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COVID and Gulf Foreign Policy
COVID and Gulf Foreign Policy
What’s Happened to the UN Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Ceasefire Call?
What’s Happened to the UN Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Ceasefire Call?

COVID and Gulf Foreign Policy

Originally published in POMEPS Studies

While GCC policymakers have responded swiftly to the threat of COVID-19 domestically, some Gulf states deftly used the crisis to advance their foreign policy objectives with states with which they have had adversarial relationships. Only time will tell whether these new diplomatic opportunities will lay groundwork for concerted regional efforts.

In late February, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman announced the first cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) amongst their citizens who had returned from pilgrimages to Iran.[fn]Al Shurafa, Sara and Toumi, Habib. “Bahrain and Kuwait Confirm Firsts Cases of Coronavirus Disease.” Gulf News, 24 February 2020. Hide Footnote  In a region accustomed to operating in a state of high alert, policymakers responded swiftly to the growing spread of the pandemic by shuttering flights, ordering the closure of land borders, and enacting sweeping economic stimulus packages.

While GCC policymakers responded swiftly to the threat domestically, they also moved to capitalize on it in their foreign policies. The United Arab Emirates is a case in point. Since the outbreak of the virus, it has used the opportunity it afforded to continue its policy of quiet de-escalation with its main regional rival, Iran, by extending humanitarian medical aid. Likewise, in a call between UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the Crown Prince offered to dispatch aid to support Syria’s efforts to cope with the virus outbreak. The call was the first publicized contact between an Arab leader and Al-Assad since most Arab states broke off relations with Syria following the country’s descent into civil war.[fn]“Syria, UAE Leaders Discuss Coronavirus, a Thaw in Relations”, Associated Press, 27 March 2020.Hide Footnote  It was yet another step in the UAE’s gradual efforts to thaw relations with the Syrian regime – which has fought Islamist rebels – as part of the UAE’s broader strategy of countering political Islam in the region.

While the crisis has provided an opportunity for the UAE to pursue its foreign policy objectives, it has also highlighted the intractability of other regional conflicts.

While the crisis has provided an opportunity for the UAE to pursue its foreign policy objectives, it has also highlighted the intractability of other regional conflicts. A series of terse exchanges between Qatar and Bahrain over the repatriation of Bahraini nationals stranded in Iran is a stark reminder of the extent of the fallout between the neighbours, with few pathways to diplomacy on the horizon.

Humanitarian Diplomacy

The UAE has long touted its humanitarian credentials. As the death toll in Iran surged to the highest level outside China in early March, the UAE announced that it had sent one of its military transport aircrafts to deliver the first aid supplies to the Iranian Republic, despite its adversarial relationship with its larger neighbour. The aircraft carried seven tons of assistance, in addition to five medical experts, from the World Health Organization. This was followed by a second dispatch of medical equipment, consisting of thirty-two tons of medical equipment. The UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation celebrated the move as part of the country’s ethos, noting: “Providing life-saving assistance to those expressing distress is essential to the common good. The leadership and people stand shoulder to shoulder with nations in their time of need.”[fn]“UAE Sends Medical Aid to Iran as Coronavirus Outbreak Intensifies”, Al-Monitor, 17 March 2020Hide Footnote  Yet the gesture also illustrated political intent to use the COVID-19 crisis to help ease regional tensions.[fn]A spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also thanked the UAE, Uzbekistan, and the WHO for their efforts simultaneously, noting via Twitter: “My country is sincerely thankful for these humanitarian efforts and will never forget the way they stood with Iran in hard times.” See https://twitter.com/SAMOUSAVI9/status/1239603004904558593Hide Footnote   Iran responded to the gesture noting that the spread of the virus had brought ‘more reason and logic’ to its relationship with the UAE.[fn]Shahla, Arsalan and Motevalli, Golnar, ‘Iran Says Virus Coordination Has Improve Its Ties With the UAE’, Bloomberg, 6 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Gulf states with warmer relations to Iran have also dispatched aid to their embattled neighbour. In mid-March, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani ordered the dispatch of six tons of medical equipment and supplies, while Kuwait announced it would send $10 million in humanitarian aid.[fn]Al Sheribini, Ramadan, “Coronavirus: Qatar Sends Medical Aid to Its Ally Iran.” Gulf News, 15 March 2020,   “Kuwait Sends Aid to Iran to Fight Coronavirus.” Islamic Republic News Agency3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  The gestures of outreach towards Iran are especially notable as part of a policy of de-escalation pursued by the smaller Gulf states since the middle of 2019 and accelerated after the killing of General Qasim Soleimani by a US drone strike in early January, a move which threatened to embroil the region into the conflict between the United States and Iran. Saudi Arabia – a vocal proponent of the US “maximum pressure” campaign that aims in part to press Iran to discontinue its support for allied militias across the region including in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen – has not announced any similar measures.

