Dubai International Airport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The coronavirus now known as Covid-19, after originating in China’s Hubei province, spread rapidly and reached a global scale within a month of when authorities first alerted World Health Organization. Rapidly growing clusters of infected people in South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and even as far away as Italy and Iran show how vital it is to roll out effective procedures quickly to combat the virus’ spread.

While some nations frantically place cities and citizens in lockdown to limit the medical and economic fallout of the virus, others are deploying more strategic policies to defend themselves. 

As a global tourist and trade hub like much of Southeast and East Asia, the United Arab Emirates could easily become a hub for spreading Covid-19 globally. However, the numbers there portray a different picture. Despite speculation that the UAE is suffering under the coronavirus, the country has seen very few cases.

It is unlikely that the number will rise significantly, especially because of the Emirates’ medical response, its reinforced border control for passengers arriving from infected regions, and cancellations of flights to and from high-risk zones.

Fortunately, in the aftermath of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), another deadly coronavirus that originated in Saudi Arabia and spread across the Persian Gulf region in 2012, the UAE has adapted to epidemics in a way that Asia ought to have done after the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS): quickly. 

In fact, health ministers of neighboring Gulf countries have commended the UAE for its rapid response to the Covid-19 crisis. Local authorities seem to be efficiently implementing measures to control the transmission of the virus given the low infection rate.

Authorities appear to have delivered the necessary supplies to health-care facilities and made sure quarantine rooms were allocated for infected patients quickly. This likely helped the UAE control infection rates unlike South Korea, Japan and Cambodia, whose lax quarantine procedures possibly caused cases to spike in recent weeks.   

Despite the Emirates, and its Dubai and Abu Dhabi hubs, seeing tens of millions of visitors each year and nearly 100 million air passengers, its infection rate remains lower than in rival Asian hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong. This is in large part because of the swift response from the government, as well as the UAE’s well-funded medical facilities, its strict airport control, and internationally trained doctors. 

Indeed, those in quarantine have been placed in low-air-pressure quarantine rooms in hospitals where air flows into the rooms, not out, minimizing the risk of spreading the virus. The UAE is one of the only countries to adopt this method. 

Many countries have canceled flights from China entirely, even prohibiting foreign nationals from entering if they have traveled to China in the weeks prior. Yet the UAE, while being one of the first to cancel flights to and from Wuhan, has been more cautious about stopping direct flights entirely.

Strategically, however, Dubai International Airport, the UAE’s largest, has kept its Beijing route open to ensure that vital business interests with China are not affected. For the remaining flights from Beijing, the UAE has implemented strict protocols, including eight hours of vetting, health checks, and mass thermal screenings.

The UAE evidently understands that economic fallout from the epidemic can be just as harmful as the virus itself. Indeed, for the country’s tourism industry that represents 12% of gross domestic product, effective medical and quarantine procedures will help maintain a steady flow of visitors and support the local economy in case a global downturn does eventuate. 

On a more proactive note, a tech company in the UAE, Group 42, has developed a supercomputer to help researchers on their quest to combat the coronavirus. The company has in recent years developed artificial-intelligence solutions to support different sectors, from government and health care to finance, and is now providing researchers with tools for detection and diagnosis, and faster development of a Covid-19 vaccine. 

The economic impact of the epidemic will be felt across the globe, giving world leaders even more reason to limit the damage. China is reckoning with economic stagnation as mass quarantines of entire provinces and the shutdown of commercial activity in some of its largest cities grind manufacturing to a halt.

Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan face equally bleak outlooks as the epidemic restricts vital trade. Yet the UAE, dubbed the Hong Kong of the Middle East for its strong international and financial makeup, remains largely intact, with its economy and tourism industry largely unaffected by the virus.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. 

Jennifer Lyn

Jennifer Lyn is an international-relations specialist with more than 16 years of experience in the sector. She is currently consulting private US companies in regard to Southeast Asia and Middle East trade policies.