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COVID-19 Security Challenges: Unprecedented Opportunity for Regionalism in the Middle East

By Mahdokht Zakeri

If regional tensions are softened by the security threat of COVID-19, there could be space for more comprehensive peaceful negotiations in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread disruption of human security across the world. As governments seek to overcome extraordinary public health and socioeconomic challenges, violent extremist groups are exploiting the crisis to their advantage in the Middle East. The chaos caused by the outbreak has created further space for terrorist organizations to bolster their presence and promote their activities in the region. Undoubtedly, it is much easier for these groups to operate in unstable environments, where states struggle with underlying vulnerabilities in critical infrastructures such as health care and security services. 

Amid this atmosphere of uncertainty, hostile organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS) have been revitalized by such an unprecedented opportunity to reinforce their narratives and capitalize on fear. As a result, ISIS has coordinated more assaults in areas where state governments are failing to establish an effective security presence. Recent terrorist attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen demonstrate the severity of such threats to regional security in the Middle East.

The closure of universities and schools, rapid transition to remote working, and growing rate of unemployment have forced people to spend much more of their time in isolation, and online. This has provided fertile ground for extremists to engage with wider audiences via social media and chat forums. Here, they target vulnerable individuals with discourses and propaganda, intending to radicalize and recruit them into their organizations. 

With such potential to wreak havoc in fragile states and conflict-ridden areas, the pandemic must be considered as one of the most significant threats to achieving stability in the region. On one hand, COVID-19 has disrupted humanitarian aid flows, hindered peace operations, and indefinitely postponed ongoing diplomatic efforts. On the other hand, the weakening of states’ security forces has created the perfect conditions for terrorists to expand their operations. Evidence of this is already emerging: in July, ISIS and Al-Qaeda collectively killed over 70 citizens and military personnel in Syria. Despite ISIS’ reduced presence in Iraq, sporadic attacks in Diyala, Kirkuk and Salah al-Din provinces continued into June, killing 40 civilians and army forces.

While such organizations view the pandemic as an opportunity to increase their military strength, they have also attempted to provide health services to the communities they operate within to gain popularity. In Syria, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has taken advantage of the state’s neglect of the social welfare sector by strategically providing support services to citizens in controlled territories, thus locally delegitimizing the government’s authority. 

A concerted and collective effort is needed to counter these emerging security threats in the Middle East. Neighbouring countries in the region have struggled to sustain effective cooperation, but a common threat like COVID-19 may incentivize a limited regional alliance. This shared crisis might serve as a foundation upon which countries could shift towards regionalism, engage in negotiations, and coordinate their responses to COVID-19—despite ongoing rivalries on other matters. 

Moving forward, Middle Eastern countries should first establish a platform for dialogue where all countries could meet to collaborate on matters of public health, first and foremost being the COVID-19 pandemic, but also future sustainable healthcare infrastructure projects. Second, to address the challenges of radicalization and recruitment posed by extremists, regional information-sharing on cybersecurity should be enhanced to monitor the activities of hostile organizations and build legislative and technical capacity for intervention.  

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres has repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire in conflict regions. To stop the vicious cycle of instability, conflict, terror, and pandemic in countries like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, a security consensus is needed in the Middle East. For instance, Iran, as a regional power, hard-hit by the pandemic, has an opportunity to call for cooperation with its neighbours and perhaps even reach some form of short-term agreements with rivals on ongoing regional conflicts. In recent months, some Gulf Cooperation Council members have demonstrated a willingness to engage in ‘virus diplomacy’ by offering humanitarian aid to neighbouring countries such as Iran, indicating a major shift in their foreign policy outlook. Thus, it could be the right time for Iran to initiate negotiations for achieving peace in conflict areas such as Syria and Yemen. In addition to improving regional security, preventing further escalation of ongoing conflicts, and reducing the spread of COVID-19, such measures could also provide the ground for negotiations on other vital long-term regional issues.

These diplomatic shifts and signals for constructive engagement can ripple outward. If regional tensions are softened by the security threat of COVID-19, there could be space for more comprehensive peaceful negotiations in the future. By showing a willingness to confront the pandemic through a multi-state platform, there might be a possibility for major regional players to re-engage and negotiate on ongoing regional conflicts, their relations, and a new order for the Middle East.

Dr. Mahdokht Zakeri is a visiting research fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (CMESS) in Tehran. Researching at the intersection of identity conflicts and recognition politics, her interests lie in the study of violence and extremism, entanglement of misrecognition and organized crimes, and Middle East politics.

She has authored two books in Farsi, including Modern Barbarism: A Reflection on the Present and the Future of ISIS (2016) and Narcoterrorism: A Common Threat Against Human and National Security in the Middle East (2019). Her articles have been published in well-ranked journals in Farsi and English.

Note: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy or its executive team.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor