Small states response to COVID-19: View from the UAE

Diana Galeeva, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University

Large states with big populations and territory, such as the US, China and Russia, would normally be viewed as influential by realist International Relations (IR) theory. But they have proven to be among the most challenged by the COVID-19 outbreak, struggling to deal with the pandemic and suffering ever growing human and economic losses. In contrast, some small states with a small geographical area and population, but with a strong economy and a high degree of state capacity, appear to have the ability to successfully address their national security concerns caused by the pandemic. They have even, surprisingly, been able to diversify their financial resources by providing foreign aid globally. Why have some small states, such as the United Arab Emirates, been more able to maintain their national security and at the same time have a global reach during such globally insecure times?

The differential impact of COVID-19 raises questions about the neo-realist tradition which considers small territories with small populations as ‘weak’. During this global pandemic, such small countries can be ‘strong’, if the situation leads to economic advantages. For example, due to its small population, the UAE has been able to distribute its resources and protect its citizens from the pandemic. Although the impact of COVID-19 has indeed challenged the ‘Dubai model’,[1] namely a key regional trade and transport hub which developed in the 1990s: the spread of the virus caused airlines to shut down, stifled global trade and foreign investment, and hit tourism, cultural linkages and exchanges.[2] At the same time, the UAE has provided significant foreign aid, a litmus test of influence in world politics. An alternative IR literature which focuses on small states and alternative sources of power is more helpful to understanding the UAE’s foreign aid initiatives as an effective response to the pandemic.

Small states and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic challenges the existing literature concerning small states by highlighting ways in which smaller size may confer advantages rather than the disadvantages. During such a crisis the small size of a state’s population allows an astute government to apply more flexible measures. Thus, while providing citizens with prompt testing for the virus, social distancing/isolation measures are easily enforced, and the health care system (depending on its quality) can cope with the relatively small number of cases who need to be hospitalised. Nevertheless, small states vary considerably, in terms of political systems, population size and economic strength. For example, the UAE as a rentier state, ‘a responsible but undemocratic state’[3] with a strong economy has had little difficulty in controlling its citizens, borders, and territory to avoid any further spread of the pandemic. Moreover, the UAE government’s control of rents has been a distinctive tool to deal with the economic impact of the pandemic on the local economy, and has enabled it to maintain its foreign aid programme.

Neo-realists see the fear of anarchy as a key cause of competition for security; therefore, such threats, such as an armed confrontation, would normally emerge from other states. In contrast, COVID-19 is an invisible ‘enemy’ from a national security perspective. Some recent attempts to theorise about the coronavirus crisis suggest a focus on the Securitisation concept, which is associated with the Copenhagen School of security studies. Hoffman[4] proposes to ‘securitise’ COVID-19 as a global health issue, and as a threat to national security. He stresses the language of battle and war used by global leaders to show the challenge posed by the coronavirus. However, COVID-19 is a human security global threat, rather than an inter-state military one. As previously mentioned, the spread of the virus has revealed the vulnerability of the UAE’s efforts (as a regional hub) to diversify its economy. At the same time, by closing its borders, and with a relatively small number of citizens to manage, its national security concerns prompted by the virus are minimal. Moreover, because of its state capacity and economic strength, the UAE has been able to join other ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ states in providing foreign aid to deal with this invisible ‘enemy’ globally.

The UAE response to COVID-19

Using an absolute definition, the UAE should be classified as a small state: a territory of 77,700 km2 and population of 9.89 million people, of which only 11.48% are Emiratis.[5] However, in spite of its small population (including a mere million or so ‘locals’), it is one of the richest states in the globe.[6]

Such a combination became essential to address the challenges posed by COVID-19. By April 12, 2020 the UAE had recorded 4,123 cases and 32 deaths.[7] A variety of measures were taken to protect its citizens. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces Shaykh Mohammad bin Zayed launched a drive-through COVID-19 test centre. The National Sterilisation Programme was launched, a national cleaning campaign, initially for three-days, in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.  The economic security of the country was addressed by the establishment of a committee to tackle the impact of the virus on the national economy.[8] In fact, the economic strength of the country allowed for an automatic renewal of the UAE’s residents’ visas,[9] and new directives were issued to protect Abu Dhabi and Dubai tenants who were  challenged to pay their rent during the pandemic.[10] The UAE cabinet also decided to decrease utility bills for hotels and retailers.[11]

The UAE’s activities in fighting the pandemic can be seen as a savvy attempt to increase their influence, pursuing a cooperative strategy, which has included making alliances. The UAE’s economic strength combined with the small number of cases of COVID-19 domestically have allowed it emerge, remarkably, as the world’s largest aid donor during the pandemic.

The UAE has distributed foreign aid both regionally and globally. Despite political tensions, since the outbreak of the pandemic, the UAE has twice delivered medical aid to Iran. The first Emirati aid, along with that of the World Health Organisation (WHO), to Iran [12] included 7.5 tonnes of medical supplies and five WHO experts. Within a few days, two aircrafts left Abu Dhabi carrying over 32 metric tons of medical supplies and equipment, including thousands of surgical masks, gloves and protective equipment.[13] Medical supplies, including face masks and gloves were provided to Wuhan, China. Through its Homeland of Humanity Initiative, the UAE evacuated 215 people of different nationalities from China’s Hubei Province to the Emirates Humanitarian City in Abu Dhabi. The Emirates also dispatched an urgent aid shipment containing 20,000 testing units and equipment to Afghanistan.[14] As well as EU members (Croatia,[15] Greece,[16] Cyprus[17] and Italy[18]), Pakistan,[19] Seychelles,[20] Serbia[21] and Somalia[22] have also received medical supplies from the UAE.

