Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31) rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton

The COVID-19 Roads: Movement, Migration, Infection in the Arab World (Part 1)

Informal routes of transporting people and materiel have long played a central role in the history of the Arab World, however the Middle East and North Africa region has not been left untouched by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, with these routes in many cases undermining or influencing government efforts to stem the flow. In this two-part piece, Edwin Tran examines some of the major routes that are believed to have spread the disease or have the potential to exacerbate the situation further.  

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As COVID-19 continues to spread across the world unfettered, questions arise as to the vectors of transmission and the routes linking country to country. The disease has demonstrated the vulnerabilities of this interconnected and globalised world. Despite the many benefits brought about by this unprecedented age of connection, the transmission of disease across borders has become a liability. Such considerations can especially be felt in many parts of the modern Middle East, where porous borders have helped spread the disease. From the pathways of migrant labourers to the smuggling routes of arms and provisions dealers, a host of different pathways are present in the region and all have some role in the ongoing pandemic.

Egypt: The Smuggling Routes

Egypt, a nation with the largest Arab population straddled between the Maghreb and the Mashriq, remains an important hub for much of the Arab world. In 2010, around 15 million tourists visited the country, and despite the Arab Spring and terrorism, 2018 saw 9 million visitors, generating around $9 billion USD in revenue. As the centre of the Arab League, key ministers and leaders make regular trips to Cairo. Much of its exports and commerce head to destinations like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. These facts alone highlight how interconnected Egypt is with its regional neighbors, and at the same time highlights just how vulnerable it is to the spread of COVID-19. With over 656 reported cases of the disease, government measures have been taken to halt the flow of international traffic and to prevent any further spread.  

However, such measures are only applicable to these transparent networks. Egypt has a long history of insecure borders and on both sides of the country, a wide range of unregulated routes can be seen. Both the Libyan border and the Sinai Peninsula present major security issues for the Egyptian regime and the control of COVID-19 must also take these glaring gaps into account.

Smuggling on both fronts is a common affair. Despite repeated military efforts by Egyptian security forces, a large amount of untracked traffic flows across the country. In Libya, much of this comes in the form of arms smuggling, however Libyan-Egyptian trade in such capacities has longer, more historic roots. Tribes like the Awlad ‘Ali have spent decades participating in what they refer to as tigara (trade) and tahrib (smuggling). During the Gaddafi period, this trade network was especially popular because of low-taxes in Libya, which incentivised Egyptian smugglers to access Libyan goods to circumvent Egyptian tariffs and taxes. With the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, political instability opened the door for a wider amount of tahrib activities. Criminal organisations and extremist groups have used this preexisting link to smuggle drugs, weapons, and even individuals. From there, these goods are either used by militants in the Libyan Civil War or are transported to different countries. Such charges have been made by nations like Rwanda, who asserted at the United Nations that Libya’s porous borders were resulting in weapons being delivered to militants across sub-Saharan Africa.

A similar situation can be found in the Sinai Peninsula. Here, smugglers cut through the deserts and mountains of the Sinai, carrying with them a variety of goods and weapons. Many of these products are destined for the Gaza Strip, which has continued to face a blockade by the Egyptian regime as well as Israel. Connections between the Bedouins of the Sinai and the various militant groups of the Gaza Strip fuel this ongoing trade route, and continual shortages in the Gaza result in huge profits to daring individuals. However, the Sinai Peninsula is also home to major human trafficking networks. Individuals from African nations like Eritrea and South Sudan, often seeking employment opportunities in Israel, are misled and exploited by smugglers in the Sinai. In 2007, almost 30,000 migrants were held for ransom by Sinai smugglers, many of whom reported ransom figures from $30,000 to $50,000 USD.

These smuggling networks operate in territory that is far from Cairo’s influence. In Libya, Egypt has failed to demonstrate any ability in maintaining the border’s security since the fall of Gaddafi. Headlines from 2011 and from 2019 paint the same broad strokes. Even given Egypt’s alliance with Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which holds most of Eastern Libya, the same issues with smuggling and trafficking remain. Similar can be said of Egypt’s Sinai problems. Since February 2011, Egypt has fought a war of counterinsurgency against Bedouins and IS-linked extremists across the peninsula. Despite these efforts, 2019 saw continual attacks by militant groups and the region has been host to some of the worst terrorist attacks seen in the previous decade. The fact that many individuals on these frontiers view smuggling as a vital part of their livelihood makes such problems even harder for Egypt to deal with.

