Elham Fakhro, International Crisis Group
In late February, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman announced the first cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) amongst their citizens who had returned from pilgrimages to Iran. In a region accustomed to operating in a state of high alert, policymakers responded swiftly to the growing spread of the pandemic by shuttering flights, ordering the closure of land borders, and enacting sweeping economic stimulus packages.
While GCC policymakers responded swiftly to the threat domestically, they also moved to capitalize on it in their foreign policies. The United Arab Emirates is a case in point. Since the outbreak of the virus, it has used the opportunity it afforded to continue its policy of quiet de-escalation with its main regional rival, Iran, by extending humanitarian medical aid. Likewise, in a call between UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the Crown Prince offered to dispatch aid to support Syria’s efforts to cope with the virus outbreak. The call was the first publicized contact between an Arab leader and Al-Assad since most Arab states broke off relations with Syria following the country’s descent into civil war. It was yet another step in the UAE’s gradual efforts to thaw relations with the Syrian regime – which has fought Islamist rebels – as part of the UAE’s broader strategy of countering political Islam in the region.
While the crisis has provided an opportunity for the UAE to pursue its foreign policy objectives, it has also highlighted the intractability of other regional conflicts. A series of terse exchanges between Qatar and Bahrain over the repatriation of Bahraini nationals stranded in Iran is a stark reminder of the extent of the fallout between the neighbours, with few pathways to diplomacy on the horizon.
The UAE has long touted its humanitarian credentials. As the death toll in Iran surged to the highest level outside China in early March, the UAE announced that it had sent one of its military transport aircrafts to deliver the first aid supplies to the Iranian Republic, despite its adversarial relationship with its larger neighbour. The aircraft carried seven tons of assistance, in addition to five medical experts, from the World Health Organization. This was followed by a second dispatch of medical equipment, consisting of thirty-two tons of medical equipment. The UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation celebrated the move as part of the country’s ethos, noting: “Providing life-saving assistance to those expressing distress is essential to the common good. The leadership and people stand shoulder to shoulder with nations in their time of need.” Yet the gesture also illustrated political intent to use the COVID-19 crisis to help ease regional tensions. Iran responded to the gesture noting that the spread of the virus had brought ‘more reason and logic’ to its relationship with the UAE.
Gulf states with warmer relations to Iran have also dispatched aid to their embattled neighbour. In mid-March, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani ordered the dispatch of six tons of medical equipment and supplies, while Kuwait announced it would send $10 million in humanitarian aid. The gestures of outreach towards Iran are especially notable as part of a policy of de-escalation pursued by the smaller Gulf states since the middle of 2019 and accelerated after the killing of General Qasim Soleimani by a US drone strike in early January, a move which threatened to embroil the region into the conflict between the United States and Iran. Saudi Arabia – a vocal proponent of the US “maximum pressure” campaign that aims in part to press Iran to discontinue its support for allied militias across the region including in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen – has not announced any similar measures.
The crisis has also provided an opportunity for the UAE to pursue its policy of gradual rapprochement with Syria. Following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the UAE initially supported Syrian opposition groups in the context of a coordinated Arab boycott of the Syrian government. As various Islamist groups, which the UAE opposes, seized control of Syria’s insurgency – and as the Syrian army began to consolidate control over swathes of territory it lost – several Arab states have made limited gestures of outreach towards Al-Assad. The UAE has been at the forefront of such efforts, in part owing to its ambition to lead a counter-Islamist coalition in the region, and in the process counter the influence of Turkey, a main supporter of Islamist opposition groups in Syria and beyond. In late 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus for the first time since 2011, albeit at the chargé d’affaires level for now. The direct call between the Crown Prince and Assad is a further sign that diplomatic relations between the two states are likely to continue to improve.
While the crisis has provided an opportunity for the UAE to improve relations with states with which it had previously downgraded diplomatic relations, other crises have proven to be more intractable.
