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COVID-19 and the Deepening Crises of the Middle East

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Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars (IAF-TIRS) at CFR, discusses the COVID-19 outbreak and the deepening crises of the Middle East, and provides an overview of the IAF-TIRS.


Steven A. Cook

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars (IAF-TIRS), Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon, and welcome to today’s Educators Conference Call. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Steven Cook with us today to talk about COVID-19 and the deepening crisis of the Middle East. Dr. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at CFR. He’s an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy.

Dr. Cook is author of the books False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. He is also a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine, and prior to coming to CFR Dr. Cook was a research fellow at Brookings Institution and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.

Steven, thanks very much for being with us today. If you could begin by talking about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it’s on—how it’s taking place in the Middle East, what are the hardest hit countries in the region, and then turn to the CFR’s International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the end, that would be great.

COOK: It’s my great pleasure. Thanks so much, Irina, and many thanks for all of you, those of you who are joining the call today. I appreciate you taking the time out of your day and I hope I’m a little bit more than just a diversion for folks stuck at home trying to figure out how to do Zoom lectures. I know that’s been a bit of a challenge and I hope you all have it worked out by now.

As Irina pointed out, my two tasks today is, one, to provide an overview of what’s happening in the Middle East regarding the coronavirus pandemic and how it’s affecting the region and politics in the region and other crises in the region, and then I wanted to take some time at the back end of the call to provide some information about our relatively new and exciting fellowship at the Council that’s the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars. It’s a mouthful, and if anybody can come up with a better title for it I’d really appreciate it because I have a very, very hard time pronouncing it.

But before we get into the—into the fellowship, COVID-19 in the Middle East. It would really take up all the time I have and then much more to go country by country on how the virus is threatening the region. But let me just offer some general thoughts and then drill down on a few cases that are particularly worrying.

There’s, certainly, more cases of coronavirus in the region than governments know about or that they’re—that they are admitting. Many of them have by now taken prudent steps like banning flights to and from countries, shutting borders, instituting curfews, marshaling medical gear. But, like the United States, they have been relatively slow and their resources are thin.

There are some outliers in this. The United Arab Emirates, for example, a small country that has a tremendous amount of state capacity, has been aggressively testing people. At one point, the airport in Abu Dhabi had alone tested fifteen thousand people. That’s extraordinary when, given the comparison, the airport in Abu Dhabi had tested more people than the United States had tested at the time that those numbers were reported.

But just because a country is wealthy it doesn’t mean that they can get—it can get this situation under control pretty quickly. The Qataris, for example, have been caught flatfooted. They have a relatively large, on a per capita basis, infection rate. The Saudis also have a significant number of infections. And what’s notable about the Saudis is at least they had some experience with another coronavirus, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, from a number of years ago. But, still, their numbers are increasing.

Now, the places that I’m particularly worried about, and I’m happy to talk about other countries during the Q&A, but there are—there are four, essentially, that keep me up at night. The first is Egypt. It’s got a huge population, a hundred million people. As of this morning, it had 850 cases and fifty-two deaths. It has an extremely fragile public health system that, to the Egyptians’ credit, they have mobilized fairly well and have done a fair amount of surveillance of what they believe to be hotspots.

But it’s very, very hard to do social distancing in a—in a poor country that’s densely populated, a leadership that is not amenable to telling the truth, for giving people the information that they need, and in a country where, quite frankly, civil society has been pulverized and cannot provide any kind of shock absorber to society.

The general sense that I’ve been getting from my Egyptian interlocutors comes from one of my best sources there who said to me, and this is a direct quote, “The Egyptian government privately argues that if they convey the truth in a nation that has a large population and large number of illiterate citizens, chaos will spread everywhere and the nation will collapse.”

Again, I think that the Egyptians are doing what they can to mobilize resources, to source testing. But it’s a poor country. Resources are thin. They have devoted billions of dollars, which is a huge amount of money for Egypt. But they are waiting in line behind countries like the United States as well as the European Union to source things like swabs, reagents, and test kits and protective gear. So the Egyptians have not yet quite seen a wave but they are quite fearful that they will and I’m quite fearful what might happen.

Second case, no surprise to anybody on this call if you know me, that I’m worried about and that’s Turkey. The Turks were quite slow to react, despite the large number of Iranians going back and forth between Turkey and Iran, the huge number of Chinese tourists in the country, and instead of prudent preparation and mobilization Turkish leaders relied on a nationalist narrative, suggesting that Turkey would not have to deal with the coronavirus in a significant way and that Turkey would lead the world, in fact, in preventing the corona pandemic. Doctors and the press who dared to speak out about the coming crisis were either intimidated or arrested.

