On September 17, 2020, the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD) hosted a virtual panel discussion entitled “The Impact of COVID-19 on Security and Stability in the Middle East.” The event was held in partnership with the Defence and Security Foresight Group, as part of an IPD discussion series about the impact of COVID-19 on global order and international peace and security with support from the Department of National Defence’s Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security (MINDS) program.
The panel was assembled to investigate the ways in which COVID-19 has contributed to the ongoing security threats and regional destabilization; explore opportunities for how this shared public health emergency could become the impetus for cooperation among GCC countries, Iraq and Iran; and assess non-invasive junctures for Canada’s potential contribution to these matters.
In the first section of the panel, Ambassador Stefanie McCollum—Canada’s representative to the State of Qatar—delivered a keynote speech, followed by a conversation with Younes Zangiabadi, Executive Vice President of the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. The second part of the discussion hosted distinguished speakers Dennis Horak, Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Bessma Momani, Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo; Luciano Zaccara, Professor of Gulf Politics at Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University; and Rothna Begum, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch. This discussion was moderated by Sanam Shantyaei, Senior Journalist and Host of Middle East Matters at France24.
Ambassador Stefanie McCollum began her keynote speech by discussing Canada’s Middle East strategy at large. “Canada’s current Middle East strategy was launched in 2016 in response to the ongoing crisis in Syria and Iraq, and their impact in the Middle East […] particularly on Jordan and Lebanon.” Under this strategy, she explained, Canada committed to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviating human suffering, and enabling stabilization programs (among other things). Ambassador McCollum elaborated on Canada’s response to the pandemic in the region, which has centred around four principles: “reduced food insecurity, increased water provisions and accessibility, increased availability of hygiene supplies, and increased desludging and solid waste management.”
Younes Zangiabadi followed up with a question on Canada’s humanitarian assistance in the form of material and healthcare support to countries in the region that are less equipped to deal with the pandemic. Ambassador McCollum explained that Canada has been investing multilaterally in local and international non-governmental organizations that the federal government believes are best equipped to assess the needs of people from within their communities. In addition, Canada continues to work closely with partners to develop a vaccine and facilitate its timely distribution—particularly in health-insecure countries, including those in the Middle East. She further contended that investments in security and stability via development and humanitarian support reflect the importance that Canada places on relationships with Middle Eastern countries. Ambassador McCollum made note of Canada’s pre-COVID efforts to work with wealthier countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, towards humanitarian diplomacy: “Canada welcomes Saudi Arabia leveraging its role as GCC’s President to conduct extraordinary meetings in response to COVID-19 to coordinate a global response to the pandemic.”
Zangiabadi’s final question for the ambassador was in regard to Canada’s efforts to increase food security in the region throughout the ongoing blockade against Qatar. Ambassador McCollum expressed support for the establishment of a network inclusive of all GCC states to protect food supplies, noting that Canada strives to continue strong relations with all GCC states, and will support the improvement and strengthening of relations amongst GCC countries and regionally.
After a short break, the second segment of the panel began with conversations that centred around the post-COVID world. Moderator Sanam Shantyaei began the discussion by asking the panelists about what they perceived as the likely short and long-term impacts of the pandemic on security and stability in the Middle East. Dennis Horak was of the opinion that, despite popular belief, the fundamental perspectives, policies and strategies in and towards the Middle East would not change coming out of COVID-19.
Luciano Zaccara agreed, explaining that early optimism about the possibilities of using COVID-19 as a platform for dialogue among disconnected countries may have been short-sighted, as pre-existing conflicts have recently returned to the region. Bessma Momani argued that Middle Eastern states have failed to gain the trust of their populations, which has disadvantaged public health authorities’ ability to galvanize citizen support for protective measures against COVID-19. She also finds some of these governments to be guilty of (ab)using the chaotic and uncertain conditions of the pandemic to discreetly suppress their populations where it serves their interests. Rothna Begum provided an example in Saudi Arabia’s unyielding and flagrant disregard for human rights, a pattern that recently includes the suspicious incarceration of at least five yet unreleased women’s rights activists. Begum further noted that when it comes tackling long-standing human rights violations exasperated by the pandemic—including violence against women and migrant labourers—shelters, hotlines and hotels could be creatively repurposed to serve those made more vulnerable by the pandemic.
Shantyaei asked the panelists to offer commentary on how economic sanctions continue to impact Middle Easterner’s ability to exercise their human rights. Shantyaei highlighted the blockade on occupied Palestinian territories, paying particular attention to public health vulnerabilities in Gaza as a consequence of the ongoing blockade. Begum noted that “Human Rights Watch has documented the ways in which economic sanctions against Iran are impacting their ability to deal with COVID-19.” To counter, the United States and its allies need to lift sanctions on Iran, said Begum. Despite ample opportunities to reverse these injunctions, a stark lack of political will has prohibited such live-saving action. Momani made a point to touch on COVID-19’s disproportionate burden on the region’s most insecure populations including informal-workers and day labourers—often racialized populations and women—who lack the ability to lock down and stay home.
Begum argued that Canada is well-positioned to play a mediating role in the Middle East. Horak disagreed, arguing that Canada does not have the political will, nor political capacity, to engage as a mediator in the Middle East, given that it has not maintained positive relations with Iran and Saudi-Arabia—arguably, the two most influential players in the region.
On Canada’s approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, Shantyaei highlighted a recent United Nations report that identifies Canada’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia as “helping to perpetuate the conflict” in Yemen and fuelling suspected war crimes. In response, Horak explained that Canadian Arms contracts are subject to export controls that take human rights into account. “Weapons systems provided to Saudi Arabia, to my knowledge, were not being used to commit human rights violations,” adding, “When there is clear evidence of human rights violations, there are exit strategies.” Begum pushed back by highlighting scores of evidence gathered by international organizations on the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and acknowledging Canada’s obligations under international law not to provide weapons to the parties of the conflict.
Momani explained that there has always been “an over-emphasis on terrorism in the Middle East.” The average Middle Easterner is facing an array of socio-economic issues that are too-often overshadowed by this single issue. That said, she explained that the recent resurgence of ISIS campaigns and organizing are concerning and certainly deserve international scrutiny. However, the expansion of Iraq’s professional national army has proven to be beneficial. Without a competent professional national army, there is too much space for warlords to create their own fiefdoms, which pose an unreasonable risk to local livelihoods and global security.
To wrap the discussion, the panelists were asked to share their final thoughts on what measures could be taken by the international community to support the actualization of peace and security in the Middle East, throughout, and after, COVID-19. Rothna’s concluding remarks touched upon the ways in which the public health crisis has exacerbated long-standing civil abuses—“If we do not uphold people’s human rights, if we do not provide for the security and safety of everyone—citizens, residence, undocumented workers, whoever they may be—we are all unsafe.” Horak’s final thoughts provided recommendations on Canada’s approach to foreign policy in the region: “What I would like to see is a comprehensive approach, and maybe COVID-19 starts us thinking that way. What is it that we want in the Middle East? What are our interests in particular? And not just [thinking about] how we can help the region, but what do we want in that region?” Horak advised that answering these questions will require prolonged diplomatic engagement with Iran and Saudi Arabia, as key actors in the Middle East. Luciano Zaccara emphasized the need to think about security in a more holistic way when seeking to resolve such interconnected global issues. Lastly, Momani concluded by cautioning decision-makers against taking actions that dehumanize Middle Easterners, highlighting the international community’s duty to acknowledge and protect the agency of those who live in the region.