The coronavirus pandemic has anchored the borders of the Arab world on firm ground where each small nation-state tries to sail to safe harbour on its own power.
Month after month, the pandemic seems to impose these borders as the only vital space for each Arab country to manoeuvre, far-off from the once sought loftier edifice of the Arab Nation.
Even before the COVID-19 horror story started to unfold, de facto insularity of the post-independence Arab nation states was emerging as the only possible reality. It was clear that this trend was not a figment of any isolationist’s imagination. It was the real thing.
It came to dispel the illusion of a larger parallel world hiding underneath all the diminutive states. What you saw was what you got.
Our award-winning hub @HIAQatar is the first airport in the Middle East and Asia to be awarded a 5-Star COVID-19 Airport Safety Rating by Skytrax, adding to it’s long list of prestigious awards. pic.twitter.com/SXS6aUI5Fs— Qatar Airways (@qatarairways) March 4, 2021
For years, there were hints this was already happening. The way a border police officer stared at you if you carried the passport of the wrong Arab country left you in no doubt that you were not about to enter a home away from home.
With few exceptions, you could not expect the Arab country you visited to be your “second country,” to use the favourite pro forma expression of visiting officials and old time artists aiming to please their hosts.
That feeling worsened with security concerns created by war and terrorism situations. Those eligible for a second passport found it safer to carry a Western travel document.
In the sad new world of corona-related lockdowns, a public health rationale has emerged for those borders which many of us dreamt decades ago would eventually fall.
For a long time, we were told that they were an artificial legacy of the colonial era. But they instead proved incredibly resilient. Much more so than the Berlin Wall and the other borders of European nations, although divided by ethnicity and language.
Regional and bilateral arrangements made visa-free travel possible in parts of the Arab world but borders reigned supreme. For economic reasons, travel routes were more available between Arab capitals and European cities. Inter-Arab trade amounted to less than 15% of the trade between Arabs and the rest of the world. We got used to the contradiction between these facts and the favourite narrative of Arab summit leaders proclaiming their intent to “overcome the challenges facing the Arab Nation.”
Then came the nasty virus and the exhausting quest for inoculation. The truth came out in the open.
Each Arab country scrambled for the precious vaccines as Western nations reserved their total needs of vaccines many times over.
Almost 20 million doses of lifesaving #COVID19 vaccines have been distributed around the Middle East so far.— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) March 4, 2021
Here's everything you need to know about the region's race to vaccinate:https://t.co/9LCEGCv3NI
The end result was a huge discrepancy between those who managed to secure their needs and those who did not. It was not always an issue of means. It was often a reflection of the unequal quality of governance and of the ability to engage the outside world. Some had a glut with which to engage in vaccine diplomacy. Others were left counting the days until the magic shipment would arrive.
Most of the rulers were wary about their citizens’ unhappiness about delays in ensuring the vaccines and hopefully reopening the afflicted economies.
In many instances, the Arab world had no antidote to the global “vaccine nationalism” trend which swept the planet even if it made no sense in terms of global economics. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned in January that the unequal distribution of the vaccine could cost the world about $9.2 trillion.
The UN will probably continue calling for a global vaccine procurement strategy till the pandemic ends, if it ever will. There will be no takers, however. True, there has been the Covax initiative, which aimed to help the poorer nations of the world. But for those who wanted proof, the UN was clearly no world government.
There were variegated strategies or no strategies at all across the Arab region. Each country, in any case, was on its own.
Regional groupings, like the European Union and to a certain extent the African Union, did something about it.
Some of the Arab countries located on the African continent found solace in their African identity as it shortened the path to vaccines.
Gulf Cooperation Council countries ensured some level of coordination among each other. From the Arab Maghreb Union there wasn’t even a stir.
There are now, according to the WHO, nearly 6 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the region and nearly 130,000 deaths.
The uneven pace of vaccination will drive a checkered pattern of economic recovery, with some countries of the region hoping to bounce back by the end of this year and others not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for many years to come.
Worse still, there is no sign of a joint Arab effort to re-examine scientific research and development strategies or better coordination of public health policies.
The Arab League or maybe a collective of Arab leaders could have done something about the pandemic.
They could have promoted more flexible licensing permits by Big Pharma for local Arab pharmaceutical companies who could produce the vaccines locally. They could have coordinated or suggested emergency help to the least endowed Arab countries.
Arab leaders, very often enamoured with words, were strangely silent about the regional and global implications. They could have at least denounced the “global moral failure” as the UN chief did. Based on their past dialogue experiences, they would have been in position to engage the G7, the G20 and other groups already shamed by their moral frailty during the pandemic.
If they did say something, nobody heard it.
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