Several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, members of the Helsinki Policy Forum met online to reflect on the virus’s impact so far. Participants included government officials, current and former parliamentarians, and economic experts from: Bahrain, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Libya, Sweden, and the UAE. A representative of the WHO was also present on the call.
Initial hopes that the common threat posed by the virus could lead to a Corona détente in the Middle East are as yet unrealised. Instead, conflicts have stagnated or, in the case of Libya, have arguably intensified. Clearly then, Covid-19 is no panacea to the long-standing and multifaceted challenges. However, this should not obscure the very real new opportunities for diplomacy that have been created. In parts of the Middle East there have been tentative signs of co-operation, particularly on humanitarian challenges. With sufficient political will, these could yet be developed into a more comprehensive discussion on the health challenges emerging from the pandemic. In turn, this could create space for further discussions on shared challenges such as the environment, or energy.
Meanwhile, although the virus is still growing across the region as a whole, many countries are beginning to ease lockdowns out of economic necessity. There is a real possiblity this could lead to second waves of the virus, unless the process is carefully managed and monitored. Effective testing appears critical to any effective easing of lockdown but given the global shortage of testing capacity, there is a need to ensure that testing kits are not monopolised by developed economies but are shared fairly with developing economies also
The virus has exposed the limits to a unilateral approach and the need for international solidarity. Unfortunately, it has also exposed a relative dearth of leadership from traditional actors. This creates a demand for new actors to take the lead in setting the global agenda and pushing new multilateral approaches. Initiative is urgently required in both the Gulf-MENA region and Europe, given the scale of the collective challenges.