Conflict with TPLF in Tigray Region likely to be prolonged, transform into insurgency, involve neighboring states – Ethiopia Analysis
The ongoing military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is being framed as a ‘rule of law operation’ to downplay the scale of the operation. However, given the TPLF’s entrenched position and capabilities, the conventional war is likely to devolve into a protracted insurgency.
The government’s alliance with Amhara militias particularly in disputed areas along the Amhara-Tigray border is likely to set a dangerous precedent. Given that land disputes are common across Ethiopia, the perception of tacit approval for these militias may prompt other conflicts over disputed areas.
The federal conflict with the TPLF also threatens to involve Eritrea, whose role thus far has largely been logistical or in self-defense. However, this restraint will likely be tested, particularly if the TPLF conducts further attacks on Eritrean locations or forces.
The conflict will result in a humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees fleeing in Sudan. Sudan remains ill-equipped to deal with the strain on its system, heightening existing insecurity caused by arms proliferation, land disputes, and resource competition.
While the government has stated that the conflict is only against the TPLF and not ethnic Tigrayans, this nuance is likely to be lost as the conflict endures. Increased nationalistic sentiment and anti-TPLF rhetoric heighten the potential for violence against Tigray citizens.
Those operating or residing in Ethiopia over the coming days are advised to avoid all travel to Tigray Region as well as the Tigray-Amhara border region due to the ongoing conflict.
On November 4, following months of simmering tensions, the federal government under PM Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive that he later described as a “war” against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which leads the Tigray Regional State government. The immediate trigger for the conflict was an alleged attack by the TPLF on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in the state capital of Mekelle and in other areas. However, tensions had become amplified after the TPLF held state elections on September 9, polls that the federal government called illegal. This appeared to escalate in late October after the federal government diverted program funds away from the state government and, at the same time, the TPLF refused to allow a newly-appointed deputy commander of the Northern Command to take his position.
Relations between PM Abiy and the TPLF have been strained since 2018 when Abiy was designated as the first ethnic Oromo PM in Ethiopia, essentially unseating the TPLF from the center of the government after they had ruled since 1991. Abiy later embarked on a raft of reforms, including the contentious dissolution of the then ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition on February 4, 2019. Following this, the TPLF refused to join Abiy’s new ruling Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP), as the TPLF which has dominated politics in Ethiopia within the EPRDF, despite only constituting 6 percent of the population, felt increasingly marginalized. This appeared to culminate in the September 9 elections, as the TPLF regards the federal government as “illegitimate” because its constitutional mandate was supposed to end on October 5 after national polls slated for August were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House of Federation and Council of Ministers declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray Region on November 4 and later approved the establishment of a transitional government. This followed statements by the federal government that the purpose of the operation is to disarm the TPLF and remove its leaders.
Sources citing internal UN documents indicate that the TPLF took control of the ENDF Northern Command headquarters in Mekelle and seized weapons from its armories, which partially verified the TPLF’s claims that the Northern Command defected.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael called for negotiations on November 8, though also stated that Tigray would defend itself until such time that talks take place. PM Abiy and other federal spokespeople have rejected calls for dialogue.
The TPLF repeatedly accused Eritrea of sending troops over the border to attack Tigrayan forces, which Eritrean officials have reportedly denied. Meanwhile, Sudanese officials and aid agencies have reported that over 27,000 Ethiopian refugees have crossed into Sudan, with thousands more expected in the coming days.
On November 13, the TPLF fired rockets toward the cities of Bahir Dar and Gondar in Amhara Region, causing damage to airport complexes in both cities. On November 14, the TPLF fired at least three rockets that struck Asmara, Eritrea. Both attacks were claimed by the TPLF.
As of November 18, the federal military offensive in Tigray Region has reportedly moved through western, northern, and southern Tigray toward Mekelle.
Assessments & Forecast
PM Abiy’s war against TPLF likely to result in protracted insurgency in Tigray Region
PM Abiy Ahmed gave a speech on November 8 framing the military intervention in Tigray Region as a ‘law enforcement operation’ to guarantee peace and stability and to bring the TPLF to justice, as the perpetrators of instability. By labeling the military offensive as a means to re-establish law and order, PM Abiy is likely attempting to downplay the scale of the military activity in Tigray despite not giving any timeline for the operations, along with the political and military difficulty in rooting out the TPLF from the region. This effort is further aided by the communications blackout that remains in place in Tigray and the government’s efforts to consolidate information releases into select federal sources. While PM Abiy and the federal authorities have repeatedly insisted that the ENDF has been successful “on all fronts”, the lack of independent information makes all claims difficult to corroborate.
Such corroboration is needed, as the TPLF commands a regional paramilitary force that is led by the former army generals, while also commanding militias containing war veterans of the conflict against Eritrea in 1998-2008. Furthermore, even a partial defection by the Northern Command could aid the TPLF’s defense against the ENDF offensive. The presence of significant Ethiopian military hardware in Tigray Region, intended for the defense of the country against Eritrea, has given the TPLF significant resources. This was evidenced by the use of rockets against Bahir Dar and Gondar in Amhara Region as a warning to halt the advance in Tigray.
With that said, the ENDF does appear to be moving its advance forward and pushing the front lines increasingly toward Mekelle. FORECAST: In the coming days and weeks, the ENDF is likely to continue its success in moving further into Tigray, reaching the state capital Mekelle, with the TPLF likely withdrawing from the major urban centers and engaging in guerilla tactics against federal forces. This is significant, as the TPLF is well-versed in these tactics, as witnessed by the guerilla war to topple the ‘Derg’ government in 1991. In this sense, while the ENDF may capture major urban centres in Tigray including Mekelle, the rugged terrain of the countryside and the TPLF’s experience in waging an insurgency provide a platform for a protracted and costly war. This insurgency effort is likely to be further aided by the call to all ethnic Tigrayans to defend themselves against the federal government.
Conflict with TPLF risks violence expanding southward, with fragile internal cohesion further likely to be strained
Given the specter of a prolonged insurgency against the TPLF, albeit with the ENDF controlling the major urban centers, the government will need additional troops to secure the countryside. In this context, the government is likely to revert to redeploying troops placed in other restive areas of the country such as the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), and Oromia Region to the Tigray theater. This also appears to include troops recalled from Somalia, which are intended to act as a buffer against al-Shabaab militants along the border. Such actions will likely stretch ENDF capabilities, especially given that many areas of the country continue to witness ethnically driven violence. FORECAST: In this scenario, the absence of ENDF troops in other volatile regions of Ethiopia heightens the potential for attacks by ethnic militias against minorities in various states, which could then be countered by these minorities forming self-defense groups to protect their neighborhoods.
Given these conditions, the government will likely come to rely more heavily on ethnic Amhara militias to preserve the stability in the Tigray Region, especially in the disputed areas in western Tigray. The status of these disputed areas is likely to draw Amhara Region’s interest as well as represent a potential trigger for wider grievance or conflict. Amharas living in areas bordering Tigray Region claim the Welkait Woreda illegally annexed by the TPLF when it assumed power in 1991, for example. This longstanding dispute likely spurred greater Amhara involvement in the federal offensive in Tigray, with Amhara Region troops as well as local Amhara militias operating in coordination with the ENDF in its operations in these territories. These militias will likely use the targeting of Bahir Dar and Gondar to galvanize local citizens and further spur recruitment efforts against the TPLF.