At the same time, business leaders were telling Turks to go out and go shopping. This is quite similar to what—the kind of things we’re hearing out of the U.S. government, and now Turkey, like the United States, is in trouble and some models are predicting that Turkey will be in a significantly even worse situation than Italy.

Although the Justice and Development Party has expanded health care throughout Turkey, it is in no way, shape, or form prepared, any country in the region is prepared, for the kind of caseload that Turkey is likely to face in the coming weeks. Yet, still those people who are pointing out the problems in Turkey’s pandemic response and calling for the country’s leadership to be more transparent are finding themselves in legal jeopardy.

Third country that is keeping me up at night and that is Iraq. Right now, Iraq has 728 cases and fifty-two deaths in a population of almost forty million people. But this is a country that doesn’t have a government. It’s a country that’s in—was in terminal collapse to begin with, large numbers of Iranians, and Iran has fifty thousand cases and climbing and thirty-one hundred deaths as of this morning. Lots of Iranians going back and forth, as I said. Not much in the way of a government. The landscape is dotted with refugee camps and IDP camps with only the thinnest, thinnest medical care.

I was in Iraq in mid-December, both in Bagdad as well as all of the north, and I can’t even really put into words the kind of thinness of the government beyond the Green Zone. And so the idea that this is a government that can mobilize large amounts of resources to fight this pandemic, and then you add in addition to refugee camps, IDP camps, situations like you have in Mosul where in the eastern side of the—the eastern side of the city where there was not—there was no damage as a result of the fight with ISIS, people are living on top of each other either with family or in rented flats. So Iraq poses a very, very significant concern and, again, there is likely to be a wave in Iraq that the authorities are not going to be able to deal with.

And then the final—the final issue is one that I wrote recently in Foreign Policy and that is Idlib in Syria. This is a war zone. There are almost a million people who are up against the border with Turkey. There’s no possible way that the coronavirus isn’t already there with the large number of Iranians, Turks, Russians, journalists from Europe, aid workers in the area.

Assistance to that large number of people who are up against the Turkish border is threadbare. Turkey has sent some number of test kits into Idlib. They are being returned to Turkey when they’re being tested. But beyond that, the most kind of rudimentary medical care after a campaign in which the regime and their Russian partners have specifically targeted hospitals and doctors in the region, one can imagine the extraordinary—the extraordinary situation that we’re going to confront in Idlib.

It seems to me that there are two possibilities: that Idlib remains locked down and lots of people will die but coronavirus is contained. That seems unlikely because we know that the coronavirus does not observe border shutdowns. It’s more likely that it kills many, many people in Idlib and Syria, writ large, and fuels a continued outbreak in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Russia, Greece, and Europe beyond.

It seems to me that in these war zones, and then, broadly speaking, in refugee camps and IDP camps and places all over the region, from Gaza to Jordan to Iraq, you’re going to see an explosion of cases and, as I said, the most threadbare of medical care for these people.

Now, it’s not hard to imagine the consequences of the pressure of a—of a pandemic like coronavirus on Middle Eastern countries. As my interlocutor—my Egyptian interlocutor pointed out, the government is reluctant to provide accurate information for fear of society wide panic. But at some point, people are going to realize what’s happening around them and it will—it will sow society wide panic.

There’s a possibility of further uprisings. We saw something, perhaps a snapshot of the future, when early on in this crisis the Saudis and the Kuwaitis said that all guest workers needed to have a certificate saying they were free of the coronavirus before they could return to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Thousands of people rushed to Egypt’s ministry of health in downtown Cairo seeking the coronavirus test, thousands of people trying to get into this building.

Of course, the riot police were dispatched and they beat people up. These large demonstrations could turn into a broader set of—over coronavirus could turn into a broader set of grievances about the government, especially in an environment where more people are becoming ill and more people are dying.

Then there is, obviously—I’ll go down the list. I have nine of them. Again, as my Egyptian friend said, they’re fearful of collapse, increasing refugees in the region, a virus that is uncontained, and then further entrenchment of authoritarian rule.

The Orbán solution—if there was ever a group of countries where the Orbán solution—that are ripe for the Orbán solution it’s places like Egypt. It’s places like Turkey where they already experience a resurgent and fierce kind of authoritarianism, leading to crackdowns, human rights violations, and fueling extremism.

So all of the kind of political problems that you see in the Middle East in many of these counties can be accentuated by this crisis. As I’m alluding to, it’s not likely that the coronavirus makes anything better in the Middle East and it’s quite likely that leaders will want to take advantage of this situation to further entrench their rule.

