Abu Dhabi, UAE. Photo: iStock

While South Korea and New Zealand have received most of the global plaudits for exemplary pandemic strategies and public health policies, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been just as assertive in their responses and have also seen impressive results, given their relative circumstances.

That success was by no means a given. The pandemic and collapse of the OPEC+ deal in March sparked an oil price crash that spelled potential economic disaster. The global health crisis drastically disrupted lifestyles and service-based economies, leading to massive layoffs and expats leaving in large numbers.

Economic pressure also drove fiscal conservatism, with fears the GCC countries would need a considerable amount of time to bounce back. Several of these countries were uniquely vulnerable as important global travel hubs heavily dependent on international supply chains, both of which were severe impacted by the crisis.

Nonetheless, the members of the GCC have, for the most part, applied effective strategies that have thus far curtailed the spread of the pathogen.

Crises averted across the Gulf

The United Arab Emirates was at particular risk of becoming a pandemic hotspot. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are two of the world’s most important travel hubs, having positioned themselves over the past few years as crossroads connecting three continents by air.

Last year, Dubai International Airport handled 86.4 million passengers, 6 million more than Heathrow, and retained its first position in the world for the sixth consecutive year. Relaxed visa requirements and tourism are economic assets under normal circumstances, but with a pandemic raging, they could trigger outbreaks that are difficult to contain.

Instead, last week, the head of the UAE’s Covid-19 command and control center announced the rate of infections in the last three weeks has fallen considerably. Of some 45,000 cases, more than 32,000 have recovered. For the first time, recoveries make up more than half of total cases. The UAE’s mortality rate has also remained mercifully low, with roughly 300 deaths recorded so far.

Fellow GCC members Kuwait and Bahrain have largely replicated the UAE’s success. Early this month, Kuwait earned the maximum grade of 100% on the Government Response Stringency Index against Covid-19 compiled by Oxford University. Despite nearly 40,000 confirmed cases, the death toll has been kept to under 350 and more than 31,000 have officially recovered.

Bahrain, despite its complex ethnic and religious divides, had only seen 63 deaths as of June 22, despite having more than 5,000 confirmed active cases  and well over 21,000 overall cases since the pandemic began. Bahrain took its first steps to prepare for the health crisis in late January, ramping up procurement of testing equipment and medicines and issuing guidance less than a month after the first official death in Wuhan and well before the country saw its first cases.

Humanitarian challenges

Those high recovery and low mortality rates may not have been possible without drastic action. All of the Gulf monarchies are home to millions of workers from overseas, including low-income workers often living in overcrowded conditions that place them at particular risk of contracting and spreading the novel coronavirus.

The economic shutdowns which left these communities unable to work had ripple effects far beyond the region. The World Bank predicts global shutdowns due to the pandemic will cause the sharpest decline in remittances in recent history, in addition to affecting the living standards of migrant workers and other vulnerable groups.

In April, a group of 16 non-governmental organizations and trade unions called on officials in the UAE to protect workers from the pandemic. The Emirates have responded with an ambitious repatriation effort to assist the tens of thousands of workers seeking to return home, leveraging the country’s aviation sector to coordinate chartered flights. The historic repatriation mission has gathered more steam after the Indian government allowed private airlines to operate charter flights on behalf of companies and community groups.

Unfortunately, tensions have surfaced elsewhere in the GCC. Kuwaiti lawmaker Safaa al-Hashem called for the deportation of migrant workers who had overstayed their visas, describing it as an attempt to “purify” the country from the risk of transmitting the virus, while in Bahrain, rumors about Covid-19 spreading among migrants stirred panic on social media and forced the Ministry of Health to issue statements refuting the claims.

Blueprint for blunting transmissions

To curtail the spread of the virus among such diverse populations, public health officials have combined new technologies and aggressive testing. Bahrain, with a population of less than 2 million, has carried out more than 367,000 tests on nearly a fifth of its entire population.

The UAE, home to almost 10 million people, has conducted the highest number of tests per capita in the world, recently surpassing 3 million. The country has enlisted mobile testing units and so-called drive-through centers that accelerate the process and help identify cases more quickly.

Tracing technologies have similarly helped health officials keep tabs on cases. The UAE has developed a Bluetooth-based tracking tool similarly to those being deployed in Europe and by US tech giants Apple and Google. Bahrain and Kuwait have instead adopted a centralized approach that captures location data through the Global Positioning System (GPS) and uploads it to a central database, tracking the movements of users in real time.

That strategy, however, may be a double-edged sword, effective in informing users and authorities about potential outbreaks but potentially putting the privacy and security of private citizens at risk, according to groups such as Amnesty International.

While such questions are still up for debate, the overall impact of these measures has been to make these countries net contributors to the global pandemic response. With their own outbreak under control, the UAE has been able to donate testing kits, technological tools, and other forms of aid to partners both in the region and overseas, with Emirati aid going to the USJordan, and Colombia, among others – a rare bright spot in the Mideast’s worsening Covid-19 epidemic. 

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Dmitriy Frolovskiy

Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and consultant on policy and strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia, and has written about Russia’s foreign policy. His writings have been featured in Foreign Policy, The Hill, the Carnegie Moscow Center blog, Al Jazeera and others.