A year ago, Iran marked its National Army Day with a flashy display of its military might. As new tensions flared with the Trump Administration, tanks and long-range missiles loaded on flatbed trucks rolled through the streets of Tehran. Neat formations of troops showcased the Army’s diversity—ethnic Turkmen wore fuzzy white-fur hats and maroon robes, and tribal Arabs were in brown capes with black-and-white checkered headdresses. Special-forces soldiers in khaki fatigues and crisp berets goose-stepped past President Hassan Rouhani and the Islamic Republic’s top military brass. This year, it was a very different show—and a different message. With more than a hundred thousand confirmed cases of covid-19 in Iran, the Army Day parade featured troops goose-stepping in hazmat suits and face masks, columns of ambulances, flatbed trucks converted into mobile clinics, and military vehicles spewing huge clouds of disinfectant into the air. Members of the Army band performed—six feet apart. The Iranian President skipped the show. “The enemy now is hidden and doctors and nurses are at the frontlines of the battlefield,” he said, in a message to the nation’s military. “Our army is not a symbol of militarism but a manifestation of supporting the nation and upholding its national interests.”
The Middle East, the world’s most volatile region for more than seven decades, has been ravaged over the past two months by twin disasters—the coronavirus pandemic and the historic collapse of global oil prices. Iran was the region’s original epicenter of the coronavirus. But, by Wednesday, seventeen Arab countries, Iran, and Israel reported a total of more than two hundred and twenty thousand cases, with more than nine thousand dead.
Simultaneously, economies across the region have been hit hard after oil prices dropped to historic lows last month, owing to a simultaneous supply glut and the diminished demand for oil and gas during worldwide lockdowns. A year ago, the price of oil was sixty-seven dollars a barrel. Last month, prices plummeted worldwide—U.S. oil dropped, for the first time, below zero. As producers ran out of storage facilities, some were forced to pay buyers to take the oil that the firms had no place to keep. “I don’t see how the Middle East recovers,” Suzanne Maloney, of the Brookings Institution, told me. “This will have a catastrophic impact on the region, because the combination of covid-19 and the oil-price collapse hits oil-producing states that have, in turn, been the source of largesse for the rest of the region.”
Since late February, across the region, the imagery, the agenda of its leaders, and the realities of daily life have been transformed. In Syria’s Idlib Province, the last major battleground of that country’s civil war, a trailer with massive, homemade drawings of the red coronavirus has driven through the streets to warn the war-ravaged population about an even greater danger than the Assad regime. In Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, the massive Grand Mosque, in Mecca, is eerily empty. In March, the kingdom banned all pilgrimages, including the annual hajj to Mecca—one of the five pillars of the faith—which hasn’t been interrupted since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, in 1798. The royal family has gone into de-facto hiding since the coronavirus infected as many as a hundred and fifty of its princes and princesses. King Salman is reportedly in seclusion, on a Red Sea island near Jeddah, while the ambitious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has retreated with his inner circle to the remote site of a futuristic city with few people, according to the Times.
Survival now supersedes even the region’s deepest rivalries. Israelis have flooded garment-makers in Gaza—the Palestinian territory run by Israel’s archenemy Hamas—with orders for masks and other protective gear, while anti-Israel graffiti on Gaza walls has been replaced by paintings of the coronavirus and people in masks. Saudi Arabia announced a ceasefire in its five-year military campaign in Yemen—against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels—and signalled interest in ending the war.
The twin crises of sickness and sliding oil prices coincided with rumbling instability: three ongoing civil wars—lasting for five years in Yemen, six years in Libya, and nine years in Syria—plus months of deadly protests in Iraq; the implosion of Lebanon’s monetary system; the third Israeli election in a year; the presence of millions of refugees and displaced people in rudimentary camps in Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon; and the resurgence of suicide attacks and assassinations by isis. With the exception of Israel, most Middle Eastern countries don’t have the medical staff, hospitals, and equipment necessary to provide adequate care during a pandemic, nor the financial resources to bail out their economies.