There’s always the possibility that some states will want to take advantage of other states’ relative weakness. These are things that we’ve had a hard time contending with and the region has had a hard time contending with already. The added urgency of coronavirus and its associated illness, COVID-19, will, as I said before, undoubtedly make things worse.

There’s a lot there that I covered and I could talk a lot more about other countries, about Israel, about what’s going on in Gaza. But I’m happy to leave those to the Q&A. But before we close, as I promised, on the back end of this I wanted to explain a little bit about the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars.

This is a newish fellowship at the Council. I’ve been running it since mid-September. It’s designed to give tenured faculty members at U.S.-based institutions an opportunity to spend their sabbatical year in a U.S. government agency, on Capitol Hill, or in an international organization.

The idea behind it is that folks who are teaching about, have an interest in foreign policy, will have an opportunity to get their hands dirty for a year and it’ll enhance both their research and their teaching.

I want to make it clear that even though it’s the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, this isn’t just for political scientists or IR people. We are interpreting international relations scholars in a broad way. International economics, global public health would be relevant. Space policy.

All of these kinds of things are fair game, and in the—in the short lifespan of the—of the fellowship, so far we’ve successfully helped to place people at the Department of Defense, State Department, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressional Research Service, World Bank, IMF, the OECD, which is great, because it’s in Paris, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. It’s a very nice—very nice package. The Council will cover half of a fellow’s sabbatical year up to $80,000 and offer a modest amount of funds for relocation to the D.C. area or wherever you may be going, including Paris.

And, you know, the Council is there to help fellows secure positions. It’s, obviously, up to the fellow. But we can leverage my contacts, the contacts with—of my assistant director as well as the contacts of the Council, more broadly, in order to help people get to the agencies and committees or international organizations that they’d like to spend a year.

Just to close, the application portal is now open and if you—if you or if you know someone who might be interested, please check out the information at the IAFTIRS part of the CFR fellowship page. Even better, send me an email with someone who you may know and I will track them down myself and recruit them to the fellowship.

OK. With that, I’ll close. I’m happy to answer any and all questions about the Middle East as well as about the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars. Thanks so much.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thanks, Steven.

Brandon (sp), let’s turn it over to you to open up to the group for questions either about the fellowship program or the Middle East.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

The first question will come from Morton Holbrook with Kentucky Wesleyan College. Please go ahead.

Q: Dr. Cook, thank you for a very thorough if depressing description of the Middle East.

The question I have is: What would you recommend that the United States could or should do to help or do we have enough problems of our own? Thank you.

COOK: Thank you. And, first, no one’s ever allowed to call me Dr. Cook. It’s always Steven. So but thank you for the question.

Look, it’s—I think it’s abundantly clear what the United States could have done early on in this crisis and one would like to believe that the United States would have put aside its differences with the Chinese government, with the European Union, and worked with those two as well as the Japanese and the South Koreans, who seem to have been successful in containing this virus, and established a global response to the crisis rather than the kind of piecemeal response that we’ve had both within the United States and around the world that has, largely, left the Middle Eastern countries that have—who don’t have a lot of capacity on their own to deal with it. I think the marshaling of resources put together would have been, obviously, more effective.

At this point, the United States, based on everything that I know from anybody that I am able to talk to here in Washington as well as the news reports, is that we are reeling because we’ve been left, largely, unprepared, and so—and that the government, the Trump administration, seems intent on continuing to blame the Chinese for the pandemic.

Now, the Chinese do have much to answer for here. But in terms of containing it, it seems to me that we would need to have a multilateral approach and a significant devotion of resources globally. That does not seem—I think the moment for that has passed. So even if in the United States we are able over the course of the next four, eight, ten weeks to minimize the damage, and minimize is probably the wrong word if the projections from the White House are correct—anywhere from a hundred thousand to two hundred and fifty-thousand, perhaps more, dead as a result—then we will have to contend with large numbers of dead and suffering in the Middle East—in the Middle East as well and some of those negative implications that I outlined in my talk.

Q: Thank you. Sounds like we’ve missed the boat for helping others.

COOK: It certainly does.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question will come from Dr. Catherine Zeman with the University of Northern Iowa. Please go ahead with your question.

Q: Thank you. Steven, thank you so much for your presentation.

As you were talking and reflecting on countries with relatively more wealth and ability to procure essential PPE and testing materials, I was reflecting on what we’ve been hearing here in the United States, and can you give me any insight into how the globe is experiencing procurement issues? Where—I mean, is this just a basic shortage we’re all experiencing or do you have any insights on that?

