The UAE’s Aid-Intensive COVID Model: Keep Temperatures Low, and Prepare for a Re-Start
How do you feel about the UAE's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic?
by Causes | 4.10.20
While it has appeared in lists of “the safest countries” during the Covid-19 pandemic, the particular mix of measures taken by the United Arab Emirates to combat the virus has so far attracted only sporadic attention. Partly this may be because there has been nothing clearly threatening or reassuring about the case: the UAE has infections and a noticeably low mortality rate, and it is not at the heart of the outbreak; the UAE has acted in accordance with all global best practices, but hasn’t had to respond with desperate measures. But when the world recovers from the Covid-19 crisis and countries’ responses are dissected for what they did well, and what they didn’t, the UAE’s approach will likely be one of the more interesting cases, for its behind the scenes balancing of multiple interests, local, regional and global, and – and its use of foreign aid to mitigate friction and bring the world a bit closer together in its response to the pandemic.
As the Covid crisis evolves, the one factor that seems to drive the UAE approach more than any other: its unusually high degree of integration with the world economy: An oil-rich country, the UAE has successfully transformed itself over the last 50 years from a relatively quiet, regional outpost an indispensable global hub, based on its ability to foresee global logistics needs and fill them faster and better than anyone else: In 2019, Dubai was the leading maritime hub across the Middle East, India and Africa, and ranked ninth for throughput globally. In this respect, the UAE has learned from the experiences of other “hub” states like Singapore.
The UAE was one of the first to sound the alarm about Covid-19. On January 26, senior UAE officials announced they were “closely following the Chinese government's efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus” and were ready to provide support. The UAE was undoubtedly already sharing information with its Asian counterparts in China, Singapore and South Korea on how to manage the situation. All of those countries have since provided essential lessons as to how to deal with the pandemic.
In the following two months, the UAE and its trade hub at Dubai steadily manned the spigots, acted in concert with WHO guidelines; the country suspended tourist visas and instituted mandatory quarantines for those entering the country; then limited entry to residents, while continuing to allow transit flights to other countries, before closing all passenger traffic on March 23.
One of the most important actions the UAE took was to institute early, widespread testing for the virus (the UAE in this respect has ranked at the very top of countries in tests per million of population, since the start of the crisis). Testing combined with careful tracking of those with whom infected persons have had contact, has been shown to be one of the most effective means of controlling the spread. And it has recently expanded those efforts, opening a facility in the capital with capacity to test tens of thousands of people a day. On the domestic economic front, the UAE was similarly prudent, announcing a 256 billion AED (70 billion USD) stimulus package to make sure that the economy is primed and has sufficient liquidity to weather the crisis. And it guaranteed medical treatment for all with Covid-19.
The UAE has traditionally been one of the highest donors of international assistance measured as a percentage of GNP – and provided 18% of total international aid – 7 billion dollars -- in 2018). And the Covid crisis is no exception: Since February the UAE has sent over 130 metric tons of aid to more than 13 countries, to support of more than 100,000 front line medical professionals. Some of this recent aid went to Serbia, Greece, Colombia, Afghanistan, and the Seychelles, and in the last week, the UAE sent 10 tons of medical aid to Italy and Pakistan; it sent 500,000 testing kits to Brazil, a country particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, and additional kits to Afghanistan. On March 3 the UAE sent 7.5 metric tons of medical supplies to Iran, along with WHO advisors. The two countries’ foreign ministers had a rare call two weeks later, just before a second delivery of 32 tons of equipment for 15,000 of Iran’s frontline healthcare workers. It has offered its assets abroad as quarantine facilities and field hospitals. In London, the UAE turned the city’s largest convention center, owned by the Abu Dhabi government, into a 4,000 bed field hospital. The UAE made a number of humanitarian repatriations of people stranded by the crisis, including a group of 215 students trapped in Hubei Province, China, whom it brought to the UAE for quarantine in a previously-built facility. And in early April, the UAE confirmed that it had made the Abu Dhabi-owned ExCeL convention center in London, the city’s largest, available at no cost to be converted into a 4,000-bed field hospital. And the aid flights continued, to Italy and other destinations.
Since the start of the global health crisis the UAE’s response has been characterized by a careful balancing of its own needs and those of its neighbors and partners. When it comes down to it, the UAE cannot afford not to take into account the impact of the actions of the world on it, or its actions on the world. And in facing Covid-19, as with everyone else the UAE has had to weigh a complex set of variables and make decisions with precious little data.
If global hubs are doing their job, they act as a buffer and regulator for any slowdown and startup: shutter operations too quickly and cause global pain, do it too slowly and put your own population (and other countries) at risk. It’s a heavy responsibility - but this is exactly the paradox of connectivity. Putting aside a cultural element to UAE’s long-standing aid commitments, the UAE understands that its future prosperity rests in part, on how it manages tradeoffs to everyone’s benefit. That includes neighbors, those with whom it has disagreements, trading partners and the nearly 8 million expatriates that call the UAE home. One hopes that the UAE’s experience helps drive home the lesson that no one country, regardless of size or wealth, can manage the effects of globalization on its own. And that ultimately may be one of the most positive outcomes of the Covid-19 crisis.
Has UAE Covid-19 Assistance to Iran reduced the risk of war?
Of all country’s recent Covid-19 aid missions, the ones that got the most media attention were those directed to its neighbor across the Gulf, Iran: A regional heavyweight, Iran has been embroiled in a lengthy international standoff for years over its nuclear program, which resumed in force after the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (‘Iran Nuclear Deal’). U.S.-Iran tensions threatened to escalate into hot conflict in early January following a standoff between the US and Iran in Iraq, after the U.S. retaliated for attacks on its forces in Iraq by assassinating commander of Iran’s elite Al Quds Force in in Baghdad, Qasem Soleimani. After a lull in tension, the Covid crisis threatens to re-escalate conflict as both sides perceive windows of opportunity.
The UAE is a strong regional ally of the U.S. and the West. But while it strongly opposes Iran’s aggressive Shi’a expansionist policies and proxy warfare in the region (notably in Yemen, where Iran has been backing Houthi forces in a devastating war with a Saudi-led and U.S.-backed Gulf coalition since 2015) its proximity to Iran means it is quite literally caught in the middle. Instead of contributing to calls for more pressure on Iran, the UAE took the decision to offer a bridge. The UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al Hashimi affirmed that the effort was “completely consistent with UAE’s humanitarian principles, and that providing life-saving assistance to those experiencing distress” was “essential to serving the common good.” CNN further noted that it was a “significant…and quite touching development.” But it was also a clear signal to all parties concerned that the Covid crisis is one that must be addressed collectively. For its part, Iran responded immediately and gratefully to the UAE assistance, saying the action brought “more reason and logic” to its relationship with the UAE.
(Photo Credit: iStock.com / johny007pan)
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