The crisis has also provided an opportunity for the UAE to pursue its policy of gradual rapprochement with Syria. Following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the UAE initially supported Syrian opposition groups in the context of a coordinated Arab boycott of the Syrian government. As various Islamist groups, which the UAE opposes, seized control of Syria’s insurgency – and as the Syrian army began to consolidate control over swathes of territory it lost – several Arab states have made limited gestures of outreach towards Al-Assad.[fn]“Syria, UAE Leaders Discuss Coronavirus, a Thaw in Relations”, Associated Press, 27 March 2020.Hide Footnote  The UAE has been at the forefront of such efforts, in part owing to its ambition to lead a counter-Islamist coalition in the region, and in the process counter the influence of Turkey, a main supporter of Islamist opposition groups in Syria and beyond. In late 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus for the first time since 2011, albeit at the chargé d’affaires level for now. The direct call between the Crown Prince and Assad is a further sign that diplomatic relations between the two states are likely to continue to improve.

Enduring Conflict

While the crisis has provided an opportunity for the UAE to improve relations with states with which it had previously downgraded diplomatic relations, other crises have proven to be more intractable.

The most recent dispute between Qatar and Bahrain is tied to the repatriation of Bahraini citizens visiting Iran.

On March 24, the Gulf Cooperation Council convened an emergency virtual summit, bringing together finance ministers to discuss unified measures to combat the epidemic. Qatar’s participation in the meeting – the first since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain imposed a land, air, and sea blockade on the country in 2017 – raised hopes that the pandemic might provide an opportunity to improve relations between the states.[fn]“Qatar Attends First Emergency GCC Meeting Since Blockade to Combat Coronavirus Implications”, The New Arab, 24 March 2020.Hide Footnote  A diplomatic spat between Qatar and Bahrain in the days following the summit suggested the opposite, however, adding to a growing list of missed opportunities that highlight how entrenched the conflict has become as it soon enters its third year.

The most recent dispute between Qatar and Bahrain is tied to the repatriation of Bahraini citizens visiting Iran. As the number of coronavirus cases in Bahrain soared in early March, Bahrain shuttered flights to Iran, leaving hundreds of Bahraini Shi’a pilgrims stranded in the Islamic Republic, with which Bahrain has no diplomatic ties. Bahraini authorities began slowly repatriating them, with 165 nationals arriving on an Omani flight on March 19. As the repatriation of the remaining stranded citizens stalled, the Qatari government’s communications office issued a statement on March 28 announcing that Bahrain had rejected its offer to ‘fly Bahraini citizens on a private charter flight to Bahrain at no cost to the individuals or the government of Bahrain.’ The remarks were made as dozens of Bahraini pilgrims arrived in Doha on a Qatar Airways flight from Iran on March 27, at Qatar’s invitation, and could not continue on to Bahrain. The Qatari Ministry of Public Health offered to conduct coronavirus tests on the transit passengers and provide medical assistance to those who tested positive.