However, the use of Amhara militia in apparent tandem with ENDF operations is likely to set a dangerous precedent. While it is likely that the ENDF now holds the disputed lands such as Wolkait, with other efforts ongoing to push through the Raya Woreda, also claimed by Amhara, the perception of the role of Amhara will heighten the perception of PM Abiy’s acceptance of Amhara nationalism. Such a dynamic is likely in areas such as Oromia Region, where leaders have long accused Abiy of favoring the Amhara over the Oromo. FORECAST: The perception that the federal government has allowed Amhara militias to recapture their disputed territory may embolden other states to use their own militia forces to raid and attempt to retake disputed regions. In Tigray, the TPLF will also likely use the presence of Amhara militias in disputed land to further bolster recruitment efforts against both federal and Amhara forces.
FORECAST: Given that nearly every state in Ethiopia claims land in neighboring states, this type of escalation could lead to pockets of violence across the country. If pressured by the Abiy administration to halt, other state governments may allude to the appearance that the federal government has tacitly accepted the Amhara role in Tigray, which further complicates the efforts to curb violence. Additionally, given that the stated goal of the military offensive is to remove the TPLF and install a provisional Tigray transitional government, the fact that Amhara militias have appeared to capture long sought after land is likely to act as an impediment, as the Amhara government is unlikely to allow a new Tigray government to retake these lands. This will likely raise objections among the ethnic Tigrayans, who will already be inclined to view the transitional government as false or weak and continue to support the TPLF, which has commanded strong support in the state since they came to dominate the national government in 1991 and made Tigray Region the richest and most influential state in Ethiopia.
Role of Eritrea in conflict with Tigray likely to provoke tensions within Ethiopia
Another dynamic in the war against the TPLF is the perceived and actual role of Eritrea during the conflict. The TPLF and Eritrea have been at odds with each other since Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Ethiopia, then led by the TPLF, fought a war with Eritrea from 1998-2000, which is said to have left 100,000 people dead. However, relations between Asmara and Addis Ababa improved considerably after PM Abiy came to power, and signed a peace deal with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in 2018. However, Tigrayan leaders remained highly skeptical of the peace deal, which included a promise by PM Abiy to honor a 2002 ruling on the demarcation of the border between Eritrea and Tigray, where the town of Badme was rewarded to Eritrea but remained and continues to remain under Ethiopian control.
Eritrean involvement in the conflict thus far has remained muted, with Asmara mainly acting in a defensive capacity in preventing TPLF fighters from fleeing north, as the ENDF advances northward. That said, the TPLF has accused Eritrea of shelling Tigrayan positions along the border, which both Eritrea and Ethiopia have denied. However, the Ethiopian government has made statements noting that ENDF soldiers, who were allegedly wounded in TPLF attacks, crossed the border into Eritrea before regrouping and counter-attacking. This is a sign that Eritrea is at least cooperating with Ethiopia, and is likely tacitly assisting with medical and logistical support on the frontlines. The TPLF rocket attack on Asmara was likely a response to this perceived involvement in the conflict. However, it also remains possible that the TPLF attacked Eritrea as a means to galvanize the Tigryan populace by propagating the narrative of the TPLF defending Tigray Region from both internal and external aggression.
FORECAST: In this context, it is likely that Eritrea will likely remain uninvolved in major combat operations, despite TPLF claims of PM Abiy and President Isaias working together to crush the TPLF. Asmara’s likely pragmatic stance is likely due to the fact that despite the peace deal with Ethiopia, a protracted civil war will weaken Ethiopia and increase its reliance on Eritrea in the process. Furthermore, following the 2018 peace deal, the UN lifted sanctions on Eritrea, which means that President Isaias will likely be wary of openly sending troops into active combat, and risk the reimposition of sanctions. However, given the rocket attack on Asmara, the Eritrean government’s restraint will likely be tested if further such attacks continue. In this scenario, Eritrea’s involvement in the war would further destabilize an already precarious conflict and open up another front in the fighting.
Conflict against Tigray to adversely affect Sudan with increased refugee flows, given porous frontier
Given the TPLF is unlikely to escape northward towards Eritrea, and the conflict will likely metastasize into an insurgency, TPLF elements will likely seek refuge along the border with Sudan. While Sudanese authorities closed the border on November 5, the frontier is approximately 775 km and has long been a hub for smuggling. This partially explains why the ENDF targeted western Tigray at the start of the campaign and seized airports and territory along the border, seeing this as a way to cut off TPLF escape. While these actions will likely make it more relatively difficult for the TPLF, it will be difficult to fully secure the border, particularly in the long term. FORECAST: Thus, the TPLF is likely to utilize the frontier with Sudan to procure weaponry and other supplies for their insurgency campaign against the government. While Ethiopia will likely press Sudan to increase patrolling at the border to prevent smuggling, these efforts may not be sufficient and the border will serve as some form of pressure release for the TPLF.
Furthermore, the conflict in the Tigray Region is poised to be a humanitarian disaster for both Ethiopia and Sudan. The border with Sudan will remain a gateway for fleeing civilians and potentially combatants, with Sudanese and UN authorities saying that they are preparing for approximately 100,000 refugees over the coming weeks. According to UN reports and local Sudanese sources, the majority of the crossings are occurring near Hamdayat in Kassala State, with Luqdi in Gedaref State being another major point of refugee inflows. FORECAST: The displacement will cause immense strain on Sudanese authorities who lack the resources to deal with such a massive inflow of people, in rural areas with lack of infrastructure. Further exacerbating the crisis is the fact that both Kassala and Gedaref states have witnessed intense ethnic conflicts, often over land disputes and resource competition, both internally as well as with Ethiopian farmers across the frontier. Access to land and resources are further likely to be further compromised by the refugee crisis.
PM Abiy likely to consolidate power, persecution of ethnic Tigray likely to intensify
Within days of the launch of the offensive, PM Abiy replaced his army chief and reshuffled his entire security cabinet in what the government termed as a regular change of staff. While initial reports sought to portray the replacement of the army chief as a sign of dissension within the ranks of the national security apparatus, it is notable that most of the individuals were given different responsibilities within the government hierarchy and not demoted, with few exceptions. This is likely a reflection of Abiy staffing key positions with people he regards as trustworthy and capable in handling the Tigray offensive, while also keeping the security hierarchy relatively stable. For example, Temesgen Tiruneh resigned from his post as President of Amhara Region and was appointed as the intelligence chief, likely because he is a known confidant and ally of the PM.
However, PM Abiy’s consolidation within the security establishment, with the appointment of trusted aides runs the risk of the government disregarding any dissenting voices, and concern over the effect of the war on internal cohesion. FORECAST: The government is likely to continue seeking to portray complete support for the ENDF and its operations in Tigray by organizing additional pro-government demonstrations, events, and blood drives, as has been seen across the country. However, these activities are propped up by the fact that the government has arrested some of its most strident critics, especially in the Oromia Region, where opposition politicians such as Jawar Mohammad and Eskinder Nega remain and will continue to remain imprisoned or under house arrest in the coming months. Furthermore, the government’s suppression of the press will allow the administration to portray public support for the Tigray operations, while the internet blackout in Tigray allows the government to project its battlefield successes.
FORECAST: In Addis Ababa, the government and the security agencies will likely continue with the arrests of TPLF leaders and ethnic Tigray linked to the party. Security agencies will also likely periodically publish information about raids conducted wherein the government uncovered large caches of weapons, they alleged were to be used by TPLF elements to cause insecurity in the city. However, at the time of writing, the TPLF has not demonstrated any capability to conduct large-scale attacks in Addis Ababa, the potential for disgruntled TPLF elements or supporters to conduct small-scale incidents such as the throwing or planting of grenades as witnessed on November 11, and November 14.
