Lucia Ardovini (email@example.com) is a Research Associate at The Swedish Institute of International Affairs and author of Gulf States and Islamist Responses to COVID19: A Changing Relationship
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.
A common response to the pandemic across the region has been its securitization. Different countries quickly imposed states of emergency and while rulers seized extra-constitutional powers in order to enforce lockdowns and limit social gatherings, with a clear takeaway being that the securitization of the pandemic is resulting into the tightening of authoritarian measures and of state control over society. This is particularly significant as these extraordinary measures are unlikely to be lifted once the health threat is under control, leading many to speculate that several states across the region are using Covid-19 as a smokescreen to trial new modalities of repression against social and political mobilization.
State capacity and assets are not an issue for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, whose immediate and effective response to the pandemic is due to their vast resources, established surveillance systems and autocratic political institutions. Nevertheless, a significant issue caused by the deployment of increasingly authoritarian policies as a response to the securitization of the pandemic is represented by low levels of popular trust in governmental measure and sources of information, which have rapidly decreased since March 2020. This is the case as, despite their vast resources, the Covid-19 crisis still represents an existential threat to Gulf regimes and theocracies relying on coercive institutions as a system of rule. Popular trust and faith in political institutions are key to contain the economic and political fallout of the pandemic, but the escalation of repressive measures have severely affected the already decreasing popularity of ruling elites. In this increasingly unstable context, the relationships between state institutions and Islamist actors are developing along two main trends.
On one hand, several regimes are increasingly relying on religious institutions and Islamic authorities to endorse state-mandated policies, once again highlighting the mutually reinforcing relationship between religion and politics in the Gulf. The mobilization of religious institutions as well as of local clerics, who tend to enjoy greater citizens’ trust and support than state authorities, has been key for the effort to lockdown sites of potential contagion such as places of worship, religious schools and even limit pilgrimages and congregations during the holy month of Ramadan without angering an already frustrated population. Islamic scholars and clerics across the region issued fatwas and adjusted and aligned Friday sermons to discuss sharia’s stance towards the pandemic that supported government-enforced policies, once again proving that the support of religious endowments is crucial for the successful closure of mosques and places of worship across the Gulf.
On the other hand, the renewed intensity of state control is also leading other states to further crackdown on political opposition, of which Islamist forces represent a considerable portion. This is the case as the close cooperation between regimes and religious institutions can have some unforeseen effects, as Islamic authorities can enhance their popularity by aligning themselves with effective government responses and could therefore emerge from the pandemic with newfound privileges and social clout. In turn, such an outcome leads to them being perceived as a threat to established regimes, once again eliciting a crackdown. Indeed, several Gulf regimes began steadily expanding their control over religious and clerical establishments over a decade ago, meaning that heightened security measures are now facilitating pre-existing state efforts to crackdown on Islamist opposition groups.
Finally, another unforeseen result of the securitization of the pandemic is the fact that is that the partnership between rulers and clerics is becoming more evident, especially through the efforts to promote a nationalist narrative as a source of unity against the health threat. As a consequence, a risk of this overt partnership is the creation of a disconnect between the state’s religious narrative and that of ‘real Islam’ in the eyes of the population, adding to the ongoing battle for legitimacy between official representatives and Islamist movements. While these two trends are still in flux, competing state responses to the pandemic are already drastically altering the relationship between Islamists and political institutions in the Gulf. While responses to the pandemic have so far strengthened the state over society, the unprecedented collapse in oil prices could result into a further strain on social relations. In this context the rise of domestic dissent could indeed favour Islamist movements, as they historically act as voices for popular grievances and advocates for reforms. This is why it is worth keeping an eye on the changing relationship between political and religious institutions, as Covid-19 has already come a long way in shifting the balance of power between these two forces.