Matthew Hedges, Durham University
Unlike traditional kinetic security threats, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has clearly levelled vulnerabilities across GCC society. The GCC states have fought the pandemic through measures ranging from nationwide sterilisation programs to enhanced societal restrictions. The immediate impact has been a sharp deterioration of economic capabilities, strained social relations, and a check on foreign policy strategies. However, this pandemic has also provided the platform for upgrading authoritarian measures; such as after events of strong regional impact, like 9/11, the ascension of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the martyrdom of 45 Emirati soldiers at a military camp in Marib, Yemen.
The COVID-19 pandemic spread from China in the fall of 2019, with the Beijing authorities repressing information in a bid to contain the spread of the virus. Initial reports from the epicentre of the virus outbreak, Wuhan, downplayed its potential and even suggested that the virus could be contained. It is only through the whistleblowing of Dr. Li Wenliang and his subsequent harassment by local authorities, that the world was able to clarify the true potential of COVID-19. Evidence of Dr. Li Wenliang’s experience was deemed ‘false information’ and his subsequent reprimanding by the Chinese authorities is a standard tool of authoritarian practice.
The GCC states are abundantly aware of the threat of information control and are learning to harness it for their own purposes. Through nationalistic and ideological lenses, all GCC states have either been victims or proponents of the propaganda and misinformation campaigns that have proliferated the region. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the points of contention and intensified information warfare. This authoritarian weapon enables states to successfully monopolize truth and create societies proficient in double-think; but it also puts nations at risk during crises, such as a pandemic, where effective response demands reliable information and societal trust.
Overt repressive mechanisms are commonplace across the Middle East, with secret police and heavy-handed control of the public sphere leading to a profound lack of civil and political liberties. In the GCC, demonstrations of power such as routine public executions and unreasonable judicial approaches to acts of civil defiance illustrate the disproportionate balance of power between the regime, the state, and society.
The adoption of technological innovations has increased the array of repressive tools available to GCC states. The UAE’s embrace of technology has greatly aided its ability to enforce a nationwide lockdown. Paranoia had justified the restriction of voice over internet protocol (VOIP) technology such as WhatsApp calls, Skype, and Google Hangouts, however with the enforcement of curfews, both locally and internationally, the economic cost to the population’s isolation could not be afforded. As a result, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) authorised the temporary use of such programs on this ‘exceptional basis’. Their use, however, is restricted to fixed-line internet connections, ensuring a persistent capability to geo-locate users.
Measures of enhanced control are also felt among the residents of the UAE’s Emirate of Dubai who are allowed to leave their place of residence only if they have a valid reason and complete an online form. While this is not, in principle, dissimilar from practices elsewhere, the permit requires personally identifiable information (PII), linked through centralised biometric identification, and to the individual’s phone and car number plate. This means that the government can have permanent track of its residents’ movements. Furthermore, across the Emirate of Dubai the movement permits are aligned with a smart surveillance network of cameras which analyses the number plates and can directly issue fines for movement violators. Due to the UAE’s federal structure, there are different requirements and restrictions from Emirate to Emirate.
In comparison to the formal movement permits issued in Dubai, Bahrain has opted for a more precise form of control. All persons within Bahrain who are quarantining are now forced to wear an electronic tag linked to its user’s phone. The similarity between a victim of COVID-19 and a criminal – or the historical treatment of social pariahs, lepers, and the disabled – is clear.
While COVID-19 has not drastically amplified the direct authoritarian capabilities of the GCC states, it has illustrated the values and norms by which authoritarianism in the region is underpinned. Currently, the traditional foundations of society are being manipulated to react to immediate threats, feeding into a wider strategy to enhance the population dynamics in favour of the GCC regimes. Structured programs – ongoing prior to the pandemic – have been aimed at fortifying relationships between the indigenous population of the GCC and their respective leadership. In this sense, COVID-19 represents a threat in the guise of genetic dilution, and it is through this paradigm that the careful management of the pandemic in the GCC should be perceived.
The entire region’s states exhibit fragile manpower dynamics, with expatriates forming the largest social group across most of the countries. This population deficiency exacerbates tensions surrounding the authority and legitimacy of the regimes, as the dominant portion of the population is not linked to them through the same traditional means as the native population. As a result, all regional states augment their regime, national and state survival strategies to include an emphasis on manipulating population dynamics. For example, to alter sectarian dynamics within Bahrain; Jordanian, Pakistani, and Syrian nationals hired by the Bahraini Armed Forces were assigned Bahraini citizenship to bolster the number of Sunni Muslims within the Kingdom. Meanwhile, following the outbreak of COVID-19, Emirati nationals were banned from travelling abroad. When these actions are combined with the common practice of stripping nationality and exiling unwanted persons, and the enforcement of rigid and patriarchal nationality laws, the strategic cultivation of national populations across the GCC states can be interpreted as a modern project of eugenics.
The ruling elites in GCC states are a product of their social order, linking family and tribe to political power. But this delicate relationship is under increasing threat as modernisation has been primarily blamed for the perceived disintegration of the family unit. Increased rates of marriage to foreigners and divorce are clear symptoms of this social fracturing. This has caused private family issues, to become matter of national, strategic concern in the GCC, as it is only through a relationship with a homogenous national population that the GCC rulers can retain their legitimacy. Through this paradigm, the GCC states have utilised the COVID-19 pandemic to increase control of their citizens’ mindsets and enlarge the space for societal control.
Moreover, in support of the strategy to increase direct control over the imagined national family, GCC regimes have been utilising targeted discourse to forge direct connections that support their traditional position of power. The UAE is the foremost example of this pattern having credited Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan as the Father of the nation, and his third wife Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak al Ketbi as the Mother of the nation. While these claims provide powerful platforms for support amongst the native population, they are also evidence of a new era of conservative nationalism across the GCC. At the forefront of the new political movement is a security-focused and assertive set of practices. These are aimed at ensuring a cohesive and infallible leadership. This has already been tested by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the non-discriminatory transmission and resultant universal threat of the virus. While some authoritarian states can survive a degree of domestic criticism, the GCC rulers cannot afford the same degree of culpability. As result, legislation curtailing freedom of expression has been expanded to punish persons publishing and spreading ‘false information’ – that which contradicts state-owned messaging – about COVID-19 in the GCC.
The authoritarian behaviour of the region’s states will continue to increase as their direct exposure to global threats rises. Kneejerk reactions will retain the predominant focus for external audiences. However, the enhancement of their underlying authoritarian behaviour will evidence the most fundamental changes. This deliberate strategy will continue to concentrate the exclusive kinship of native society away from a growing array of biological threats.
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