Qatar’s announcement did not go over well in Manama. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa issued a statement on his Twitter account accusing Qatar of interference: “What Qatar has done is reprehensible and requires a clear international position against it. Doha should stop using a humanitarian issue such as the Covid-19 pandemic in its plans and ongoing conspiracies against countries and peoples.” He added that Bahrain had arranged special flights directly from Iranian airports to Bahrain in adherence to health and safety procedures, and that Tehran’s decision to place Bahraini citizens on a commercial flight to Doha placed them at risk, suggesting that Qatar did not comply with measures to preserve the health of the travellers and crews.[fn]Aldroubi, Mina. “Coronavirus: Bahrain Tells Qatar to Stop Meddling in the Repatriation Process.” The National, 29 March 2020, and “NCC: Repatriation Flight Scheduled for Citizens in Doha Arriving From Iran Tomorrow”, Bahrain News Agency, 28 March 2020.Hide Footnote  Bahrain had previously accused Iran of ‘biological aggression’ by covering up the spread of the virus and failing to stamp the passports of Bahraini travellers visiting the country.[fn]Eltahir Nafisa, and Barrington Lisa. “Bahraini Accuses Iran of ‘Biological Aggression’, Gulf States Try to Curb Coronavirus”, Reuters, 12 March 2020.Hide Footnote  Up until March 15, Bahrain had reported that all cases in the Kingdom were directly linked to those who had returned from Iran.


As a global black-swan event, the COVID-19 outbreak has created enormous medical and economic challenges, but also new diplomatic opportunities. By engaging in bilateral humanitarian diplomacy, some Gulf states deftly used the crisis to advance their foreign policy objectives with states with which they have had adversarial relationships. While the immediate results are limited, a strategy of gradual confidence-building can help lay the groundwork for politically-focused diplomatic overtures down the line. At the same time, the absence of a coordinated GCC multilateral aid response to the region’s COVID-19 crisis – and continued discord between Qatar and its neighbours – represents a missed opportunity to de-escalate regional tensions at an otherwise especially perilous time.

Russian and Turkey servicemen are on a joint patrol along the M4 highway at Idlib de-escalation zone, Syria on 5 May 2020. Sputnik via AFP
Speech / Global

What’s Happened to the UN Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Ceasefire Call?

This is an expanded and updated version of remarks originally given to a conference organised by Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on 17 May 2020. A conference summary is available here.

The UN call for a global ceasefire in response to COVID-19 has lost momentum, but I would begin by saying that Secretary-General António Guterres deserves credit for coming up with a genuinely compelling appeal, and I think the resonance of his original proposal took a lot of us by surprise.

When we first heard he was calling for a ceasefire, cynical diplomacy watchers, such as myself, thought it might be a bit of a gimmick, and not have any concrete impact. What was interesting was that in the first week to ten days after he made the appeal, in late March, we saw quite a lot of armed groups and governments acknowledging the call and promising to consider it. The UN estimated that conflict parties in eleven countries recognised this call by early April. That figure is a little dodgy, as in some places like Ukraine, conflict actors recognised the call but kept on fighting regardless. Conversely there were cases, such as in Thailand, where armed groups promised to suspend military activities in response to COVID-19 but didn’t make reference to the UN in doing so. Therefore, the actual number of conflict actors that have picked up on the ceasefire idea is a little slippery, but it was still a significant number, in late March and early April.

The ceasefire call appears to have had little effect on the overall level of violence worldwide.

Since mid-April, however, we have not seen a lot of momentum. Indeed, at the moment, if you look at conflict data globally, the ceasefire call appears to have had little effect on the overall level of violence worldwide. There are a number of reasons for that.

A first problem is that in some cases one party in a conflict offered a ceasefire in response to the UN call, but the other party was either not interested or only fleetingly interested in taking up the offer, sometimes because they didn’t see the terms as acceptable. An example was Cameroon, where SOCADEF, one of a number of Anglophone rebel groups, was quick to endorse the global ceasefire in late March, but the government simply ignored it. The fighting never stopped and both sides appear to have increased their targeting of aid workers since the UN appeal.

We also saw a different variation on this theme in Colombia, where the ELN rebel group instituted a month-long pause in violence but demanded quite extensive political talks with the government in Bogotá in order to extend it, which the government was not willing to offer. The ELN ended its ceasefire at the end of April.

Yemen is another case, though the facts are complicated. It is true that the Saudi coalition supporting the UN-recognised government offered a freeze of hostilities in early April (and subsequently renewed this offer), and the Huthi rebel group refused to accept it. But this needs to be seen in the context that the UN had been working toward a more complex ceasefire plan involving confidence-building measures by both sides, which the Saudi offer did not include. From the Huthi perspective, the freeze looked like a bit of a sham, and both sides kept on fighting.

