Governments across the Middle East have moved to upgrade their surveillance capabilities under the banner of combatting COVID-19, the disease linked to the new coronavirus.
Overtly repressive policies have been commonplace across the Middle East for years, notably in Egypt, Iraq and Syria, where violent measures have been taken to control populations.
As a result of technological advances, an increase in political engagement and changes of leadership, the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have also upgraded their form of authoritarianism in recent years. This has seen policies of partial economic liberalisation and market-based reforms used to obscure an increase in repression and surveillance, for example by containing the work of civil society groups.
Following the pattern in which authoritarian states tend to exploit common threats, some of the GCC states are now manipulating the current pandemic to enhance their social power and control – as I’ve explored in a recent article as part of a contribution for the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University.
In Dubai, nationwide curfews have been put in place and enforced by the security services and surveillance. Authorities in the UAE have also introduced criminal penalties for the dissemination of information about the virus deemed to be false. Meanwhile, Bahrain introduced electronic tags for patients who had tested positive for COVID-19. In Saudi Arabia, people have been arrested for violating strict curfew laws.
Beijing’s recent admission that more people had died than originally reported in Wuhan, the original epicentre of the pandemic, shows the fragile nature of information and truth within authoritarian states. Likewise, it’s difficult to assess the scale of who has been affected so far across the GCC. According to official government statistics as of April 21, there were 10,484 reported cases in Saudi Arabia and 103 deaths from COVID-19. The UAE had reported 7,265 cases and 43 deaths, Qatar 6,105 ases and nine deaths and Kuwait 2,080 cases and 11 deaths.
China’s handling of its own early COVID-19 whistleblowers showed how authoritarian states often react promptly to the dissemination of news which could undermine their authority. Of course, the curtailing of “fake news” during this time is important to prevent hysteria and panic.
But from my own experience of being forcibly detained for six months and falsely accused of spying charges in the UAE, I know full well how these laws can be abused and twisted for ulterior purposes. The real test will be to see if all of these preventative laws are relaxed once the pandemic is under control.
The inherent weaknesses of GCC states are also being further exposed through this pandemic. GCC citizens only inadvertently hold the power of accountability over their monarchies, due to the lack of formal political mechanisms that generate and provide legitimacy in democracies. In essence, the monarchs hold power until they don’t.
In response, Middle Eastern states have introduced programmes in recent years that emphasise cultural traditions in an attempt to further centralise power using key figures within their regime. A recent anti-corruption drive in Saudi Arabia, which climaxed with the Ritz-Carlton incident in which more than 30 elite figures were detained in a luxury hotel, highlighted the ascendancy of Mohammed Bin Salman, the crown prince.
In the UAE, the security state has been intensified through the creation of conscription programmes which emphasise national identity under the patronage of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Central to the current messaging around COVID-19 is the heightened value of “purity” within the nation. This notion has been promoted through the prism of the family, with the region’s rulers extending the meaning to include the nation in an attempt to retain cohesiveness. In the current context, for example, only one member of a family is allowed to pick up food during the lockdown in some Gulf states, and there have been greater protections imposed for nationals than non-nationals, many of whom have been deported.
But this comes at a moment when the so-called purity of the family unit is under threat as dowry costs, marriages to foreigners and divorce rates are all increasing across the GCC. This has helped maintain a heightened significance of the family within GCC politics. As a result, issues such as homosexuality, marriage to foreigners and now even COVID-19 are seen as a threat which has the potential to dilute the national gene pool.
The GCC states are also capitalising on a new vein of conservative nationalism across the region that is highly personalised and driven by security concerns. An era of assertive foreign policy from Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha is now playing out as a matter of principle and survival. As a result, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have fortified their political and military engagements. Their closer ties with regional players such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar and pro-government Yemeni forces have helped keep these conflicts alive within a reduced footprint.
Back home, the GCC states have exploited the underlying threats of the virus to bolster their own survival strategies. In the past, authoritarian states such as the former Soviet Union often relied on crude illustrations of force alongside state propaganda. But the modern authoritarians in the GCC take a more co-optive route to manage their populations. They have been able to enact policies which undermine civil liberties, perpetuating their current political designs and generating no protest from their populations. So it’s crucial to understand how these practices are maintained, why they have the population’s consent, and upon what basis they will continue to be applied.