Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic for Regionalism and Regional Politics in the MENA Region

Meliha Altunışık, Middle East Technical University

 Pandemics represent global challenges that require collective responses both at the global and regional levels. However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, regional responses have been quite limited in the MENA region. Although the region is generally known for its low level of regionalism,[1] better cooperation in a common challenge such as a pandemic could have been expected especially given the existence of successful examples in the Global South, such as the African Union (AU), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Central American Integration System (SIPA).[2]  The problems of collective action in the MENA, however, were accentuated by the regional fragmentation and competition between different blocs that have characterized regional politics in the last two decades. The competition and conflicts had direct repercussions for the existing few regional organizations. Post-Arab Uprising conflicts and competition further undermined the Arab League. The Arab Maghrib Union (AMU) has been suffering from the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria and the Libyan crisis. Even the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), generally considered as the most successful example of regionalism in the MENA, went through the Qatar crisis (2017-2021), which undermined cooperation.

The countries in the MENA region have been hit by COVID-19 in varying degrees and intensities. In addition to dealing with the health crisis, all the countries in the region immediately began to face associated challenges such as supply chain problems and food scarcity. The challenges of the pandemic have also been particularly acute for the vulnerable populations of the region, namely refugees, migrants, and those that have been affected by several ongoing conflicts. In addition to intensifying humanitarian crises, the impact of the pandemic on these populations had the potential of creating new instabilities and insecurities for the region. As elsewhere, the states’ initial response was to adopt unilateral measures that aimed to protect themselves. Soon, however, the pandemic started to test the capacity to encourage inter-state cooperation as it became clear that the health crisis and the accompanying economic and social problems also require collective responses.

An analysis of the responses of MENA regional institutions to COVID-19 demonstrates a variation.[3] On the one side, there is the sub-regional organization of the AMU, where there was almost no cooperation. This is expected as this organization has remained mainly on paper since its inception through EU encouragement in 1989. The AMU now continues as part of one of the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) within the increasingly active regionalism in Africa under the African Union (AU). Thus, the AMU is an example of regionalism built from without and yet does not exist from within due to existing rivalries.

The Arab League, the first regional organization to be formed in the post-World War II period, has also been ineffective in encouraging interstate cooperation responses to COVID-19 and providing assistance to the needy to deal with the challenges. This is even though health constituted as one of the elements of cooperation in the League since its establishment. However, the Arab League was fraught with political divisions that curtailed any meaningful cooperation and was not able to develop prior mechanisms of health cooperation when COVID-19 arrived. Particularly the divisions over Arab-Israel normalizations, the issue of Syria’s return to the organization and bilateral problems between Algeria and Morocco have stifled the organization. Ironically, the pandemic has become a useful excuse for the League to postpone its summits since 2020, another sign of political difficulties that the organization has been facing in recent years.

The GCC, on the other hand, has been a mixed bag. The sub-regional organization can be considered to have several advantages. Considering similar political and security outlooks, cultural proximity and increasing economic regionalism, several scholars thought the GCC was a relatively successful example of regionalism in the MENA. Furthermore, although the hydrocarbon prices were further hit by the pandemic initially, the Arab Gulf countries continued to have resources to provide aid beyond the Gulf and contribute to regional solidarity. Finally, even though promoting health cooperation was not listed in the organization’s charter, the GCC focused on health in the 2000s, well before COVID-19. Framing health as an issue of integration, the GCC had included equal treatment in the area of health as part of its notion of “economic citizenship”. Furthermore, it established a regulatory committee within the context of the guidelines provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) and a GCC ministers of health committee similar to other ministerial committees. Yet, despite all this, the overall performance of the GCC was also not impressive. Although several meetings were held at the state as well as non-state level, the organization failed to develop a common response to the pandemic. In addition, the attempts to develop joint strategies to deal with the economic effects of the pandemic did not bear fruit. Finally, the GCC as an organization also was not involved in providing assistance to vulnerable populations in the MENA region.

The Qatar crisis seems to have prevented effective cooperation through the GCC in the early stages of the pandemic. Although Qatar was excluded from the security-related meetings during the crisis, it was included in COVID-related ones. However, the conflict between Qatar and three members of the organization and the atmosphere of mutual distrust has been reflected in the discussions. Nevertheless, cooperation within the GCC has not intensified after the resolution of the Qatar crisis in the Al Ula Summit of January 2021. This raises the question of whether the GCC has been losing its attractiveness for its more dominant members and whether they prefer to act unilaterally. This probes the organization’s utility, particularly in the wake of increasing competition between two countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which had been the primary movers of deepening regional integration in the 2000s.

By contrast, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has been relatively active. Although the OIC is not a typical regional organization, its inclusion is important as it is the only organization that goes beyond the Arab world in the region and seems to represent another vision of a region.[4] The organization had already focused on health issues starting in the 2000s but mainly framed it as a development issue. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the OIC has actively promoted sharing information and scientific cooperation among its member states. But the most critical response of the organization and the one that differentiates it from others has been providing humanitarian and medical assistance, including to the Palestinians in the MENA region.

Thus, there have been significant regional cooperation problems in the fight against the challenges caused by COVID-19.Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a limited impact on the advancement of MENA regionalism. A common response was challenging to develop, and solidarity remained mainly on paper. More significantly, as Ghinwa al-Hayek explains in this volume, most states in the region and existing regional organizations have failed to create regional health governance that could help them tackle future health challenges. The COVID-19 crisis has once again demonstrated the weakness of regional organizations and regionalism as a way to tackle common problems in the MENA region.