FORECAST: More broadly, while PM Abiy has stated that the war in Tigray was aimed specifically against the TPLF and not the ethnic Tigray, this nuance is likely to get further ignored over the coming months. Multiple reports have indicated that ethnic Tigray working within the government have been relieved of their positions, while the government has also sought to remove Tigray security officials from positions of power within regional organizations. These assessments are bolstered by the African Union’s sacking of its head of security on November 11, after a memo from the Ethiopian defense ministry questioned the ethnic Tigray officer’s loyalty to Addis Ababa. This perceived sense of persecution by the government is likely to filter through into other areas of the country, leading to a heightened potential for attacks on ethnic Tigray by majority communities. Ultimately, the conflict with the TPLF will likely herald entrenched insecurity within Ethiopia over the coming weeks and months.
Those operating or residing in Ethiopia over the coming days are advised to avoid all travel to Tigray Region as well as the Tigray-Amhara border region due to the ongoing conflict.
Those in Tigray Region are advised to minimize all movement. Consider contingency and evacuation plans when possible.
Travel to Addis Ababa may continue while maintaining heightened vigilance in crowded areas due to the high risks of non-violent personal property crime.
Those operating or residing in Oromia Region’s West Wollega Zone are advised to maintain heightened vigilance over the coming days and be prepared to comply with additional or sudden security measures and checkpoints.
Those operating in Ethiopia and particularly in Addis Ababa are advised to consult with us for support at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434.
Political, economic, health crises to be exacerbated by August 4 explosion at Port of Beirut – Lebanon Analysis
On August 4, a large-scale explosion occurred in Beirut, which was reportedly caused by the ignition of ammonium nitrate that was stored at the Port of Beirut. The incident caused mass casualties, prompted significant unrest in the city, and fueled broader widespread anti-government sentiments against alleged endemic state corruption and incompetence.
Against the backdrop of a long-term economic crisis, the incident will force Lebanon to seek external aid, which will have major conditions attached to it that Lebanon may not be able to meet. Additionally, this will alter the geopolitical dynamics of the country.
The incident led to the resignation of the government and will have immense political ramifications for Lebanon, including carrying the risk of a long-term political vacuum, which will trigger further violent unrest, sectarian tensions, and societal polarization.
It is advised to avoid nonessential travel to Beirut at the current time, in light of the increased risk of civil unrest and political instability.
Please be advised
August 4 Explosion
On August 4, a large scale explosion occurred at the Port of Beirut, reportedly caused by 2,750 tons of a chemical compound called ammonium nitrate that was stored in a warehouse at the port and caught fire, before exploding.
The explosion destroyed many buildings in the vicinity of the port and caused widespread damage to much of Beirut.
At the time of writing, the explosion has reportedly killed 220 people and wounded over 6,000 more.
Reports citing Beirut Governor, Marwan Aboud, indicate that approximately 300,000 people were made temporarily homeless by the explosion and that the estimated losses related to the incident may reach 10-15 billion USD.
The ammonium nitrate had arrived in Beirut in 2014 and port officials reportedly made multiple requests for the material to be removed, to no avail.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident on August 4, Lebanese Prime Minister (PM) Hassan Diab stated that he will not “rest until we find the person responsible for what happened.” On August 6, 16 port officials were reportedly apprehended as part of the investigation.
On August 8, Diab announced that Lebanon “cannot get out of this crisis” without early parliamentary election.
On August 7, Lebanese President Michel Aoun indicated that the “cause [of the blast] has not been determined…there is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb”.
On August 7, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah militant group, made a televised address in which he categorically denied that the Shiite organization had stored any weapons or explosives at the Port of Beirut.
He added that “if you want to start a battle against the resistance [Hezbollah] over this incident, you will get no results”. He attacked “liars who want to…provoke a civil war” and claimed Hezbollah’s attention is more focused at Israel’s Haifa Port, than Beirut Port.
Since the August 4 explosion, unruly anti-government protests have been held in Beirut. Most notably, on August 8, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Martyrs’ Square and staged mock hangings of President Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah.
The protesters temporarily occupied the buildings of the Economy, Energy, and Foreign ministries, the last of which they claimed as the “seat of the revolution”. During violent clashes that took place at the protest, a police officer was killed and 728 protesters were wounded.
Protesters chanted “all of them, means all of them” and “resign!”, with reference to the removal of the entire political class; “revolution”; and some called Hezbollah “terrorists”.
On August 10, the PM announced his resignation and that of his cabinet. He reportedly stated that “corruption is greater than the state”, attributing “chronic corruption” as the cause of the explosion, and added that the “political class is using all their dirty tricks to prevent real change.” Lebanese President Michel Aoun accepted his resignation.
Prior to the explosion, Lebanon was already experiencing a severe, long-term national crisis on several fronts. The economy has been in a dire state for a prolonged period. Public debt in the country has reached approximately 170 percent of GDP, rendering Lebanon one of the most indebted states worldwide. In March, the government defaulted on 1.2 billion USD of debt. In July, the Labor Minister, Lamia Yammime Douaihy, reportedly announced that the unemployment rate had risen above 30 percent, up from 11.4 percent in 2019. The local currency, the lira, has reportedly lost over 80 percent of its value since October 2019. This has led to substantial inflation, including to essential goods such as food, which as of July, had witnessed price increases of 200 percent.
There has also been profound political instability and civil unrest in Lebanon, particularly over the past year. In October 2019, a proposed tax on the use of a cellular call application prompted major nationwide protests. The demonstrators, harboring multiple grievances, called for an end to perceived endemic state corruption and incompetence, and “new era” of transparency and accountability; significant reforms to counter the mismanagement of the economy and poor quality or lack of public services, especially waste removal; the resignation of the entire ruling political class, as illustrated by the “all of them, means all of them” chants; and in some cases, radical reform that replaces the sectarian-based political system with a renewed non-sectarian method that focuses on Lebanon as a whole.
On October 29, 2019, as the anti-government protest movement gained momentum, former PM Saad Hariri announced his resignation. He was replaced in January 2020 by Hassan Diab. In accordance with the Lebanese constitution, Diab is a Sunni Muslim. His candidacy as PM was supported in the Lebanese Parliament by the Hezbollah-allied March 8 Alliance, but failed to receive the support of Sunni parties. He presented the new cabinet as technocratic that would serve the interests of the entire populace of Lebanon. However, the new ministers were widely perceived by the protest movement as continuing to serve sectarian interests. While small-scale demonstrations have continued, the protest movement has subsided in recent months, in part due to COVID-19-related restrictions on gathering.
Assessments & Forecast
Explosion at Port of Beirut to exacerbate pre-existing economic crisis over coming months, force political leaders to seek external support
Over recent months, the aforementioned economic downturn was further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The global health crisis has had a very adverse impact on the economic situation in Lebanon, which imports approximately 80 percent of its goods. The economy is highly dependent on the services industry, tourism, and remittances from the Lebanese diaspora, which is made up of approximately double the number of citizens currently residing in the country. All of these sectors and sources of income have been majorly hampered by the pandemic due to restrictions on travel and business continuity, which have prompted many financial institutions, companies, and organizations to sever payments and contracts.
This has been further compounded by the severe devaluation of the Lebanese currency, which has rendered it near-impossible for many import-dependent companies to stay afloat. Other sectors of the domestic economy have also been affected as a result, which negatively impacted the wider economy and level of unemployment. For instance, as a measure of economic activity, nearly 1,000 restaurants have reportedly been forced to close during recent months, translating into 25,000 job losses in this sector alone. Taken as a whole, 3.25 million people, amounting to approximately 65 percent of the population, have reportedly fallen into poverty as a result of the prevailing economic conditions in Lebanon. This has manifested in widespread hunger and food insecurity, which PM Diab himself raised alarms about in May, stating that the “coronavirus is pushing Lebanon toward a major food crisis”. Meanwhile, amid dwindling fuel supplies, the country has additionally been experiencing widespread power outages over recent months.