When contextualised by the COVID-19 pandemic, a stark image emerges. Libya has just announced its first few cases of the disease. Although official reports note that the disease has only appeared in areas far from the Egyptian border, a war-torn country like Libya has limited testing capacities and it is unclear just how widespread the disease truly is. The Gaza Strip has also announced its first cases of COVID-19. Mass rallies have been cancelled and many Palestinians are worried about the disease’s ramifications in an area lacking in medical resources. In both instances, the unfettered and uncontrolled movement of individuals across these borders poses huge implications. Egypt, with hundreds of reported cases and potentially thousands of undocumented ones, has the potential in further spreading the disease across these two vulnerable regions. Furthermore, smugglers from the Gaza and Libya may help spread COVID-19 into rural parts of Egypt that lack meaningful supplies. In either instance, smuggling routes no longer simply pose a security gap, but also have an epidemiological component to them.  

The Khaleej: The Migrant Routes

South of Egypt and across the Red Sea lie the countries of the Arab Gulf monarchies. Here, another series of transnational networks oversee the mass movement of migrants and labourers across a dozen different countries. In nations like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Qatar, millions of immigrant workers from South and Southeast Asia work as labourers, construction workers, and domestic caretakers. It is said that every street block in the UAE is maintained by a dozen migrant workers. The arrival of COVID-19 on the shores of these countries adds a new tumultuous dynamic to the already difficult circumstances many migrant workers face.

To understand the disease’s impact, it is first important to assess the sheer numbers of migrants flowing through the Gulf. According to the ILO in 2017, India sent over 3 million migrants to the UAE, 2 million to Saudi Arabia, and many others to Oman and Qatar. Pakistan and Bangladesh reported a million each headed to Saudi Arabia. Such statistics are not aberrations, but rather the norm. According to the Asian Century Institute, 3 million Asian migrants leave for the Gulf every year and the organisation estimates that there are at least 30 million migrants in the region. Such figures are reliant on official reports, and it is believed that sizeable populations of migrants are trafficked or are otherwise operating in these countries illegally. Although improvements have been made in nations such as the UAE, conditions for many of these migrant workers have long been described as horrific, oppressive, and inhumane. This history of abuse is well documented and well understood. Countless stories of violence, social injustice, and economic hardship are common. Many are placed into debt getting into these countries and many others face difficulties trying to leave.

The emergence of COVID-19 poses a significant risk to the Arab Gulf particularly in this area of migrant labour. As mentioned above, millions of labourers exist in these countries, most of whom live in dense, squalor conditions, where practises such as “hot bedding” to reduce accommodation costs are common. Some workers explained that “as for the accommodation… there were 10 people to one small room, with five bunk beds and… the toilets were outside.” Amnesty International reported that “labour accommodation camps are notoriously overcrowded, and lack in adequate water and sanitation.” Standard anti-pandemic policies like self-quarantining and social distancing are effectively impossible to implement in such situations. In reality, the living conditions of these migrant workers pose an epidemiological hazard for the Arab Gulf monarchies. Disease will be quick to transmit in such close quarters. Already COVID-19 has spread to many migrants and reports from Qatar reveal that the country’s “largest labour camp… has become a virtual prison” as the nation enacts strict lockdown measures.

However, the implications of COVID-19 transcend the biological and the economic impact of the disease. According to scholars at the Brookings Institute, migrant labour in the Arab Gulf is a foundation for the various countries there. A disruption like COVID-19 threatens to destabilise many underlining elements of Gulf society. Vast building projects and regular city maintenance require the presence of huge numbers of workers. Saudi Arabia has reportedly forced millions of expatriates to continue working, which stands in stark contrast to quarantine policies placed for Saudi nationals. Such individuals are vectors of infection for society at large. Should a large enough number of these migrants fall ill, then there may simply not be enough labour to maintain regular society. In other countries like Qatar, the lockdown of migrants has coincided with reduced or lost wages, an act that may halt the flow of migrant labour for the foreseeable future.

In the long term, the economic ramifications are substantive and it is important to examine the effects on both sides of the road. As economic activity declines in the Gulf, future austerity measures may result in lower long-term wages for migrant workers. Many of these migrant workers and their families are dependent on these wages. Remittances play a significant role in moving international labour from South and Southeast Asia to the Middle East, and an economic decline ushered by COVID-19 may result in substantial shifts to this movement, and bring significant knock-on effects for recipient countries.  

This is the first part of a two part series assessing the different transnational routes in the Middle East and their potential role in ongoing the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Edwin Tran is an independent analyst focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

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Photo: Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton – Irish Defence Forces photograph