A second problem is that even where you had seeming good-will among conflict parties to pause violence in response to COVID-19, there was often a lack of ceasefire architecture for taking advantage of these offers. It is one thing for an armed group to say it wants to reduce violence, but another to translate that wish into a technical ceasefire agreement with clear terms and some sort of security guarantee that all sides can accept. Obviously, this has been a bad period for international mediators and international peacekeepers to try to set up architecture of that type, that can sustain a ceasefire: we’re in a period when international mediators are unable to travel to conflict zones. We’re in a period where many are in lockdown or have limited freedom of movement. It is very hard to go through the hard, technical work of turning offers of ceasefires into actual pauses in violence.

We’re in a period where many international mediators are in lockdown or have limited freedom of movement.

But this may have resulted in some missed opportunities. In the Philippines, for example, the government called a unilateral pause in operations against the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) rebels before the UN appeal. The CPP did not initially reciprocate, but it did offer a ceasefire after the UN call. Yet it didn’t work, partly because the two sides had no real way to operationalise their commitments. They pursued overlapping but uncoordinated ceasefires through April, with messy results. Soldiers and communist rebels would inadvertently cross paths and end up in skirmishes. Violence increased to pre-COVID-19 levels and the CPP ended its ceasefire in April.

The third consideration, which in most respects is a good news story, has been to do with the disease. The situation in late March was one in which many expected COVID-19 to be a catastrophe – including rapid spread of the disease and high levels of fatalities in fragile states and war zones. We haven’t really seen that happen. To be sure, we have seen outbreaks of COVID-19 in some conflict-affected regions – for example, the city of Aden in Yemenbut they have not shaken up the calculations of warring parties. In countries like Libya, the level of the disease doesn’t seem to have affected either side one way or the other.

It is possible that may change, particularly as the disease begins to surge in parts of the world that were previously spared. There seems to be a high rate of infection in Yemen, although the data is bad. We are worryingly seeing an outbreak in refugee camps in South Sudan. We may see the disease spike in coming months – indeed, infections seem to be accelerating in Africa now – and it is possible that spikes may inspire armed groups to lay down their arms temporarily. But that has not happened yet.

The fourth factor is the dysfunction of the UN Security Council. If the Secretary-General had a good idea, the Council has disgraced itself with its response to his appeal. Had the Council, at France’s suggestion, moved quickly in late March or early April to adopt a resolution endorsing the idea, that would have given it extra political credibility and nudged conflict parties to take it more seriously. It would not have resulted in world peace, but it would have firmed up and given momentum to the Secretary-General’s call.

If the Secretary-General had a good idea, the Council has disgraced itself with its response to his appeal.

Instead, what we have seen is that for about six or seven weeks, the Council was unable to agree to a resolution endorsing the ceasefire idea, not because anyone objected to the ceasefire idea, but instead because all members supported it with caveats. At first, the U.S. and Russia insisted that they be allowed to continue counter-terrorism operations, for instance. Then the U.S. and China came to a complete deadlock over whether there should be a paragraph somewhere in the resolution saying something nice about the World Health Organization (WHO). The U.S. refused to accept any language that contained even the smallest positive reference to the WHO, and the Chinese refused to accept text that did not refer to it. It got to the point that the U.S. torpedoed a resolution that all fourteen Council members had accepted, at the last moment, because it contained a small, indirect reference to the WHO.

The consequence of this great power arm wrestling is that the UN Security Council has been paralysed and has marginalised itself in this debate. I would say also, that for those who watch the Council, it is depressing to think they can’t agree on this comparatively symbolic move, when we know that much thornier issues await, including the West Bank annexation question and the Iranian nuclear deal. If they cannot agree on a ceasefire, it is unlikely that they can agree on these issues.

Sadly, the ceasefire call is less powerful than it seemed when the Secretary-General made it. UN officials concede that the call has “fizzled”. Secretary-General Guterres has continued to push the idea but other topics, from how to manage the economic fallout of the pandemic to the fate of the nuclear deal, are likely to dominate the UN agenda in the coming months. The virus, however, may have greater staying power. It could still have severe effects on states in conflict. Politicians, diplomats and peacemakers will have to deal with its consequences for some time to come. In doing so, they will need to see if they can build more effective frameworks to prevent, pause and end violence than the ceasefire call proved to be.