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Panel Summary Report: The Impact of COVID-19 on Security and Stability in the Middle East

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. 


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