Against this backdrop, the massive explosion at the primary port in a country that imports the majority of its goods is liable to have a profoundly negative impact on its economy and provision of basic goods to citizens. In the short-term, Lebanon will be compelled to rely on other points of entry, such as the Port of Tripoli, for the import of essential goods. These ports have a lower capacity than the Port of Beirut, which will reduce the quantity of goods entering the country as well as the speed at which they arrive. This, in turn, is likely to create further shortages of basic goods and ramp up prices, which will pose more challenges for local residents seeking affordable access to basic goods and services. The situation will be further aggravated by the fact that the August 4 explosion destroyed Lebanon’s sole grain silo, which was located at the Port of Beirut. This issue will become more acute by the government’s reported failure to maintain grain reserves for use in an emergency, which will further aggravate food insecurity in the country.
The longer-term reconstruction process will require substantial capital investment, which Lebanon, already highly indebted, does not possess. This renders any rehabilitation highly contingent on external finance and implementation. Over recent months, in an attempt to revitalize the economy, the government had conducted negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to secure a 10 billion USD aid package. The talks with the IMF had stalled prior to the explosion, largely due to Beirut’s failure to satisfy the IMF that it was capable or willing to enact financial reforms to address corruption and budgetary inefficiency. FORECAST: Given this precedent, and a previous 11 billion USD aid package that was pledged to Lebanon at an April 2018 conference in Paris on the condition of reforms that were not fulfilled, the reconstruction process is likely to be drawn out. This will be exacerbated by political and geopolitical tensions pertaining to Lebanon’s preferred affiliation with Western-aligned institutions and states or those that are broadly anti-US, such as Russia, China, and Iran, which backs Hezbollah. As a result of these deliberations and the likely complications in implementing reforms, the heightened levels of uncertainty in Lebanon will render the creation of jobs or large-scale reforms to public services even more difficult.
Although many states throughout the world have offered and delivered humanitarian relief in the immediate aftermath of the disaster at the port, as illustrated by a France-led international summit that raised 297 million USD, the more substantial aid required to rebuild large parts of Beirut and ultimately revamp the economy will require tens of billions of dollars, as highlighted by the Beirut governor’s estimate that the explosion alone caused up to 15 billion USD of damage. FORECAST: In the absence of aid, the economy will remain in recession and plunge further into debt, translating into elevated poverty and unemployment. This will also be likely caused by the perception that Lebanon is fundamentally, both politically and economically, unstable, which will complicate any efforts to attract external investors or tourists, when travel and business operations resume following the COVID-19 pandemic.
FORECAST: Even in the event that Lebanon does successfully secure foreign aid, which will provide a significant boost to the economy and generate some growth, it will still face substantial economic challenges over the coming years. Given the precedent of the 2018 conference in Paris, wherein 10.2 billion of the 11 billion USD aid package was reportedly slated to be granted as a loan, any potential assistance over the coming months is also likely to be in loan form, which will add to Lebanon’s rising levels of external debt. Moreover, the aid will be conditioned on the implementation of financial reforms to the banking and energy sectors, as well as a combination of spending cuts and tax increases in order to reduce the budget deficit. Such reforms have proven extremely difficult in the past due to both opposition by state institutions to make reforms and civil unrest by local citizens in condemnation of austerity measures. Furthermore, although the inflow of capital into Lebanon will help to shore up foreign currency reserves and bolster the state’s ability to provide some services, without measures to strengthen the local currency, the purchasing power of Lebanese companies and citizens will remain limited. Overall, even a potential aid package, which will have multiple conditions attached to it, presents no guarantee of an economic recovery.
Widespread anger, elevated anti-government sentiments to persist, resulting in civil unrest, prolonged political instability over coming months
Significant portions of the Lebanese population perceive the explosion at the Port of Beirut as symbolic of the endemic corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence of their political leadership. The presence of a highly incendiary chemical at the country’s main point of entry for over six years, seemingly without professional or government supervision, which has had catastrophic consequences, has enraged local residents. This is evidenced by the large-scale protests, the mock hanging of prominent political leaders, and calls for a “revolution”. FORECAST: Given that the rehabilitation process in Lebanon is likely to take years to implement, anti-government sentiments are likely to remain high for the foreseeable future, even with a potential change of the incumbent government. Over the coming weeks, in an attempt to capitalize on the ramification of the explosion to drive reforms, further large-scale protests and widespread unrest are likely to take place, particularly in Beirut. However, even when tensions subside, the absolute lack of trust in the national leadership harbored by many citizens, alongside the profound economic crisis, render it likely that protest activity, often accompanied by violence, will continue periodically. This will be exacerbated if the protesters perceive security forces to be employing excessive force.
As the anti-government protest movement strengthens, it is likely that anti-Hezbollah rhetoric at the demonstrations will become more prominent. This has already been evidenced by the chants against the Shiite group since the wave of protests in October 2019, which have continued during the current protests. This was also demonstrated by the extremely rare and notable decision by protesters to stage a mock hanging of an effigy of Hezbollah’s Nasrallah in the center of Beirut. FORECAST: However, the Iran-backed militant organization continues to harbor significant influence and control in Lebanon, especially among the Shiite community that makes up approximately one third of the population. As witnessed during the anti-government protests in 2019, as protesters amplify calls for Hezbollah to disarm and relinquish control over state institutions, the latter’s supporters will likely respond in kind by launching a counter-protest movement. This movement will likely not defend the current government due to its widespread unpopularity. However, it will defend Hezbollah against accusations and demands from anti-government protesters as well as seeking to protect the current political status quo that yields influence to Hezbollah. Thus, a deep polarization of Lebanese society can be expected over the coming months as tensions rise and accusations are hurled at different sectors of society and their respective leaders.
A key part of these tensions will be the degree to which Lebanon’s new government will be willing to lead a comprehensive investigation into the explosion that is perceived by citizens as independent of political interests. In light of the citizens’ significant lack of trust in the political leadership, any inquiry by Lebanese authorities is likely to be met with significant cynicism and attempt to absolve responsibility. The leadership’s narrative would likely be discarded by many citizens, which will give rise to alternative versions of the events that resulted in the explosion and thus more instability. As a result, there have been calls from both within Lebanon and by external actors for there to be an international investigation into the events. However, this is likely to be rejected by many government-linked elements in Lebanon, particularly Hezbollah, due to the perceived international interference in Lebanese domestic affairs and the potential for accusations to be made against the Shiite group regarding its broader alleged placement of explosives and weapons in civilian installations. In either scenario, the investigation is liable to prompt significant political tensions and instability in Lebanon.
The explosion has already had a major impact on the political landscape in Lebanon, as illustrated by PM Diab’s resignation and call for early parliamentary elections, which was one of the key demands of the anti-government protest movement. Thus, for at least the months leading up to the potential elections, the focus of the movement will be trying to affect the potential election’s results rather than broadcasting broad anger against the current government. However, new elections would also be a potential trigger for major political instability for two reasons. Given the precedent of Lebanese elections, in the months following the vote, a long, drawn out process will take place in order to form a viable coalition government that can command sufficient support in the parliament. This is illustrated by the most recent election that took place in May 2018, and only yielded a government nine months later. Second, due to Lebanon’s sectarian system, wherein the Speaker of the Parliament must be a Shiite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the President a Christian, as well as the allocated share of the parliament between the country’s various sects, there are inherent obstacles to radical political change, which is desired by protesters. This built-in system is liable to trigger renewed sectarian tensions in Lebanon and potentially sectarian-motivated violence, as will be discussed in the next section.