On March 24, the Gulf Cooperation Council convened an emergency virtual summit, bringing together finance ministers to discuss unified measures to combat the epidemic. Qatar’s participation in the meeting – the first since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain imposed a land, air, and sea blockade on the country in 2017 – raised hopes that the pandemic might provide an opportunity to improve relations between the states. A diplomatic spat between Qatar and Bahrain in the days following the summit suggested the opposite, however, adding to a growing list of missed opportunities that highlight how entrenched the conflict has become as it soon enters its third year.
The most recent dispute between Qatar and Bahrain is tied to the repatriation of Bahraini citizens visiting Iran. As the number of coronavirus cases in Bahrain soared in early March, Bahrain shuttered flights to Iran, leaving hundreds of Bahraini Shi’a pilgrims stranded in the Islamic Republic, with which Bahrain has no diplomatic ties. Bahraini authorities began slowly repatriating them, with 165 nationals arriving on an Omani flight on March 19. As the repatriation of the remaining stranded citizens stalled, the Qatari government’s communications office issued a statement on March 28 announcing that Bahrain had rejected its offer to ‘fly Bahraini citizens on a private charter flight to Bahrain at no cost to the individuals or the government of Bahrain.’ The remarks were made as dozens of Bahraini pilgrims arrived in Doha on a Qatar Airways flight from Iran on March 27, at Qatar’s invitation, and could not continue on to Bahrain. The Qatari Ministry of Public Health offered to conduct coronavirus tests on the transit passengers and provide medical assistance to those who tested positive.
Qatar’s announcement did not go over well in Manama. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa issued a statement on his Twitter account accusing Qatar of interference: “What Qatar has done is reprehensible and requires a clear international position against it. Doha should stop using a humanitarian issue such as the Covid-19 pandemic in its plans and ongoing conspiracies against countries and peoples.” He added that Bahrain had arranged special flights directly from Iranian airports to Bahrain in adherence to health and safety procedures, and that Tehran’s decision to place Bahraini citizens on a commercial flight to Doha placed them at risk, suggesting that Qatar did not comply with measures to preserve the health of the travellers and crews. Bahrain had previously accused Iran of ‘biological aggression’ by covering up the spread of the virus and failing to stamp the passports of Bahraini travellers visiting the country. Up until March 15, Bahrain had reported that all cases in the Kingdom were directly linked to those who had returned from Iran.
As a global black-swan event, the COVID-19 outbreak has created enormous medical and economic challenges, but also new diplomatic opportunities. By engaging in bilateral humanitarian diplomacy, some Gulf states deftly used the crisis to advance their foreign policy objectives with states with which they have had adversarial relationships. While the immediate results are limited, a strategy of gradual confidence-building can help lay the groundwork for politically-focused diplomatic overtures down the line. At the same time, the absence of a coordinated GCC multilateral aid response to the region’s COVID-19 crisis – and continued discord between Qatar and its neighbours – represents a missed opportunity to de-escalate regional tensions at an otherwise especially perilous time.
 Al Shurafa, Sara and Toumi, Habib. “Bahrain and Kuwait Confirm Firsts Cases of Coronavirus Disease.” Gulf News, 24 February 2020.
 A spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also thanked the UAE, Uzbekistan, and the WHO for their efforts simultaneously, noting via Twitter: “My country is sincerely thankful for these humanitarian efforts and will never forget the way they stood with Iran in hard times.” See https://twitter.com/SAMOUSAVI9/status/1239603004904558593
 Al Sheribini, Ramadan, “Coronavirus: Qatar Sends Medical Aid to Its Ally Iran.” Gulf News, 15 March 2020, “Kuwait Sends Aid to Iran to Fight Coronavirus.” Islamic Republic News Agency, 3 April 2020.
 Aldroubi, Mina. “Coronavirus: Bahrain Tells Qatar to Stop Meddling in the Repatriation Process.” The National, 29 March 2020, and “NCC: Repatriation Flight Scheduled for Citizens in Doha Arriving From Iran Tomorrow”, Bahrain News Agency, 28 March 2020.
 Eltahir Nafisa, and Barrington Lisa. “Bahraini Accuses Iran of ‘Biological Aggression’, Gulf States Try to Curb Coronavirus”, Reuters, 12 March 2020.