COOK: Well, the countries that I know the best in the region vary. But the two big ones that I pointed out were Egypt and Turkey, and there are concerns about PPE in both countries. And, in fact, it sounds to me, based on my reading, that the Egyptians are doing what they can to conserve as much as they possibly can, and that’s good news that they are thinking about these things. But, again, one of the things that Egyptian officials have indicated is frustration for them is that they do not produce this stuff locally and they are in line behind other countries, wealthier countries, that are trying to source from, essentially, the same places as they are.

In Turkey where, you know, the denial has continued, there’s also a shortage of protective equipment for front line medical workers and they’ll see the same problems that they’ve seen in Italy and that we’re starting to see in the United States where you have infected medical workers that is further impairing the ability to manage—to manage this crisis.

The Chinese have stepped up with some supplies around the world. The Chinese were sending test kits to Turkey. The Turks sent back a large number of them because they were faulty test kits. So there is—there is that problem as well that as everybody in the world goes out desperately to find test kits, protective equipment, and other things, quality control is going to be—is going to be a problem.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question will come from Roman Ramirez with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Please go ahead with your question.

Q: Sir, I appreciate your information. It’s real comprehensive.

I want to get your perspective on the implications of the current situation. Every crisis, every event, every activity, and especially now that it impacts the entire world has implications, sir, like, for health, like, for greater unity within families, greater movement away from individualism as a societal value to more of a interdependence type of value, and especially in capitalist countries or countries that have a capitalist ideology in place.

What’s your view on that, sir? I’m not entirely—I understand the opportunistic situation or, that is, some nations that might see this as an opportunity to dominate or, you know, engage in, you know, unacceptable ventures or activities. But in your view, sir, what are some positive implications of the current crisis that we’re all experiencing worldwide?

COOK: Well, of course, one would like to believe that the United States and the rest of the world could come together to confront the pandemic and we—I think we understand that there is a lot of cooperation among the scientific community in—across the world trying to deal with the crisis and minimize—and minimize its impact.

There have been some glimmers of reduced tension as a result of the—of the crisis. For example, I believe it was last week the Emirati foreign minister came out with a statement saying that he had—he and the Emirati people had solidarity with the Iranian people, and outstretched his hand and said that the United Arab Emirates could do what it can to help the Iranian people.

Beyond those kind—and there have been stories about Israeli and Palestinian medical teams and the Israelis and the PA cooperating in certain—in certain areas, although it’s not enough. There’s all of sixty ventilators in all of—in all of the Gaza Strip, which has about two million people. So there’s not a lot of good news out there.

What comes of this crisis, what we make of this crisis, how we deal with it, remains to be seen because we’re still in the early parts of it and the response on the part of the United States is one that is perhaps the—among the most worrying, given the unwillingness to rethink sanctions on Iran as the Iranian people reel and suffer terribly as a result of COVID-19, the fact that Iranian-backed proxy militias are continuing the battle against the United States, which I fear will produce a rather significant response. So that as I point out, there are countries and actors in the region that will likely seek to take advantage of it as well as activists around the world who will push these kinds of—will push these kinds of negative implications. Hopefully, like I said, at the tail end of this will be a lot of rethinking both within countries as well as internationally.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Elizabeth Wishnick with Montclair State University. Please go ahead.

Q: Hello. I’m wondering why, at this moment of a global pandemic, Saudi Arabia is pursuing an oil price war with Russia.

COOK: It’s a good question. I think mostly because the Saudis didn’t realize how—the global—the truly global implications of the pandemic—that it would have a massive impact on global production and that they thought this was a political play to show that the Saudis still control the oil markets, and their timing was absolutely the worst possible timing in the world.

It may have, clearly, done a lot of damage to themselves as oil is now trading, I think the last time I looked, below $30 a barrel, which is significant for Saudi Arabia, which depends significantly on its budget and on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan for Saudi Arabia’s transformation requires huge amounts of revenues. And there was the belief when they did this, when they broke off talks with the Russians and declared that, essentially, NATO—that OPEC was over and that they were going to pump huge amounts of oil they thought that people would be lining up for cheap Saudi oil.

Under normal circumstances that might have happened. But with the sharp fall-off in economic activity around the world, the Saudis have now, basically, hung themselves by their own petard.

Just this morning, the Saudi press agency released a statement, and this is the key part of the statement. I’ll read it to you. This is verbatim. “Today, the Kingdom calls for an urgent meeting for OPEC-plus groups and other countries with the aim of reaching a fair agreement to restore the desired balance of oil markets.”

We know that the United States has dispatched an energy envoy to Saudi Arabia. The president had a call with the Crown Prince today and this has been the result. So this seems to me, in reading the tea leaves, this is the beginning of a Saudi climb down. They’re not going to turn around immediately.