Hezbollah’s anti-US, anti-Israel rhetoric to increase in attempt to shift blame to external adversaries, liable to increase sectarian issues
As discussed before, the protesters’ anger at the political establishment has either included Hezbollah (“all of them, means all of them”) as part of broad dissatisfaction at systemic corruption or has specifically targeted the Shiite group (chants of “terrorists”). Hassan Nasrallah’s initial reaction to the incident in which he attacked “liars who want to…provoke a civil war” and attempted to absolve the Shiite group of responsibility for the explosion by denying the presence of explosives at the port suggests that the Lebanese militant organization, which is a part of the national leadership, is under pressure at the current juncture. Nasrallah’s reference to Haifa Port amid rising anti-Hezbollah sentiments following the explosion is part of the group’s effort to portray itself as the “resistance”, and by extension, an attempt to detach itself from the ruling political class and its perceived mismanagement of state affairs.
As previously mentioned, the Shiite group continues to harbor influence among significant segments of the Shiite community, as well as parts of the non-Shiite sector. These elements adhere to Nasrallah’s narrative of events and are likely to reject any accusation of wrongdoing by the group in the lead-up to the explosion or condemnations of its border militant activities. However, in the likely scenario that the economic situation deteriorates further and pressure increases on the government, and in turn, Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group may seek to divert attention from the domestic crisis by attributing the US and Israel with blame for Lebanon’s demise.
FORECAST: With regards to the former, Nasrallah will likely invoke Washington’s sanctions against Hezbollah and its allies, Iran and Syria, (recently exacerbated under the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act) as the source of Lebanon’s woes. This, in turn, may prompt an increase in anti-US sentiments among some segments of the populace, which, as part of the polarization process, will potentially push the anti-Hezbollah camp to align more with the West. Meanwhile, with regards to Israel, the current explosion has de-escalated recent tensions surrounding an anticipated retaliation by the Shiite group for the alleged Israel Air Force (IAF)-perpetrated killing of a Hezbollah fighter in Syria on July 20. This is likely a short-term de-escalation due to the circumstances, as the Iran-backed militant group will not seek to be perceived as further aggravating Lebanon’s crisis in a potential armed conflict with Israel. Over the coming months, however, should the anti-Hezbollah movement grow stronger and undermine the Shiite group’s hold on the country, it may seek to raise its profile as a “resistance” movement defending Lebanon’s sovereignty by acting against perceived hostile external threats that are “responsible for the country’s plight”, namely Israel.
Hezbollah is also known to leverage the significant control that it exerts at state institutions for its own interests, especially during periods of crisis. For instance, during the coronavirus, the Shiite group has reportedly taken advantage of its major influence at the Ministry of Health, where it nominated the minister, to bolster its support among the broader Lebanese populace. Hezbollah effectively mobilized approximately 25,000 personnel, including physicians, nurses and medics, in the fight against COVID-19. It also reportedly dedicated resources to the preparation of hospitals and medical centers. FORECAST: Thus, Hezbollah may seek to capitalize on the current crisis to improve its reputation among the Lebanese populace as an organization promoting welfare.
Explosion at Beirut Port to exacerbate health crisis amid global COVID-19 pandemic
Even prior to the explosion at the Port of Beirut, the economic crisis was having an adverse impact on Lebanon’s health infrastructure. Reports from July 7 indicate that, due to the lack of electricity and resources, private hospitals in Lebanon were forced to reduce operations to emergency procedures only, including to those requiring kidney dialysis and cancer treatments. Moreover, Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the primary care center for COVID-19 patients, was compelled to turn off air conditioning units in its administrative areas to reduce power use. Other hospitals were reportedly forced to rely on generators to maintain a power supply.
FORECAST: Thus, the blast at the Port of Beirut, which in itself caused major damage to a nearby hospital, will have a substantial impact on Lebanon’s ability to provide healthcare. The treatment of thousands of injured individuals from the blast, many of whom will likely require long-term care, will put additional pressure on the already strained healthcare system over the coming weeks and months. These patients will require medication and other healthcare supplies that will need to be imported from abroad, which will also be complicated by the immense damage to the port. Meanwhile, the aforementioned lack of food security and homelessness in the capital and its surroundings, which will only be exacerbated in the coming weeks and months, will also likely cause disease and illness. This will also place the country’s medical infrastructure under further pressure to function.
FORECAST:This will be compounded further by the likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak in the country due to crowding, prolonged periods at hospitals where coronavirus patients are present, internal displacement of citizens to other areas of the country who may transmit the condition, and the inaccessibility to various types of needed equipment and supplies. Overall, the August 4 explosion will have a major impact on the already struggling healthcare system in Lebanon, including in the private sector. This will also trigger anger and further grievances among citizens, leading to a general sense of instability in the country.
It is advised to avoid nonessential travel to Beirut at the current time, in light of the increased risk of civil unrest and political instability. This is especially the case in the capital’s southern suburbs, including Dahiyeh neighborhood, in light of the potential for militant attacks, spontaneous Hezbollah checkpoints, and civil unrest.
Due to instability, it is advised to avoid all nonessential travel to Lebanon’s outlying areas, particularly near the Syrian border, the Bekaa Valley, the area south of the Litani River, and Palestinian refugee camps. In such areas there remains an increased risk for sectarian-related attacks and abductions targeting foreign nationals as well as local Lebanese residents.
In light of current reduced capacity of local medical treatment facilities, it is advised to prepare a contingency plan for medical evacuation to nearby locations where appropriate medical care can be provided, such as Cyprus.
It is advised to maintain heightened vigilance in the cities of Tripoli, Hermel, Baalbek, Arsal, Tyre, and Sidon.
Travelers are additionally advised to keep identification and travel documents on their persons at all times, due to the increasing prevalence of Lebanese military or Hezbollah checkpoints in Beirut. When coming in contact with a security checkpoint, comply with the instructions of security personnel, regardless of their affiliation, avoiding behavior which may be viewed as threatening.
Police statistics indicate violent, opportunistic crime to pose major threat within London following easing of COVID-19 lockdown – UK Analysis
Police have warned of a significant increase in violent crime in London as lockdown measures ease.
Met Police statistics released in July show increases in drug offenses, knife crimes, and racist hate crimes in June following the easing of restrictions.
Opportunistic and violent crime is likely to be a major risk to those operating or residing in London over the coming months
Travel to London may continue while maintaining heightened vigilance for the expected increase in local criminal activity over the coming months.
Since COVID-19 related lockdown measures have been implemented in London, the Metropolitan Police (Met) have warned of marked increases in violent crime once lockdown measures ease. Police have warned of an increase in knife crime in London and a general increase in gang-related crime across the UK.
London Crime Statistics – January until June
Knife crime increased in June by 28 percent compared to May. Knives have increasingly become the preferred method to settle scores between gangs, carry out opportunistic robberies, assaults, gang initiations, intimidations, and homicides. Youths are also often paid to carry out certain activities. Overall, knife crime gradually decreased from January until April. Although they have since increased, the June numbers remain below the six-month average. Newham recorded the highest number of knife crimes followed by Haringey in the past six months.
Although thefts remained below the six months average, they rose by 28 percent in June compared to May. Burglaries targeting residences and businesses steadily increased by 11 percent in June, however, remain below the six months average. Westminster is the worst affected by burglaries targeting businesses while the boroughs of Barnet and Enfield recorded the highest number of offenses against residential properties.
Drug offenses, which include possession, as well as trafficking, rose in May by 26 percent before dropping in June by 28 percent, although was still up 15 percent from June 2019. In particular, the borough of Westminster recorded the highest number of arrests for drug trafficking. During the lockdown, local-level drug dealing evolved to adopt innovative tactics to avoid attention. Instead of dealing on the streets that would have risked being flagged by passing patrols, gangs resorted to taking orders on social media, dropping off the drugs in letterboxes via couriers, or conducting drive-by sales.