The crises have set the stage for the Middle East to become even more volatile. Roughly sixty per cent of the region’s population is under thirty, which may impact the number who survive the pandemic. But the young have also spearheaded the region’s protests—and may now express renewed fury because they will be the generation most impacted by soaring unemployment. In many countries, roughly a third of young people were jobless before the pandemic. In Lebanon, demonstrators violated quarantine in the northern city of Tripoli and burned down banks to protest the collapse of the national currency—and its impact on their lives. A twenty-six-year-old, Fawwaz al-Samman, died in a confrontation with the Lebanese Army. He was quickly dubbed the “Martyr of the Hunger Revolution.” “This is a critical turning point,” Maloney told me. “It’s going to have a long-standing political impact, fuelling populism and rage against governments by their own people.”
Iran, the region’s epicenter, accounts for almost half of the total number of coronavirus cases. Infections in twenty-three countries across four continents—from the United States to Sweden, from Thailand to New Zealand—have been traced to Iran. The pandemic is still in its early stages in other parts of the Middle East, according to Paul Salem, the president of the Middle East Institute, in Washington, D.C. Highly vulnerable areas—Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps across the region, slums in Casablanca and Algiers, war zones in Yemen and Libya, and densely packed areas such as the Gaza Strip—have limited means of coping if infections spread. “Given that there is no therapy or vaccine and lockdowns will only last so long, the human toll over the next year or two could be gargantuan,” Salem told me. “More could die in the Middle East from this pandemic than in all the region’s wars since the First World War.”
Every government also faces staggering economic challenges. Algeria—which has the highest number of covid-19 deaths in Africa, and which gets sixty per cent of its revenues from petroleum products—has been devastated. This week, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced that the nation’s budget will have to be slashed in half. Saudi Arabia’s budget for 2020 was based on prices above eighty dollars a barrel. The world’s largest oil producer, which relies on its petroleum sector for eighty-seven per cent of budget revenues, is now forced to draw on thirty-two billion dollars in foreign reserves and tap into debt markets to make ends meet. The kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan to modernize and diversify its economy, championed by the crown prince, no longer looks affordable, at least on the current schedule.
The deal last month among twenty-three oil-producing nations to cut production by almost ten million barrels per day may have limited impact. In April, the International Energy Agency projected that the global demand for oil would drop by twenty-nine million barrels per day. Iraq, Libya, Iran, and the other Gulf sheikhdoms all stand to lose tens of billions of dollars in revenues.
To manage the pandemic, some governments in a region famed for its autocrats have become even more authoritarian, shutting down public spaces and controlling the words and actions of a population facing more unemployment and hunger, Salem said. The United Arab Emirates, which has reported more than fifteen thousand cases of covid-19, imposed a fine of more than five thousand dollars on anyone who contradicts official statements on the pandemic. Saudi Arabia, which has reported more than thirty thousand cases, imposed strict curfews and cut off entry and exit to several cities. Egypt, which has more than seven thousand cases, has criminalized “spreading panic” about the pandemic, while parliament granted even more sweeping powers to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and security agencies. The government “is using the pandemic to expand, not reform, Egypt’s abusive Emergency Law,” Joe Stork, the Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Egyptian authorities should address real public health concerns without putting in place additional tools of repression.”
Finally, the twin crises have coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, which began on April 24th. Normally, it is one of the most joyous times of the year for observant Muslims, who fast from dawn to dusk, then break the daily fast with Iftar feasts shared with extended families, neighbors, and mosque communities. Iftars are now small, modest meals under quarantine. Jordan was among several countries that banned worship in mosques during Ramadan. If leaders were wise, Salem posited, they could cut back on defense spending, end direct or indirect involvement in wars, and focus instead on issues of health and public welfare. The waves of protests before the pandemic proved the Middle East is indeed ripe—even overripe—for change. But given the region’s long history of dictators, warlords, militias, and corrupt élites, prospects seem dim. And that does not bode well for the Middle East’s post-pandemic future.