That statement, though, is kind of classic Saudi and they’ll have this meeting and they’ll find some way. It’s not going to be immediate. But there is going to be a change. But it was a desire on the part of the Saudis, something that we’ve seen over and over again since Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince, was to demonstrate Saudi strength, to demonstrate Saudi’s ability to be globally influential.

I want to put it in terms that I can’t use on a Council on Foreign Relations conference call but it’s, basically, a policy of where the Saudis deal with it and each time they’ve done that they have, basically, undermined their own position. So I expect in time they’re going to reverse. But the Saudis will not do it immediately and it’s going to have to be in this—under the umbrella of OPEC-plus.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Mojubaolu Okome with Brooklyn College City University of New York. Please go ahead.

Q: Well, thank you very much, Steven.

I am just wondering, what does this all portend for the world order, given the fact that the U.S. is not taking leadership?

And also, you know, I think the—(inaudible)—way of looking at things was that we should all concentrate on our comparative advantage and not produce to replace imports. But now a whole lot of countries are in a bind because they are not producing the PPEs that they need. And, you know, given—and then the ventilator issue, quite apart from the fact that many of the countries in the Middle East do not have enough capacity to give health care to all the people that might be affected. So should there be some kind of rethinking in terms of preparing for the future in terms of how we—how we think about production?

And then, you know, how is—going forward, how is the world going to be reorganized to really address many of these global issues? Because the pandemic cannot be restricted by walls or boundaries or anything.

COOK: It’s a—it’s a great question about the world order, and let me start backwards. You know, what is—what is it going to look like? And there’s been a lot of this kind of—kind of what I would call kind of pop analysis about how this is going to change the world order and, you know, the—here in Washington it’s always about, you know, get it—get it published and posted if you have a kind of cute idea, and this has been one of those things.

And I—but I think that the genuine answer to it is we just don’t know. We know—when I was in grad school I read Gramsci and it had an impact on my—on my world view, and one of the things that has stuck with me is this idea of orders and changing and ideas as being hegemonic.

And it strikes me that the old order is dying and that—and we knew that even before the pandemic, and I think that the lack of American leadership in this crisis only reinforces the idea that that order is dying. We just don’t know what that new order is going to look like. And so in this in between, in this interregnum, we have a whole host of problems and a more difficult time dealing with them.

The Chinese have an idea what this new order should look like. The United States doesn’t really know what it wants beyond “America First.” Europe has been weak. And so who will be the victor coming out of a crisis—perhaps it’s this one—who will order the region and will lead it, and then from there reorganize the way in which things are produced and how and in what regions.

But I think we are in this deadly and chaotic interregnum between a dying old order and a new order that just has not in Gramsci—(inaudible)—hasn’t been born yet.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

The next question will come from Ian Lustick with University of Pennsylvania. Please go ahead.

COOK: The guy who assigned Gramsci to me.

Q: (Laughter.) Hi, Steven. Yes, a wonderful reference and it’s even better than that since what Gramsci says is in this interregnum before the new is born and when the old is dying we have a variety of morbid symptoms and—

COOK: Morbid. Exactly. Here—

Q: —and you can’t think of anything more appropriate.

But my question is a little different and it has to do with the fact that so many regimes in the Middle East rely on military and police to keep themselves in power, and I’ve been very interested in how degraded the performance of police and military units will be or seem to be by those regimes once the virus infects those units since there’s no way to social distance—to create social distance in an operating military unit, and to what extent are regimes that rely on this kind of coercion worried about the collapse of the main pillar of their power?

COOK: Yeah, and the first hint of this—there’s two first hints of the kind of hollowing out of security forces is that we had the deaths of two senior Egyptian generals, two members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in the last few weeks who were actually involved in efforts to secure the country after major—a major storm that flooded out parts of Egypt, and transmission, obviously, occurred during this period and they perished in coronavirus-related deaths.

The photos of them at their last meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces with the defense minister is—and the Supreme Council is actually a rather large body packed into what is a relatively small room—is—you know, if you’re—if you’re President Abdel Sisi you have to be worried about your—well, maybe not, given the fact that the military in Egypt has undermined the last few presidents. But, nevertheless, you have to be worried about how this rips through your officer corps.

The other early indicator of this is that the Israelis have almost four thousand soldiers in quarantine and they’ve got fifty-eight cases in the IDF. I suspect, even though early on Prime Minister Netanyahu received plaudits for his leadership in this crisis, that the Israelis are as behind as everybody else in terms of the known number of cases versus the real number of cases. And so there’s no possible way that this is not going to affect security and military forces in a region where people are on top of each other.

Just look at the United States. We’ve got this aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt, which has been docked in Guam and this fear that, you know, all five thousand people aboard are going to be affected in this Petri dish.

