poverty,” said Guterres. “In a region already rife with tensions and inequalities, this will have profound consequences on political and social stability.”

According to a UN study, the Arab bloc was initially spared the kinds of coronavirus devastation that was witnessed in China, parts of Europe and the United States, but “more recent trends are cause for concern” in the oil-rich region.

The virus is as worrying for those living in the relative affluence of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states as it is for war-ravaged Libyans, Yemenis and Syrians, as well as impoverished Palestinians, the report said.

As leaders around the world shuttered their economies and people stayed home and stopped driving and taking flights, oil prices fell to around $40 per barrel – well below the price that Arab exporters need to balance their budgets.

The bloc’s economy is expected to shrink by 5.7 per cent – a $152 billion loss – and the International Monetary Fund has given the Middle East and North Africa its gloomiest forecast in 50 years, researchers said.

Some Arab nations could see their economies tank by 12 percent this year, said the 27-page report from the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.

This would push some 14.3 million people below the poverty line this year, increasing the region’s total number of impoverished people to 115 million, which is about a quarter of the Arab world’s 436-million population.

Many of those being rendered poor were until recently middle class, said researchers, adding to the woes of a region that was already plagued with high rates of joblessness, particularly among its bulging population of young adults.

The report comes as one of the region’s top epidemiologists, Dr Ali Mokdad, director of Middle Eastern Initiatives at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said that Arab countries are ending their lockdowns too early.

The coronavirus death toll in Egypt, which is about 4,500 now, could balloon to more than 50,000 by November, said Dr Mokdad. In that time, he also predicted fatalities rising in Saudi from 2,600 to 20,000, in Iraq from 4,300 to 16,000, and in Yemen from about 500 to 12,000.

“We’re very concerned about the Middle East,” Dr Mokdad told Vice News. “With oil prices dropping and wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria, instability in Iraq and protests from Lebanon to Algeria, we are going backwards on health, education and unemployment. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Saudi says it will hold only a "limited" Hajj of some 1,000 pilgrims this month. Oman has banned travel between all its governorates during an upcoming religious holiday, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said the country’s outbreak is worse than official figures suggest.

Still, Dr Mokdad believes that many cash-strapped Arab governments are underreporting their caseloads and ending lockdowns too early in an effort to lure holidaymakers to tourist hotspots like Egypt and Dubai.

Human Rights Watch has accused the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of downplaying the scale of the crisis there and jailing scores of health workers, journalists and critics.

Sunjeev Bery, the executive director of Freedom Forward, which campaigns for the United States to cut ties with developing world autocracies, said it was high time for Arab dictators to come good on their promises of reform.

“The spread of coronavirus across the Middle East isn’t just a public health crisis — it's a political crisis,” Bery told VICE News.

“The dictators who rule Egypt and Saudi Arabia have done much to devastate societies across the region, whether through corruption or war. It's no coincidence that both dictatorships are top recipients of US military support. Without this Western backing, they might have been forced to change their behaviour long ago.”