In response to the covid-19 pandemic, governments across the world have had to implement emergency measures to confront the crisis. These measures have come in various forms, ranging from economic stimulus packages to establishing varying degrees of lockdown. These types of rapidly implemented measures are deemed as emergency provisions, often declared though calling a ‘state of emergency’, as they allow governments to pass regulations without going through normal legislation procedures. Whilst many of these measures are appropriate, and indeed effective, in managing the spreads of the virus, the increasing frequency of emergency power use has caused discomfort in some quarters that fear constitutional norms and democratic principles could become subverted if emergency power use becomes normalised. At its most extreme, the use of emergency powers by governments become perpetuated indefinitely, a condition of governance that has been termed as a ‘state of exception’ in which the citizenship is unaware of this prolonged state of emergency and normalisation of emergency powers.
In 2020, the spread of the epidemic in the Gulf States among expats has led to an increase in hate speech towards them. According to Human Rights Watch, COVID-19 had spread rapidly among foreign workers in the Gulf States because they live in small, indecent and unsanitary housing. The Gulf governments have not been able to follow measures of social distancing among expatriates because their places of residence are overcrowded and they live in isolated and poor areas.
With the outbreak of the epidemic, health authorities in the Gulf countries have published through newspapers and TV channels the numbers of new infections among foreigners and citizens in order to alleviate the citizens’ fears. However, the publication of statistics in the media to distinguish the spread of the epidemic between expatriates and citizens has led to an increase in hate speech towards foreign workers. Although there are political and social reasons for xenophobia, economic factors have a major impact on the growth of hate speech against expat workers.
The outbreak of Covid-19 and its quick spread across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and the Gulf is shining a light on the unpreparedness of states and societies that, long before the pandemic, were already struggling to cope with the effects of decades of social unrest, failing state institutions, interrupted political transitions, civil wars and proxy conflicts. In turn, different state reactions to Covid-19 are also exposing glaring differences in state capacity and economic resources.
There will be no simple policy solution to the structural pressures for fiscal reform. The oil exporters of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), even the wealthier ones like the United Arab Emirates, simply have higher spending patterns than their current revenues support. But the Covid-19 pandemic has called upon states to intervene and support domestic economies, making the competing priorities of shrinking public sector payrolls and stimulating domestic demand all the more difficult. What emerges are trade-offs that reveal leadership priorities, and important distinctions within the ever-weakening body of the GCC on a range of policies from immigration, labor markets, tax and sovereign debt.