Now, take what we’ve seen in the IDF, take the—what we’ve seen in Egypt, and then translate it into Turkish forces in Syria, who are up close to jihadists, Iranians, aid workers, journalists, et cetera, et cetera. We know that the military, despite being sidelined the last decade or so, remains extremely important in the—in the Turkish context.

If you look across the region, Algeria—I’m looking at the JHU map right now—Algeria has got, let’s see, about eight hundred cases. Another place where the military remains very, very important. So there’s going to be—beyond the civilian death toll there’s going to be an impact on security forces. And I go back to that list of possible negative implications and, you know, how does a military that’s reeling from its own—its own inability to deal with COVID-19 going to deal with uprisings and society wide panic.

I think that this—what it does, though, is it tells people like Abdel Sisi, tells people like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that what they need to do is tighten their grip on society. Look at what the Israelis have done just in terms of—you know, COVID-19, we have to—we have to cancel the courts and all kinds of things—in a very different way have sought to—have sought to protect—have sought to protect leaders.

So, you know, it would be nice to think that this crisis will produce different kinds of governments. But one of the things, particularly here in Washington, that we tend to discount but that always seems to happen is that you have narrower and narrower dictatorships that do and tend to come out of crises.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question will come from Sara Elabd with Brooklyn College. Please go ahead.

Q: Hello.

In your opinion, what is the effect of COVID-19 on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the peace process in the Middle East? We know that there has been news that the coronavirus somehow saved Netanyahu’s political career. There’s also a unity government in there. I would like to know your—what do you think on the effect of the coronavirus on not only Israelis but Palestinians as well, and will it eventually change the map or the power balance of the Middle East and change the Middle East as we know it?

Thank you very much.

COOK: Thank you. On the—specifically on the peace process, I don’t see how it really does change the calculus of Israeli leaders who are the ones, obviously, who have all of the power in this situation. I think, you know, there was a reference in Ian Lustick’s recent book, Paradigm Lost, in which there really isn’t—the idea of a two-state solution really is something that’s now well in the past and we have to think about what kind of possibilities there are, going forward.

But it strikes me that even with a unity government that there’s really very little prospects for a return to the negotiating table. I found it odd that people looked at the Blue and White as somehow more amenable to a peace process than the Likud Party under Prime Minister Netanyahu, although leading figures in the Blue and White were people who had served Netanyahu, which suggested to me that the elections were not about policy but they were about personality.

So I think that there’s been some heartwarming stories about Israelis and Palestinians working together to contain COVID. But, of course, the Israelis have also now moved large numbers of Palestinian workers back to the West Bank, and the numbers in the West Bank were relatively low in comparison to numbers in Israel. As of this morning, Johns Hopkins was reporting 155 confirmed cases in the West Bank and Gaza.

Q: Yeah. Mmm hmm.

COOK: Obviously, those are—those are known versus real cases. But if you take large numbers of Palestinian workers who had been working in Israel where there is, as of this morning—and I realize, by the way, the Hopkins map has become the go-to map but it’s also behind other countries. Israel is now confirming six thousand three hundred and sixty cases. Again, known versus real cases. So one can imagine how the return of large numbers of Palestinian workers into the West Bank is going to contribute to community spread there.

So I think the power imbalances continue. I don’t think that there is a—I would hope but I don’t think that there’s an opening for a change in the relationship there. And in terms of—in terms of the region, as I said, I think that the tendency among the leaders in the region will be to try to tighten their grip on politics.

Will that work? It’s entirely unclear. No one has a—has a perfect theory of politics. If they have been, as we suspect and we know in places like Egypt, it’s not exactly hiding the problem but hasn’t been able to understand the full extent of the problem; or in Turkey, where they actually have been engaged in a certain amount of denial there—as I said, is similar to here in the United States—and people come out into the streets, although hopefully six feet apart, and there is a real threat to political stability, the chances are that these regimes will use force before they give way. Of course, there’s always the possibility that they will give way, given what’s happened. We just don’t know. There’s no way to predict.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

The next question will come from Roman Ramirez with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Please go ahead.

Q: Steve, the information you are providing is a real motivator for faculty as myself, who’s involved with social work, to contribute to CFR and initiatives as ones that are being offered through the fellowship. I just want to—it’s not so much of a question, but just to request that information on that fellowship be sent to me and my colleagues because I think it’s very important to, especially now, to follow through with the recommendations and overall explanation you are providing with respect to the worldwide impact of the pandemic, and I think it’s a real motivator for us to get more involved. So I just want to request that information on the fellowship be provided to us members that are participating in this CFR session with you.

COOK: We absolutely would be happy to do that. One, I know, Irina will send a follow-up and will include information, and then I can follow up directly with you in the coming days.

