The economies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are expected to be hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, developing technological and security measures implemented in the Gulf to contain the virus leave GCC states open to the prospect of increased repression. Consequently, authoritarianism could intensify to counter civil disruption following economic setbacks from Coronavirus.
Globally, Coronavirus is enhancing the growing trend of authoritarianism. China’s approach to the outbreak in Wuhan has been viewed as a source of inspiration, prompting other countries to go into lockdown, with Beijing’s English-language propaganda campaign promoting China’s efforts as a role model for containing the virus. Such moves by the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party could also grant more of an acceptable message for repressive measures.
Whilst both the Saudi Arabia and Kuwait regimes particularly gained from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak of 2012 by developing their competence and preparedness for future outbreaks, Gulf states which are advancing their surveillance and monitoring of civilians (in response to the Coronavirus) could impose more long-lasting measures against their residents.
Saudi Arabia went into full lockdown on April 6, in order to contain the spread of the virus. Several key cities were placed under 24-hour curfews, including Riyadh, Tabuk, Dammam, Dhahran and Hofuf. Additionally, several parts of Jeddah were locked down and Saudi Arabia has also indefinitely banned visits to Mecca and Medina, including Umrah.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) extended its lockdown in Dubai for two-weeks on April 4, after placing restrictions across the country on March 26 (the same day Bahrain moved into lockdown), although some businesses reopened in April. Meanwhile Kuwait extended its lockdown on major parts of Kuwait City on April 6. Qatar has gone into partial lockdown in the capital Doha, while Oman renewed its lockdown on April 20.
Among the biggest changes has been the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) particularly after last December’s GCC summit led to calls to further advance its development. In Saudi Arabia and beyond, governments and police forces have been using AI-powered video analytics software and computer imaging to ensure that people are obeying lockdown rules. The use of drones, robots and surveillance cameras have long been in place, however GGC states including Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait have increased their use of such AI tools to track citizens’ social distancing.
Meanwhile, the UAE lifted restrictions on various Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) platforms, including Skype, Google Hangouts and Zoom, which initially suggested that the regime was becoming more flexible in accommodating its residents wishes following calls to end limitations on such apps. However, Abu Dhabi has announced fines of up to 20,000 Dirhams (US$5,500) for spreading ‘fake news’ about the Coronavirus, particularly for promoting information which contradicts the authorities’ official statements, suggesting increased government control over the press. Already, the government has targeted claims that the number of cases could be much higher than reported within the UAE, threatening those who question the government’s figure with legal consequences. In Dubai security officials advanced their usage of the program Oyoon to counter Coronavirus, using a network of facial, voice and license plate recognition cameras to track citizens and feed the information into a large government database. Whilst in Abu Dhabi, health authorities developed an app called TraceCovid, enabling the tracking of infected people’s movements which authorities can also monitor.
Tracking people’s movements and communications enables Gulf states to effectively monitor citizens. Though AI offers benefits for democratic and authoritarian governments alike, particularly in countering Coronavirus, there is the risk of these benefits being abused in a post-Coronavirus world, as does the information collected from citizens using these tools.
The Coronavirus’ impending damage to economies could enhance such authoritarianism in certain Gulf states, desperate to secure control. On April 15 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted a loss of $259 bn from Gulf states, and Gulf stock markets have crashed to unprecedented lows following lockdowns and falling oil demand. Bahrain announced government spending cuts of around 30% on April 20, indicating the kingdom’s financial uncertainty. Likewise, Kuwait’s economy faces being hit by the lack of demand for oil.
Whilst GCC states will certainly fare better than others in the Middle East region due to their more advanced healthcare systems, and the ability to use their larger financial reserves and establish bonds to alleviate the economic damage, they could face further problems. Saudi Arabia is among the most vulnerable; Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 has already faced roadblocks and is increasingly considered unfeasible. Low oil prices could plunge Riyadh into its biggest financial crisis yet, likely prompting increased authoritarianism, particularly if it fears greater social unrest from the economic fallout of the Coronavirus.
Though Qatar also risks taking an economic hit from the Coronavirus due to its heavy dependency on natural resources, its economy has manoeuvred and become more flexible following the 2017 Gulf crisis. When Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar, severing all commercial ties, Doha was forced to alter its supply chains and trade routes. It was obliged to look for global trade partners, rather than its previous reliance on GCC states, which put it in good stead for a crisis like the Coronavirus.
The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, has focused on shifting its economy away from its traditional dependency on natural resources, and has enjoyed more success than its neighbour in this. However, the UAE’s natural resources still factor significantly in its economy and a loss of tourism and international investments could hit the emirate of Dubai harder than Abu Dhabi, given the former’s reliance on this income.
This could shift the balance of power within the UAE towards Abu Dhabi – just like after the 2007-2008 financial crisis, when Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed bailed out Dubai and furthered his investments in that Emirate. If this happened again it would give Abu Dhabi more domestic influence over the entire country, thus consolidating more authoritarian measures.