On the contrary, the states in the region mainly preferred bilateral responses to the crisis and perceived it as an opportunity to advance their interests. Main actors in the region have used “virus diplomacy” and humanitarian aid to consolidate existing ties with their partners or develop new ones to increase their soft power and status in the region. As discussed by Eleonora Ardemagni in this collection the UAE has been the most active state in virus diplomacy. The UAE particularly focused on providing aid to Syria and developing health cooperation with Israel, very much parallel to its recent foreign policy moves. Similarly, Turkey also offered assistance mainly to Libya, Tunisia, the Palestinians, and Syrians in Idlib, again parallel to its foreign policy. The Saudi case is interesting as Riyadh preferred to channel its aid primarily through the OIC, as it sought to increase the organization’s importance and consolidate its role in it.

Thus, instead of strengthening regional responses and adopting regional solutions, the states opted for bilateral ones. As a result, the responses of state actors reproduced existing rivalries and fragmentations in the region. Overall, the pandemic did not undermine the existing trends in the region but rather intensified and highlighted them.

In terms of the engagement of extra-regional powers in regional politics, the pandemic has also reinforced the already existing trends. In line with its retrenchment from the region and redefining its engagement, the US played a limited role in the region’s response to COVID-19. The pandemic coincided with the Trump administration’s decision to decrease overall US aid to the region. On the other hand, Russia focused on its allies Iran and Syria and engaged with Turkey and Israel as well. Yet, the most significant external actor in virus diplomacy in the MENA region has been China. Beijing has engaged the region both bilaterally and multilaterally. As to the latter, China has used the Arab League and its institutionalized cooperation with the organization since 2004. China has also provided medical supplies and vaccines through the League.[5] Bilaterally, China especially developed health cooperation with the UAE, parallel to the deepening of bilateral relations between the two countries. The UAE became the first country in the world to approve a vaccine produced by a Chinese company which eventually led to a joint venture established in the UAE to produce Chinese vaccines.[6] Overall, after China was able to control its own outbreak, the MENA region has become a target for Chinese “Health Silk Road” diplomacy.[7] Although there were some discussions about the deficiencies of the Chinese vaccines, these largely remained limited as the leaders wholeheartedly supported these vaccines right from the beginning.[8]However, a public opinion poll conducted in Arab countries found that Chinese “vaccine diplomacy” did not translate into soft power and lead to an increase in positive perception of China.[9]

It is not surprising that “pandemic regionalism” has failed to materialize as the region is known for its weak regionalism compared to other regions in the world. The question than is how the pandemic impacted regionalization in the MENA. Whereas regionalism refers to a top-down process, regionalization refers to a bottom-up approach to regionalism and focuses on people-to-people solidarities. Although this question requires in-depth research to uncover non-state solidarities and cooperation, few examples can be detected. An important institutionalization in this respect is the Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance (MECIDS), which is part of CORDS (Connecting Organizations for Regular Disease Surveillance), an interregional NGO health network. The MECIDS rapidly responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, “improving individual and institutional cooperation among the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian public health sectors.”[10]

Finally, although the pandemic seems to be non-transformative in the short term in terms of regional politics, its effects may be more critical in the medium term. The current normalization drive in the region between several dyads is a multi-causal phenomenon. Yet the pandemic related challenges seem to play a role as well. The economic and social problems that have been created or deepened by COVID-19, and the uncertainties of a post-pandemic world forced regional countries to dampen unsustainable and widespread frenzy of militarization and conflict. Instead, the regional actors seem to prefer to focus on their domestic politics and security and foreign policy issues that are deemed to be most pressing from their perspective. Thus, the discussion about the effects of the pandemic on regional politics is just beginning.


[1] Michael Barnett and Etel Solingen (2007) “Designed to Fail or Failure of Design? The Origins and Legacy of the Arab League,”  In Amitav Acharya and Alastair Iain Johnston, eds. Crafting Cooperation: 180–220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] In Africa regional organizations have largely helped to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 under the auspices of the AU. See: Samuel Ojo Oloruntoba (2021) “Unity is Strength: COVID-19 and Regionalism in Africa,” International Spactator, 56:2., pp. 56-71. In Latin America, CARICOM and SIPA had a significant role in the management of COVID-19. See: Lorena Ruano and Ntalia Saltalamacchia (2021) “Latin American and Caribbean Regionalism during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Saved by Functionalism,” International Spectator, 56:2, pp.93-113.

[3] The summary of the responses of the regional organizations is based on Meliha Altunışık (2021) “Pandemic Regionalism or Not? The MENA Region in the Shadow of COVID-19,” International Spectator, 56:2, pp.38-55.

[4] In the discussion on MENA regionalism OIC has not traditionally been included. I argue that OIC can be an example of a form of regionalism that relates less to geography, more to a cultural space constructed as a realm of solidarity.

[5] “China provides COVID-19 vaccines to Arab League,” XinhuaNet, March 3, 2021,

[6]“UAE launches COVID-19vaccine production with China’s Sinopharm,” March 29, 2021,

[7] Yuting Wand and Lena Khalifa (2021) “Arab Perceptions of China During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Insights from the UAE,” LSE Blogs, May 19th,

[8] “UAE says Sinopharm vaccine has 86% efficacy against COVID-19,” Reuters, December 9, 2020,

[9] “Fragile Popularity: Arab Attitudes Towards China,” Arab Barometer, December 15, 2021,