Social, Economic and Political Impact of Coronavirus on the Gulf
By Sinem Cengiz
The start of 2020 was marked with several incidents with the outbreak of coronavirus (or COVID-19) being the most serious so far. The virus, which originated in China and spread to many other countries, rang alarm bells worldwide. Although Asia took much of the attention initially, now the Gulf region is under the spotlight. Gulf countries found the virus at their doorsteps when Iran emerged as the most affected country after China[i], leading to the increase in cases throughout the region.
In the past decade, Middle East’s center of gravity has shifted toward the Gulf due to latter’s geostrategic importance and huge financial resources. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have become crucial players in the global energy markets, developing multifaceted relations with key actors, such as China, in the recent years in several fields.
The rise of the coronavirus, which has had further consequences beyond a health issue, in the Gulf started to, inevitably, have economic, social, and political impact on the countries suffering it. Although it may be difficult to put any figures regarding its economic impact at this early stage, it is possible to identify what form of impact it has on the Gulf region, which is the scope of this article.
With beginning of a new global era of free exchange of thoughts and ideas, and greater mobility of people and goods, the coronavirus held hostage many countries. Some countries have announced cases of coronavirus, while others taking strict measures to prevent the virus crossing their borders. Gulf countries, whose cases mostly originated from Iran, are more anxious about the virus than the other countries due to several reasons. This had led them to respond to the epidemic outbreak by imposing travel bans, closing schools, cancelling significant sports, cultural and economic events.[ii]
After Tehran has reported one of the highest cases of the coronavirus, authorities in the GCC countries not only imposed travel bans to Iran, but also to each other. Saudi Arabia has closed its land borders with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Bahrain, with an exception for commercial trucks..[iii] It has also suspended flights from/to nine countries including its Gulf allies UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain. Kuwait has suspended flights to and from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Bangladesh, the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka for a week, and has banned the entry of foreigners who have been to those countries in the past two weeks.[iv] Qatar has also suspended entries for people from 14 countries, namely Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria and Thailand.[v] The adoption of quarantines and travel bans is causing frustration among people not only in the Gulf but also in the world in general. Although sovereign countries are allowed to take such measures as a response to public health security under the International Health Regulations, the restriction have put many people in limbo. Due to this suspension many flight companies have been adversely affected also. Dubai airline Emirates has confirmed that it is taking several measures to deal with the business impact of the coronavirus outbreak and that airline has offered staff the option of taking unpaid leave.[vi]
The economic impact of the coronavirus in Gulf is expected to be high in a way that other regions are not due to the fact the GCC countries are mainly dependent on the outside world in many ways. Most of the GCC countries rely on foreign workers. Restrictions from countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Bangladesh, the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka would affect the working force considerably in Gulf countries. Also, the decline of trade and investment and extent of imports and exports between China and the Gulf countries during his period is likely to have remarkable effect on global market balance. The restriction of the travel bans has already started to have an impact on international tourism. The final straw is the cancellation of mega events scheduled to be held in the GCC countries.
While the economic dimensions of the virus have been analyzed at length there has been less scrutiny of the virus’ other impacts. Saudi Arabia has suspended Umrah—an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can take place at any time—for citizens and residents, and suspended entry of foreign pilgrims coming to visit Mecca and Medina.[vii] Beyond the religious consequences for those affected, there is an economic impact as well since pilgrimage is a significant source of income for the kingdom. With millions of Muslims embarking on Umrah to Mecca and Madina at any time of the year, the virus does have a large impact on Muslims across the world. This has led for concerns on realization of this year’s hajj.
Coronavirus also impacts education in the Gulf. Schools are closed in Gulf countries since two weeks and are expected to be closed for further two weeks. This does not only cause educational disruption but also affects students and their parent’s daily routine. Not only in Gulf, but globally the virus is affecting nearly 300 million students, the United Nations says.[viii] The speed and scale of the educational tumult – if continued for weeks – would have adverse consequences for children and societies at large.
Meanwhile, due to the global outbreak several upcoming events has been postponed in the Gulf for an uncertain time. Red Sea International Film Festival said it will postpone its inaugural edition, which was scheduled to run during March 12-21, in the second city of Jeddah. The Formula 1 Powerboat World Championship has also postponed its Saudi Arabia Grand Prix indefinitely. The seventh edition of the Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference (DIMDEX) was also cancelled. Festival organisers cited virus as reason for cancelling the festivals. Kuwait have already cancelled its national day celebrations late February.
Social gatherings, such as “Diwaniya”, has taken its share from this rapidly spreading virus with the less attendance of the members. The outbreak of the coronavirus revealed the priorities of societies and states. Thus, the ramification of this ongoing virus is not a not solely a scientific one, but a social, political and economic.
Sinem Cengiz is a PhD candidate at Area Studies program of Middle East Technical University in Ankara, where she also earned her master degree on Turkish-Saudi relations. She is also a columnist for Arab News. Her academic research focuses on Saudi foreign policy, Gulf politics, and Turkey's relations with the broader Middle East. She tweets at @SinemCngz
[i] “Coronavirus: Iran's deaths at least 210, hospital sources say”, BBC, 28 February, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-51673053
[ii] “Travel bans, events scrapped: Gulf reacts to coronavirus outbreak”, Al Jazeera, 4 March, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/travel-bans-events-scrapped-gulf-reacts-coronavirus-outbreak-200304061532452.html
[iii] “Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia shuts land borders except for commercial trucks”, Al Arabiya English, 7 March 2020,
[iv] “Kuwait suspends flights to and from seven countries over coronavirus: tweet”, Reuters, 7 March, 2020,
[v] “Entry to Qatar from 14 countries suspended”, Gulf Times, 8 March, 2020,
[vi] “Emirates expects coronavirus to impact financial performance: internal notice”, Reuters, 8 March, 2020,
[vii] “Saudi Arabia suspends Umrah pilgrimage due to coronavirus fears”, France 24, 4 March, 2020,
[viii] Jessica Bursztynsky, “Almost 300 million kids missing school because of the coronavirus, UNESCO says”, 5 March, 2020, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/05/almost-300-million-kids-missing-school-because-of-the-coronavirus-unesco-says.html