Dr. Tankut Oztas
The pandemic-induced crisis is expected to exacerbate poverty, deepen inequality and constrain households’ access to basic needs, including health service.
The spread of COVID-19 undoubtedly has had a catastrophic impact on the most vulnerable communities of the world. According to a recent World Bank report, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is ranked as second-lowest among all regions in the overall Global Health Security Index, and it comes last in terms of both epidemiology workforce and emergency preparedness and response planning. Without an effective and coordinated set of policies to achieve a swift economic recovery, the region is highly likely to suffer from greater political instabilities and become a breeding ground for terror groups.
The COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated these pre-existing vulnerabilities and risks in the widely-mismanaged economies of the MENA, where medical systems are under-resourced and much-needed infrastructure either destroyed or lacking.
A range of harsh anti-COVID-19 measures such as self-isolation, social distancing, and lockdowns, including total curfews and international travel restrictions have been implemented by governments to control the spread of the virus and protect lives.
These preventive measures, however, led economies across the region to experience severe supply and demand shocks. The most recent regional economic outlook reports published by both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast that regional economies would most likely experience a sharp economic fallout by –4.2 percent and 4.7 percent in 2020, respectively.
Still, the real socio-political and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the MENA remains highly uncertain and will strictly depend on the duration of the outbreak and the effectiveness of the policy responses developed by each nation.
The current predictions, however, suggest that all critical macroeconomic indicators such as fiscal and current account balances, foreign reserves, and the inflow of foreign direct investment will be distressed as a result of the crisis. The pandemic-induced crisis is expected to exacerbate poverty, deepen inequality and constrain households’ access to basic needs, including health services.
The economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic effectively forced almost all countries in the region to request financial assistance from the IMF or other financial institutions to strengthen their economic position and prevent the possibility of a prolonged economic recession. As a result, regional economies have become heavily dependent on the reform directions of the IMF, World Bank, and other investment banks.
Socio-economic and political tensions remain a distinct possibility in the post-pandemic era if policy responses fail to meet the demands of the majority and set a path for swift economic recovery. Countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Tunisia already have debilitated capabilities. Persisting socio-political and economic hardship exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to a vicious cycle of economic malaise.
The same outcome applies to the only two oil-exporting countries of the region, Iraq and Algeria. Their economies were hit by the complete halt of economic activities due to the pandemic and have also been severely affected by the crash of oil prices. A similar assessment is applicable to war-torn countries of the region, Syria and Libya too. Though their economic outlook is linked to a sustainable political order and strong security environment, the spread of the virus and its humanitarian and economic costs are extra burdens on the wellbeing of communities living in these countries.
The only countries in the region with a relatively positive socio-political and financial outlook are Israel and Morocco. While their economies are experiencing the economic consequences of the pandemic, their macroeconomic variables are in a better position compared to their peers. Their public and externals debts are relatively lower in comparison to other nations in the region.
Nevertheless, every country will experience the heavy burden of issues such as collapsing global trade, low commodity prices, major capital outflows, and healthcare-specific challenges inflicted by the COVID-19 outbreak. The crisis is dealing a heavy blow on sectors such as tourism, export companies, and small and medium-sized businesses, which employ the largest share of the workforce and generate a considerable share of the revenue streams for the region’s economic development.
A reduction in income from these sectors, as well as remittances and foreign investment from the oil-rich Gulf countries, subsequently hampered the foreign reserves and deepened the current account deficit across the region as a whole.
Against this challenging backdrop, a range of economic recovery packages have been announced by the governments to mitigate the economic repercussions of the COVID-19. The majority of them are aimed at helping the most hard-hit sectors and communities through temporary tax relief, cash transfers or cheap financing.
The uncertainty about the real economic impact of the pandemic, however, has complicated the policy response. Many of these economies have limited fiscal and external debt capacities. The Lebanese government, for instance, has the highest external debt in the region with approximately 170 percent of its GDP. Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq follow Lebanon with external debts of 97, 90, 87.2 and 80 percent of their GDP, respectively.
Ultimately, many of these economies had already been battling with high poverty, political instability, and poor healthcare infrastructure, hence the historic economic downturn provoked by the novel coronavirus will aggravate existing economic and humanitarian challenges. The region already has the world’s highest youth unemployment, and it hosts countries that have weak security institutions.
In the period that lies ahead, if the geostrategic vulnerabilities and risks continue to amplify across the region without a stable political leadership, effective civil service, and a well-targeted set of economic recovery programs, the region will likely experience a prolonged economic recession and an increased risk of social unrest.
Tankut Oztas is a researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He holds a PhD in International Political Economy from King’s College London and specializes in global security, geopolitical risks and the politics of transnational economic affairs.