According to the Met, racist and religious hate crimes, which include physical assaults, verbal abuse, and incitement to hatred and cover crimes against the LGBT community, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, increased by over 80 percent between April and June. Westminster followed by Southwark, Lambeth, and Hackney were among the worst affected boroughs. These have sharply increased by 51 percent in June compared to May and are well above the six months average.
Notable Criminal Incidents
On July 2, The National Crime Agency cracked a secret communications system used by organized crime groups to trade narcotics and weapons, called EncroChat, in a transnational operation with French and Dutch police, and Europol. The operation led to 746 arrests in the UK, including two law enforcement officers. Large amounts of cash, narcotics, and weapons were seized.
On June 27, two individuals were stabbed in Clapham Common near a kosher bakery during the evening hours (local time). The incident occurred during an illegal street party against COVID-19 restrictions in the area.
In June, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in London recorded unrest and clashes between BLM protesters and opposing far-right groups and the police. More than 100 people were arrested at the June 13 rally on charges of violent disorder, assault of officers, possession of an offensive weapon, and possession of drugs.
Assessments & Forecast
Lockdown measures significantly shifted crime trends, with easing seeing sudden increase and return to previous levels
As knives became the preferred weapon for a variety of criminal activities due to the easy availability and concealment of the weapon, the aforementioned statistics are directly related to the effects of the lockdown. The steady increase in knife crime is likely due to individuals adapting to the ‘new normal’ as lockdown measures are gradually eased, given that previously, the drop in people being outdoors, especially at night, increased the risk for gang members to operate outdoors, immediately being considered suspicious or open to police checks for breaking lockdown. That individuals were allowed outdoors in groups of up to six people and congregate in public spaces such as gardens and other private outdoor spaces from June 1 supports the assessment as it allows for criminals to again operate with reduced suspicion.
The change in rates of thefts and burglaries is directly dependent on the lockdown measures as they tend to be more opportunistic in nature, with individuals spending more time at homes. Given that major decreases in thefts targeting businesses and residences were recorded in April, when London was under a strict lockdown and saw a heightened police presence on the streets, supports the assessments and as curbs on movement are gradually being lifted, instances of burglaries steadily increased, supported by nonessential businesses being permitted to reopen as of June 15.
The May and June increase in racist and religious hate crime was likely influenced by misinformation campaigns by a range of actors, such as foreign states or foreign or domestic far-right groups, promoting xenophobic notions, exacerbating the deepening of political polarization in UK society, which is reflected in the anti-racism protests. Claims that the virus was caused by “foreigners” or that religious groups have not upheld lockdown measures were promulgated among online forums.
That the statistics suggest a decrease in organized crime activity in June is likely directly related to the COVID-19 lockdown measures, which saw inter-gang rivalry shift to online platforms and social media as domestic operations and international trafficking routes were disrupted. However, that regions in the UK are responding to the crisis in differing ways provides rival gangs the opportunity to expand in each other’s area of operations without immediate repercussions, signaling potential turf wars in the medium-term.
Violent, opportunistic crime to be an increased risk going forward due to economic fallout of lockdown
The economic and political impact of the COVID-19 crisis is expected to affect various crime trends into the medium and long term. Given that individuals from low-income neighborhoods are likely to be disproportionately affected by the expected economic downturn, the major risk to individuals in London in the immediate future is likely to come from opportunistic crimes, such as armed mugging and racist attacks, with knives remaining the preferred weapon for attacks.
Fluctuations in rates of thefts and burglaries are expected. In the immediate term, that the police have long regarded summer months in London to record higher instances of thefts, a bolstered security presence in potential target locations or quick response to these incidents is expected. As people return to normal patterns of activity, theft, and burglaries are liable to return to previous norms, with shops with high-cash turnover, residences in wealthy neighborhoods, and high-value businesses such as jewelry stores, banks, and ATMs liable to be primary targets, given the potential for large cash sums or sellable objects, which offer quick access to profits after the recent downturn.
That Lewisham has recorded the highest number of drug trafficking arrests on average in the past two years suggests that individuals in the borough will be at risk as it will likely continue to have a higher presence of gangs than the rest of London. As groups attempt to re-establish their operations and reclaim territories/bases to open up trafficking routes to adapt to changing country restrictions, the possibility of targeted violent confrontations such as shootings that may pose a risk to bystanders cannot be ruled out. That gangs tend to involve youths from poorer socio-economic backgrounds to be couriers and distributors of narcotics suggests that individuals in local distribution areas of Croydon, Lambeth, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, and Westminster are at risk. Overall, possession-related offenses may decrease as gangs adopt certain techniques used during the lockdown to avoid police scrutiny as standard practice.
Given the range of criminal activities in which knives are used, such crimes are likely to quickly return to pre-COVID-19 levels as lockdown continues to be eased, remaining a major challenge to authorities in the long term. Low-income boroughs such as Newham are expected to be a higher risk for such criminal activity, given the direct correlation between unemployment, poverty, and knife crimes. Given police reports on 2019 hotspots and a two-year average, individuals in Brent, Camden, Enfield, Haringey, Hackney, Southwark, and the West End area of Westminster are most at risk of knife crimes targeting passersby.
In light of the current political climate, hate crimes, which are predominantly spontaneous, are likely to persist, with verbal abuse or online messages reported more frequently than physical assaults. Target groups in the near term are expected to be members of the Islamic community, the LGBT community, and individuals of Asian or African extraction. Based on trends observed in the past two years, individuals are more likely to be targeted in Barnet, Camden, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, and Westminster.
Unlikelihood of return to pre-pandemic norms and a possible second-wave indicate further changes in criminal trends
While Westminster’s higher-than-normal crime rates indicate that the borough is the most dangerous in London for residents, the assessments indicated above suggest that the major threat to individuals in Westminster is primarily to tourists in the form of muggings, pickpocketing or racist incidents. This is supported by July typically seeing an increase in such crimes, during the height of tourist season. That said, given the reduction in tourism, criminals may change their targets to locals to retain revenue over the coming months.
In the event that a second wave of COVID-19 occurs, the possibility of another lockdown remains high, impacting criminal trends, with possible spikes or dips in certain activities expected to return. However, latest reports indicate that the government would prefer localized, targeted lockdowns, although London Mayor Sadiq Khan claims such measures would be nearly unenforceable beyond specific buildings or sites.
With the COVID-19 outbreak likely to disrupt multiple sectors into 2021, at which point Brexit will come into full force, while a trade deal with the EU remains unlikely to be in place by January, further disruptions and changes to criminal trends within London and nationwide are possible. Changes to tourism, trade routes, imports and exports, checks at borders, immigration and other factors that are liable to be impacted by Brexit into the long-term will in turn influence the criminal trends mentioned above.
Travel to London may continue while maintaining heightened vigilance of local criminal activity.
Refrain from pedestrian travel during the night hours, particularly in the vicinity of high-value targets such as ATMs or isolated areas that may not be well lit.
If confronted by muggers, it is advised to cooperate fully and not engage in any behavior that could raise tensions and lead to violence.
Foreigners in the city or undertaking travel in the coming months are advised to maintain vigilance due to the potential for abuse incited by anti-foreign sentiments.
Businesses and residents are advised to review existing measures against robbery and theft in light of returning to more regular activities and routines.
