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COVID-19: Gulf states are well positioned to lead the global response

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Photo: Sara Johannessen

Wise leadership, strategic investments and an open-minded foreign policy can ensure the Gulf region plays a key role in the global fight against COVID-19, Gro Harlem Brundtland writes in The National.

COVID-19 is the biggest collective challenge facing humanity since the Second World War. Just as that conflict helped shape the contours and political realities of the Middle East, so today the region is directly affected, and how its leaders respond will be critical to the wider global recovery.

Unlike the Second World War however, Gulf states like the UAE enjoy political independence and have the capacity to show global leadership. This is an opportunity not to be lost.

We can already see the risks of inaction or an uncoordinated response. The collapse in the price of oil could profoundly transform the Middle Eastern economic model, amid warnings from the UN that the Arab region as a whole could lose as much as $88 billion in exports, with Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) forecast to fall by 45 percent.

Decisions taken in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and across the region today will have far-reaching implications for global public health, security and wellbeing, so it is vital that all leaders act in the collective interest of their peoples and the wider world.

The pandemic is shining a harsh light on existing faultlines and misguided policies across the world, and forcing leaders to dramatically reassess their priorities.

I urge all leaders to support the call of the UN Secretary-General for a global ceasefire. At this time more than ever, military attacks on healthcare facilities should be an absolute taboo.

For much of the past year, there has been grave concern in the Middle East region and beyond at the tensions between Iran and its neighbours, including attacks on shipping and oil facilities and the devastating ongoing war in Yemen.

Bellicose rhetoric, provocations and sabre-rattling all fade into insignificance in the face of the deadly threat of the pandemic, however.

This is why I welcome the UAE’s decision to provide immediate medical assistance to Iran, despite the political differences between the two countries.

This is an example other powers should follow, including the United States. Last month I joined other former NATO leaders in calling on the US to provide targeted sanctions relief to Iran during this crisis. Leadership and advocacy from the Gulf in this regard could help influence debates in Washington in a positive way.

The pandemic poses an unprecedented challenge for governments, heads of state and international institutions. As a former Prime Minister of Norway and a former Director-General of the World Health Organisation, I understand the fearsomely complex political, moral and economic decisions those currently in office are having to take over the coming weeks and months.

The only way the world will tackle COVID-19 and develop a credible, sustainable recovery plan is through cooperation, investment and proactive coordination via international fora such as the UN and G20. This must include significant financial support to developing countries in Africa and Asia, including debt relief, so their health systems can be strengthened when the need is greatest.

When I ran the WHO, we addressed the 2002/03 SARS outbreak. It took a massive global co-ordination to curb its spread. Today the challenge is even more acute.

This is why the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, a joint initiative between the WHO and World Bank which I co-Chair, has called for at least US$ 8 billion to be immediately injected into critical funding gaps to support the WHO’s emergency response, vaccine development, timely distribution of medical supplies and other critical measures.

Business and the wider financial and investment community can play an important role in this regard, particularly in the Middle East.

We are all only as safe as the weakest link in our human chain

Gro Harlem Brundtland - Elder
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Unlike China, Europe or North America, this region is only at the beginning of its COVID-19 ordeal. Gulf states including the UAE have been able to lock down early, and are fortunate enough to have generally well-funded healthcare, along with the sovereign wealth to provide significant support to their nationals. However, the precarious and marginalised position of migrant workers means they face particular risks, and need special attention to be fully integrated into national response efforts, as Singapore is now doing.

Some of these migrant workers have returned home to countries in South and Southeast Asia like Bangladesh, adding further strain to their already weak health systems and depriving the economy of valuable remittances. If the virus takes hold there, it could easily spread to the giant refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, home to around 800,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, with appalling consequences.

In the Middle East, the virus has already wrought a terrible toll in Iran. Some Arab states – especially Syria, Iraq and Lebanon – may be in an even more precarious position, with their healthcare systems and economies already overstretched by conflicts and insecurity.

Then there are some of the most densely packed populations in the world, from Cairo to Gaza to the millions of Syrians in refugee camps. Syrian refugees in the region are facing an increasingly hostile environment. In Lebanon they are being turned away from hospitals, even as the first case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley.

At this time of global crisis, we are all only as safe as the weakest link in our human chain. With wise leadership, strategic investments and an open-minded foreign policy, I hope the Gulf region can play a key role in securing our common future.

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