Q: Thank you, sir.


COOK: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Yes. It was—if you go back to the confirmation dial-in instructions, the brochure is attached along with a link to the guidelines.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

The next question will come from Ian Lustick with University of Pennsylvania. Please go ahead.

Q: Yes. Thanks.

I just wanted to follow up on—Steven, on your—on your response to the woman who asked about the implications for the Palestinian-Israeli situation and—

COOK: Sure. By all means—(inaudible).

Q: —of course, I agree—well, I agree with you that there’s no contribution that’s going to be made to restarting negotiations towards something that can’t be achieved anyway. But this is the kind of gigantic unanticipated event that does tend to shift the rails of politics and in this context I think it will—once it’s assimilated will drive home the point that between the river and the sea there’s really one state and that the question is how the people who live there are going to live within that state, and there are costs to not having everyone involved represented in the state institutions because everyone’s life is dependent on everyone else’s.

And, I think, in the long run or even the medium run that fact’s going to come across. So instead of just seeing heartwarming stories and thinking of them in that way, look at the need that Israel for the first time allows Palestinian police to enter parts of Jerusalem in order to enforce order. There are a variety of contradictions between the realities on the ground, the needs of Israelis and Palestinians, and the idea that they’re in separate countries—that those are going to break down. In that context, the aftermath of this could push the Israeli-Palestinian problem in a direction it needs to go in anyway but has been going quite slowly.

COOK: Well, there you go. There’s one—I guess it’s just my fundamental cynicism about the world that it’s hard for me to imagine that. But I defer to you, Ian, on this one, obviously.

FASKIANOS: Are there any other questions?

OPERATOR: I’m showing nothing further in the queue at this time.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We have a question from William Spates with Georgia Military College. Please go ahead.

Q: Hi, Steven. I’m going to start with a question. Would you rather field a question on immigration or bioweapons?

COOK: (Laughter.) Since I don’t do bioweapons, and immigration or migration or refugees is certainly a part of the Middle Eastern story, let’s try that one.

Q: OK. The bioweapons would have been much more fun. (Laughter.) The—unfortunately—what I was thinking is—well, what I wanted to know for your thoughts is how do you think this—a sort of widespread infection of the coronavirus, how will that affect illegal or migration or the management of migration into Europe from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia? Because, obviously, several of the institutions trying to manage and governments trying to manage that migration are overstressed even before this became an issue.

COOK: Yeah. It strikes me that the governments in Europe will want to do everything possible to keep people out and this will give them impetus to try even harder even in an environment of crisis and diminishing resources. And this is what—this is, in part, what I wrote about in my last column for FP, which is that despite those efforts—despite those efforts, the coronavirus doesn’t respect border guards and razor wire, and so even if the people aren’t able to get in despite the fact that they are pressing to do so, the chances are that the coronavirus will continue to be introduced into Europe, whether it’s through, like I said in my remarks about Idlib in Syria, aid workers, journalists, diplomats, and others.

But certainly, if you are—if you are someone who’s poor, destitute, confronting a global pandemic in a society where you know that the health care system is fragile, at best, and you think you can make it to Europe or some other place where it’s better, I suspect that you’ll try to want to go for it and that Europeans will do everything possible to keep people out. Even before this they were doing everything possible to keep people out, and I suspect that they’ll try to redouble their efforts in that way, but—and the argument will be to keep out coronavirus but they’ll be unsuccessful in doing that.

Q: Yes. OK. Thank you. I have a tendency to agree. (Laughs.)

So I’ll save the bioweapon question for another time. (Laughter.)


COOK: Well, we have another minute, and if we don’t have another question in the queue I’m happy to try it. But awesome.

FASKIANOS: I think—I think we have a couple more in the queue.


OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Katrinka Somdahl-Sands with Rowan University. Please go ahead.

Q: Hello. I actually had a couple of questions.

One was about the migrant worker communities in the Gulf States—

COOK: Yes.

Q: —and the specific vulnerabilities that they have as noncitizens. And then also you haven’t spoken at all about Yemen, and I would be really curious to hear your thoughts about Yemen.

COOK: Yeah. OK. So can’t cover everything. I, from the start, have been worried about the migrant workers in the Gulf States. In places like Qatar and the UAE, these people live in these camps and they’re stacked on top of each other and they are—they are part of the population but they’re, certainly, not treated as citizens. I’ll point out that the Saudi king has said that anybody who gets sick in the Kingdom not to worry about it. They’ll get paid for. Their care will—they’ll be looked after.