Written by Alefiya Rangwala
Edited by Adam Charlton
COVID-19-induced impact on oil, tourism sectors to have wide-ranging economic, social ramifications on GCC countries over coming months – GCC Analysis
The decline in global oil prices and tourism due to ongoing COVID-19-induced travel and business restrictions has led to severe economic challenges for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which heavily depend on these sectors for revenue. This will likely lead to a recession, as per International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections that the GCC economy will contract by 7.1 percent in 2020.
The ongoing repatriation of thousands of expats from the region to their countries of origin as a result of the crisis is likely to have multiple social and economic ramifications, particularly in countries like the UAE and Qatar, where foreign nationals make up almost 90 percent of the total population.
This will lead to labor shortages, increasing the need to expedite the nationalization of the workforce and rapidly train domestic workers, which is unlikely to occur in such a short time span.
Those operating in the GCC states are advised to remain abreast of COVID-19-triggered restrictions and related economic and labor measures that are being undertaken by the respective governments, and to take mitigating actions against potential resultant risks.
Please be advised
In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have adopted various measures, the most prominent of which include:
On March 17, the government announced an economic stimulus package worth 11.4 billion USD to support the country’s private sector.
On April 20, Bahrain announced that the budget of ministries and government departments will be reduced by 30 percent, for an unspecified period, in order to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
According to June 12 reports, the state-owned oil company decided to terminate the contracts of “hundreds of foreign employees”.
On June 15, the government approved a draft law to allocate approximately 470 million USD to the budget of 2020 in order to “deal with emergency expenses required for mitigating COVID-19 impacts and curbing its spread.”
On June 3, Kuwait’s Prime Minister vowed to “resolve the demographic imbalance” by reducing the expat population from 70 to 30 percent.
On June 10, the government announced that expats will no longer be hired in the oil sector.
On March 17, Oman’s Ministry of Finance announced a five percent reduction in the budget allocated to government agencies.
On April 29, Oman ordered public sector companies to accelerate the process of replacing foreign staff with Omani nationals.
According to June 11 reports, Qatar directed ministries and government-funded entities to reduce costs through layoffs or salary cuts of non-Qatari employees.
On July 8, the Qatari cabinet approved a draft law, which stipulates that state-owned private sector companies must strive towards ensuring that their overall workforce is made up of at least 60 percent Qatari nationals.
On April 12, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Plus, which is de-facto led by Saudi Arabia, agreed to reduce production by 9.7 million barrels per day (mbpd) until July, then by 7.7 mbpd from August-December, and then by 5.5 mbpd until April 2022. The group also called upon “all major producers to contribute to the efforts aimed at stabilizing the market”.
On April 15, the Saudi government allocated 13.3 billion USD to support the private sector.
On May 11, Saudi Arabia announced budgetary cuts totaling eight billion USD to “Vision 2030”-related programs and increased the value-added tax (VAT) on goods and services from five to 15 percent for an unspecified period.
On July 5, the UAE announced a broad government restructuring for “agile and swift” decision-making amid the pandemic. This includes the merging of energy and infrastructure ministries as well as abolishing several government service centers and converting them to digital platforms within two years.
The UAE has announced a phased stimulus package for businesses, totaling approximately 1.7 billion USD, the most recent part of which was announced on July 11. This has included postponement of rent payments, customs reimbursements, and refunds of 50 percent on municipality fees on sales for hotels and restaurants.
There are several common features that characterize the six GCC economies, namely, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman. These include high dependency on hydrocarbon revenue, a young and rapidly growing national labor force, and high reliance on the expat workforce. Together, they account for approximately one-fifth of the world’s crude oil production and possess approximately two trillion USD worth of financial wealth.
However, there is a wide variation in resource endowments across these states, which, in turn, poses unique risks and challenges for these economies. For instance, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE have substantial energy reserves, with relatively small populations, as compared to Saudi Arabia, which has the largest reserves of oil but is spread across a much larger territory and population. Bahrain and Oman, with oil and gas reserves that are relatively limited, are more vulnerable to economic deficiencies when compared to the other GCC states. While plans to diversify their energy-based economies have been in place across the Gulf states in varied scale since the 1970s, the drop in oil prices since 2014 has brought forward the urgency of economic diversification in GCC states.
COVID-19-related restrictions on travel and business operations have had an overall adverse impact on the global economy. The economic ramifications of these restrictions have been severely witnessed in GCC states amid a decrease in the global demand for oil, approximated at 18 percent since the start of 2020. This has led to a steep decline of more than 70 percent in the price of oil, the lowest in over 20 years. According to an IMF report on July 13, oil revenues are now projected to decline by more than 270 billion USD in 2020, relative to 2019.
Assessments & Forecast
COVID-19-related restrictions on business, travel pose significant economic challenges to Gulf countries
Challenges posed by steep decline in oil prices
The hydrocarbon sector, namely oil, petroleum, and gas, as well as their derivatives, contribute significantly to the GDP and government revenue of GCC countries. In the case of states such as Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, the GDP derived from the oil and gas sector accounts for almost 50 percent of their total GDP. At the onset of the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, an initial catalyst that contributed to the plummeting of oil prices in the February and March was the failure of Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the world’s largest major oil producers, to reach a consensus to slash oil production, which led to a price war between the two countries. Thereafter, Riyadh propelled its output to an unprecedented 12 million mbpd in early April in a bid to defend its share in a shrinking market. On April 12, the OPEC Plus reached a deal to slash production by 9.7 mbpd until the end of July, which underscores joint efforts to rebalance the demand and supply in the market. Despite this, oil prices have fluctuated over recent months, largely due to oscillations in global uncertainty amid the spread of the pandemic. FORECAST: While it is likely that the expected easing of restrictions on travel and businesses will boost demand for crude oil over the coming months, the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, and potential for additional waves of infection, threatens to derail this recovery.
The decline in oil prices of more than 70 percent over recent months has led to increased financial constraints for all GCC states. This has compelled authorities to slash public spending while simultaneously redirecting funds to help citizens and the private sector cope with the significant financial challenges resulting from the virus. This has been particularly evidenced by reductions in the state budget for 2020 in Bahrain and Oman, as well as the allocation of millions of USD by Saudi Arabia and UAE to boost liquidity in the economy.
FORECAST: Overall, given that government spending is a key driver for economic growth, and is mostly derived from the energy sector, the recent cuts in capital and current spending will likely lead to an economic recession in at least some of the GCC states. This is bolstered by the IMF’s prediction, as of July 13, that the GCC economy is expected to shrink by 7.1 percent this year, both in the oil and non-oil sectors. The fact that this is a revision of the 2.7 percent predicted contraction in April, indicates the overall downward economic trend that is likely to be experienced by all six countries over the coming year, albeit in varying degrees. Most notably, the largest GCC economy, Saudi Arabia, is predicted to shrink by 6.8 percent, per June 24 reports quoting the IMF, compared to a 2.3 percent contraction that was predicted in April.
Meanwhile, GCC countries have long sought to diversify their hydrocarbon export-driven economies in order to decrease the vulnerability of their revenues. To this effect, all of the GCC countries have set out ambitious targets and strategic visions that are also designed to appeal to global investors. These include Bahrain’s Vision 2030, Kuwait’s New Vision 2035, Oman’s Vision 2040, Qatar’s National Vision 2030, Saudi’s Vision 2030, and UAE’s Vision 2021. However, given that commitment to these reforms have been inconsistent over the past years, most governments continue to rely on oil revenues. FORECAST: In this context, the slump in oil prices, as well as the overall depreciation of government revenue over the recent months indicates that investments in non-essential projects, such as in the sectors of infrastructure and real estate, will likely be postponed, which will further prolong the countries’ efforts to diversify their sources of income.