This might not appear unusual, as the UAE has been acknowledged as the largest Arab aid donor since the 1970s, although most of its aid has gone to poorer Arab and Muslim countries.[23] This time, however, providing medical aid to Iran (albeit a Muslim country) is quite a remarkable gesture, as their bilateral relations have been tense. Additionally, in comparison with other foreign aid donors globally during the pandemic, the UAE has been the second largest aid provider after China, where the centre of the outbreak began. China has sent foreign aid to more than 15 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.[24] Current recipients of Emirati aid, in contrast to previous initiatives, are not primarily poor states, but all types, ‘weak’ and ‘strong’. Some other small states with a high economic capacity have also managed (so far) the outbreak effectively, but have not been as generous as the UAE on the foreign aid front. While well-known aid donor Norway only sent medical teams to Italy,[25] other notable Arab donors – Qatar[26] and Kuwait — [27] both sent donations to China and Iran.[28] Qatar also provided urgent medical assistance to the Palestinian Authority[29] and Italy.[30] Overall, the pandemic – through the lens of foreign aid – has underlined the emergence of the UAE on the global stage as a potentially ‘strong’ state.


[1] Gray, M. 2011. ‘A Theory of ‘Late Rentierism’ in the Arab States of the Gulf of the Gulf’ CIRS Georgetown University. [online] Available at: (Accessed: 9 April 2020).

[2] Fanatical Times. 2020. ‘Gulf economies rocked by coronavirus and oil price war.’ [online] 9 April. Available at: (Accessed: 9 April 2020).

[3] Gray, M. 2011. ‘A Theory of ‘Late Rentierism’ in the Arab States of the Gulf of the Gulf’

[4] Hoffman, A. 2020. ‘Is securitization the Solution to Containing the Coronavirus Crisis?’ IR in the Age of Coronavirus. [online] 21 March. Available at: (Accessed: 9 April 2020).

[5] GMI. 2020. ‘United Arab Emirates population statistics’. [online] 12 March. Available at: (Accessed: 9 April 2020).

[6] The UAE GDP was worth USD 425bn in 2019.

Trading Economics. 2020. ‘United Arab Emirates GDP’. [online] Available at: (Accessed: 9 April 2020).

[7] The National. 2020. ‘Coronavirus: 387 new Covid-19 cases in UAE as 22,000 are tested’ [online] 12 April. Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2020).

[8] The National. 2020. ‘Coronavirus updates’. [online] 30 March. Available at: (Accessed: 30 March 2020).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Arab News. 2020. ‘UAE sends supplies to aid Iran in coronavirus fight’ [online] 17 March. Available at: (Accessed: 30 March 2020).

[13] United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. 2020. ‘UAE Sends Aid Flight to Support Iran Against Corona virus’ [online] 16 March. Available at: (Accessed: 30 March 2020).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thomas, M. 2020. ‘UAE Sheik donates 11.5 tonnes of medical equipment to Croatia’ [online] 21 March.  Available at: (Accessed: 30 March 2020).

[16] Kampouris, N. 2020. ‘United Arab Emirates Donates Eleven Tons of Medical Supplies to Greece’ [online] 26 March. Available at: (Accessed: 30 March 2020).

[17] Emirates News Agency. 2020. ‘UAE sends aid plane to Cyprus to assist efforts to counter COVID-19’ [online] 14 April. Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2020).

[18] The National. 2020. ‘Coronavirus: UAE sends 10 tonnes of medical supplies to Italy’ [online] 6 April. Available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2020).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Seychelles News Agency. 2020. ‘The UAE Government donates 11 tonnes of medical supplies to the Seychelles government to help towards the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic’ [online] 25 March. Available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2020).

[21] CorD. 2020. ‘Plane from the UAE with medical aid arrived in Serbia’ [online] 29 March. Available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2020).

[22] Emirates News Agency. 2020. ‘UAE and WHO send aid plane to Somalia to assist efforts to counter COVID-19’ [online] 14 April. Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2020).

[23] Almezaini, K. 2012. The UAE and foreign policy: foreign aid, identities and interests. Abingdon, New York: Routledge.

[24] Peel, M., Hancock, T., Hopkins, V. and Johnson, M. 2020. ‘China ramps up coronavirus help to Europe’ [online] 18 March. Available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2020).

[25] 2020. ‘Norway sending medical team to Italy’. [online] 5 April. Available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2020).

[26] Qatarairways. 2020. ‘Cargo Convoy Departs to China Carrying medical Supplies Donates by Qatar Airways for Coronavirus Relief. [online] 21 February. Available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2020).

[27] Xinhuanet. 2020. ‘Interview: Kuwait donates 3 mln USD medical supplies to China for fighting COVID-10 : Chinese ambassador’. [online] 11 March. Available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2020).

[28] Al-Monitor. 2020. ‘Coronavirus spurs regional humanitarian outreach to Iran’. [online] 18 March. Available at: (Accessed: 6 April 2020).

[29] Middle East Monitor. 2020. ‘Palestine hails Qatar’s assistance in face of coronavirus.’ [online] 9 March. Available at: 6 April 2020).

[30] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2020. ‘Qatar’s Ambassador in Rome: HH the Amir’s Directives to Send Medical Aid to Italy Underline Strong Relations.’ [online] 13 April. Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2020).