But, of course, these people fall at the very, very end of the queue. There’s no way for social distancing. There’s no way that the leaders in these countries are going to lock down these large numbers of migrant workers on whom they depend for absolutely everything. So I think these communities are a COVID-19 bomb, and how these countries in the Gulf, which have relatively more state capacity than others in the region, how they go about dealing with this remains an open question.

There isn’t much. In speaking with a friend in Dubai just the other day, he said that people in the UAE who are—who are found to be infected are going to be isolated, and I said to him, well, does that mean they get, like, a room at the Ritz in Abu Dhabi or what. He said, as with everything it depends on where you stack up in terms of guest workers, and those from Kerala and Bangladesh and the Philippines and wherever are not likely. They’ll probably be, you know, forced into places that are rudimentary, at best. And so it’s quite worrying.

Yemen. There was a tweet today from—emerging from Yemen saying that the first case has been discovered, and then it was quickly deleted. Again, hard to imagine that with even a relatively small Iranian presence there assisting the Houthis or the way in which materiel has gotten to the Houthis through a pipeline in Oman, which has a couple hundred—couple hundred cases it’s hard to believe that Yemen is not going to contend with coronavirus. And, of course, this, along with Syria, are—were the preexisting humanitarian disasters in the world.

The head of the International Committee for Red Cross said with regard to Yemen and Syria that if COVID-19 starts ripping through these countries it will, quote/unquote, “be impossible to manage.” And this is what I was saying earlier to an earlier question, that in other circumstances there would have been a global response to the virus that would have provided at least some resources, one would have hoped/thought about these kinds of challenges, in—or what these mean in war zones.

Certainly, the U.N. secretary general is aware of this. He called for a ceasefire in Libya as a result. He didn’t get one. So I’m afraid—I’m afraid that between the worker camps in the—throughout the Gulf and Yemen we’re going to be—we’re going to be seeing a lot of suffering, going forward.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I think we have time for one last question.

OPERATOR: The last question will come from Roman Ramirez with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Please go ahead.

Q: Oh, my God. Here’s a couple of questions, Steve.

Your thoughts on how the current pandemic crisis will affect the presidential election in the U.S., and secondly, the extent to which foreign policy on behalf of the United States may focus more on changing or modifying or, I should say, improving institutions throughout the world and other nations to prepare ourselves to be more readily able and capable of addressing these types of crises that are affecting the entire world.

COOK: I’m going to take a pass on the presidential election question. At the Council, from the moment I walked through the front doors it was impressed upon me that we do policy, not politics. I have my own views of it. But I’m going to—I’m just going to take a pass on that one.

On foreign policy, one would hope that we wouldn’t let a crises pass without making fundamental changes that will help either mitigate the impact of future ones or prevent future ones. One would hope that that is the case. One would hope that in the United States after this crisis, which is likely to take the lives of a number of Americans in numbers which are too unbearable to really think about, that the kind of belligerent “America First” nationalism will become less potent, and we understand that these kinds of things are best dealt with in a—in a multilateral way and that will lead to positive change in the future.

But, hey, I live in the bubble. I am a—I am a card-carrying member of the globalist elite, if only by dint of my employment. So that’s what my hope will be. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I think a lot with regard to American foreign policy is going to be riding on what happens in November.

Q: Thank you, sir.

COOK: Did I do OK on that one, Irina?

FASKIANOS: You did a great job on that one. Yes.

COOK: OK. I was a little nervous. OK.

FASKIANOS: Exactly. As Steven said, we focus on policy, not on politics, although I’m sure we all have our views.

Steven Cook, thank you very much for being with us today sharing your insights and analysis with us. And to give another tout to the IAF for tenured professors, we hope that you all will consider applying yourselves or else share it with your colleagues—and/or share it with your colleagues. This is a really important fellowship. It gives professors the opportunity to work in the government and get the practitioner side, if you don’t already have that perspective. So we hope you’ll take advantage of that.

As Steven said, we hope you’re doing well with your Zoom classes. This is an adjustment for all of us as we try to navigate working remotely in place. So I want to also encourage you to follow Steven on Twitter at @StevenACook. He has some very good tweets. Our final academic conference call this semester—

COOK: That was diplomatic of you.

FASKIANOS: No, I love your—I love your Twitter account. Our final Academic Conference Call this semester for your students will be on Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22nd, at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time with Alice Hill, our senior fellow for climate change policy, and she’ll talk about climate resilience.

So, again, I hope you will follow @CFR_Academic on Twitter and to visit CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for the latest developments and analysis on the COVID-19 pandemic as well as all areas regionally and functionally. We have much there to share with you and I hope you will direct your students there as well.

So stay safe and well during this challenging time and thank you again for being with us today.

COOK: Thanks, everybody. Have a good one.


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