David Patrikarakos David Patrikarakos

Could the Covid crash spark another Arab Spring?

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

They said we were going to uncouple from the Middle East. Barack Obama, they said, was going to pivot to Asia. Donald Trump was, finally, going to get the United States the hell out of there. Intellectually, politically and, most importantly of all, militarily, we were going to put this most vexatious of regions behind us. It was, they assured us, a new day.

They were wrong. Obama was drawn back in by his desire to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. Trump talked a good isolationist game but then droned Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. Now we are in the midst of a coronavirus-induced oil crash. Now the Middle East squats in our living rooms once more. Now, it seems, the bad times are here again.

On Monday the price of oil hit $0. As coronavirus has destroyed the global economy it has destroyed the demand for oil along with it. And nowhere is the crash more devastating than in the Middle East.

If you are an oil-exporting state then your economic fortunes are tied to global demand – and this will continue to be depressed

The oil price to look at from a Middle East perspective is the Brent benchmark, which at the time of writing (and this could change quickly) stands at around $20 (£16.20). This is bad news for the region. But, as with everything in life, it’s worse for some than for others. The centre of the world’s oil is the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia is king of the oil producers there. It will be hit hard. But it has half a trillion dollars (£400 billion) of foreign exchange reserves. The second most powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state, the UAE, has around a hundred billion dollars (£80 billion). With oil revenues dropping, the deficits of these states will balloon. But they can use their reserves to compensate and they are politically stable: they can impose austerity measures without fear of revolution.

More pertinent is the question of the workforce.

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