Challenges posed by decline in tourism, hospitality industry
Most GCC states have made significant efforts to transform to a hub for tourism and hospitality over recent years, constituting a major economic driver in terms of these countries’ economic diversification strategies. To this effect, GCC states have laid out long-term plans for airport expansions to increase the handling capacity of projected visitor inflow, further supported by the relaxation of visa rules to further boost tourist arrivals. Moreover, the hosting of mega-events, such as the Expo 2020 in Dubai and the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, were expected to grow the GCC’s leisure and hospitality construction sector expenditure from 467 billion USD in 2019 to 642.3 billion in 2023, implying a five-year compound annual growth of 8.6 percent, compared to the 5.7 percent achieved in 2013-18.
FORECAST: In this context, the effect of COVID-19-induced restrictions on travel between countries will have a significant economic impact on the GCC countries. For example, according to reports, the forecasted revenue loss for the UAE airline industry alone is projected at 5.3 billion USD, due to the drop in approximately 23.8 million passengers. Additionally, the postponement of highly anticipated events will exacerbate these losses. For instance, the Expo 2020 in Dubai, which was originally scheduled to take place in October 2020-April 2021 and was expected to contribute approximately 30 billion USD to the economy, will add to the decline in predicted revenues. Saudi Arabia will likely face similar challenges, given that authorities have banned pilgrims from other countries from traveling for the Hajj pilgrimage, which is slated to begin on July 28. This is particularly given that Hajj, which witnesses the arrival of almost 2.5 million pilgrims every year, generates an annual revenue of approximately 12 billion USD.
Measures adopted to mitigate economic challenges likely to increase socio-economic grievances, labor shortages
The “rentier state” model in the Gulf region has been long associated with the overall lack of taxation due to the abundance of allocated resources, wherein the state offers its citizens goods and services in return for substantial autonomy in decision-making, which is often characterized by a reduction in political engagement. However, economic conditions that have persisted across recent years, particularly in the wake of declining oil prices since 2014 and increased budget deficits in 2015-16, indicate that this pattern of governance is no longer feasible, especially as prolonged low oil prices could worsen the fiscal situation. Along with increased borrowing through the issuing of local and international bonds, in 2016, all GCC states signed an unprecedented framework for the introduction of Value Added Tax (VAT), known as the Common VAT Agreement. While the measure came into effect in the UAE and Saudi Arabia on January 1, 2018, and in Bahrain on January 1, 2019, other countries have stated that they needed more time to implement the reform. In the former states, a five percent levy has been imposed on several designated essential products and services including gasoline and diesel, food, clothes, utility bills, and hotel rooms, with the exception of public transport, medical treatment, and financial services. Similarly, a 50-100 percent “sin tax” has been imposed on certain products, including soft drinks and tobacco, in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. In this context, Saudi Arabia’s tripling of VAT from five to 15 percent on May 11 highlights the Kingdom’s efforts to accelerate revenue generation through the collection of taxes.
FORECAST: These measures, combined with the cutting of the cost of living allowance for state workers that has been in place since 2018, will likely increase socio-economic grievances among the local population due to the increase in the cost of living. While Riyadh’s move was expected to cause a ripple effect across the region, the UAE’s Ministry of Finance indicated on May 12 that the country did not have immediate plans to raise taxes. Oman and Kuwait are expected to introduce VAT systems by 2021. However, given the possibility of protracted economic effects of COVID-19, there remains a potential for the introduction of tax reforms and other austerity measures by the remaining GCC states over the coming months.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many sectors across the GCC to shore up spending through layoffs and employee salary cuts. In this context, given that a high percentage of the population of most GCC states’ workforce consists of expats, it is this community that is liable to be most impacted by the economic downturn. While several governments have implemented policies that seek to prioritize employment for local citizens at the expense of foreign workers over the recent years, since the outbreak of the health pandemic, an acceleration of these measures has been witnessed in countries such as Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait.
This is evident by Oman’s April 29 decision to replace expats with Omani nationals in its public sector, as well as Qatar’s June 11 directive to all state-owned entities to curb spending through layoffs and salary cuts of expats, rather than Qataris. Meanwhile, Kuwait has explicitly stated its objective to reduce the expat population from the current 70 percent to 30 percent, although no timeframe was attached to this objective. This is part of an effort to address the demographic imbalance in the country, as indicated by the Kuwaiti PM’s statement on June 3. Kuwait has further passed measures such as a ban on the hiring of expats in the country’s oil and municipality sectors. Furthermore, several lawmakers have also tabled a bill in the parliament to introduce a quota system, wherein the percentage of expat population from different countries will be capped at certain ceilings.
To some extent, the sense of urgency in passing such expat-focused legislation has also been triggered by the growing perception that the spread of the virus in some of the GCC countries has been caused by foreigners, particularly by blue-collar workers that make up a high percentage of the countries’ migrant population. This is primarily due to the fact that a majority of such workers live in low-cost, overcrowded labor camps, a number of which had emerged as hotspots for the spread of the virus, as in the case of Doha’s Industrial Area. This may have increased resentment among parts of the local citizenry towards the migrant population, due to the pressure placed on the country’s resources and infrastructure amid the current health crisis.
That said, such policies and sentiments vis-a-vis the expat population do not resonate uniformly across all GCC states. For instance, per June 11 reports, UAE’s Minister for Infrastructure Development stated that the “UAE is a place where expats are well-skilled and we definitely need them. The pandemic is not going to be here for a long time…then we would regret that we got rid of our skilled workforce, whether it is nationals or expats. We would like to keep them”. This indicates the country’s recognition that the expat population, especially skilled migrants that constitute a majority of the middle class in the UAE, are vital for economic growth and development. This is further evidenced by the fact that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have not passed any major legislation over the recent months that seeks to specifically slash the expat population by denying them employment. FORECAST: Regardless of the absence of long-term policies to “address the demographic imbalance”, as in the case of Kuwait, the large departure of the migrant population, some of whom who are being repatriated to their home countries from the Gulf amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is liable to have several far-reaching social consequences. This will be explored in the next section.
Social, economic implications of economic slump, expat-focused measures over coming months
Domestic impact on economy, potential for labor shortage
FORECAST: The sudden exit of the migrant worker population will significantly alter the demographics, especially in countries like the UAE and Qatar, where foreign residents comprise approximately 90 percent of the population. In the UAE alone, more than 350,000 Indian nationals, and over 60,000 Pakistani nationals, have registered to be repatriated, as of the time of writing. Similarly, over 25,000 Indians have reportedly registered for repatriation due to job losses in Saudi, while 10,000 such nationals have already departed from Qatar. Moreover, countries like Kuwait also announced amnesty schemes for the evacuation of workers of all nationalities, which has reportedly benefitted over 45,000 Indians and other nationals. This will therefore have substantial economic and social implications over the coming months and years, which is expected to be larger than those witnessed during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
FORECAST: The uprooting of middle-class residents and their families is liable to negatively impact the domestic economy, as sectors that relied on these customers such as restaurants, schools, clinics, and the retail sector, will suffer major losses. Without government support, these services will be forced to lay off more people, which may trigger a deflationary impact and likely lead to a secondary wave of migrant exodus. The exit of low-income earners, such as domestic assistance, will also lead to social implications, as this may force a change in the overall lifestyles of locals. In the UAE, it is suggested that 96 percent of Emirati families employ domestic help to raise their children, highlighting the dependence of the local population on expat workers.
FORECAST: The utility of expats as consumers and sources of revenue in the form of taxes and fees, including VAT on goods and services, road tolls, and visa renewal fees will decrease. For example, in 2018, the UAE collected approximately seven billion USD in VAT collection, which accounted for almost 1.7 percent of the country’s nominal GDP that year. Similarly, Saudi Arabia collected almost 9.3 billion USD in the form of VAT in 2018. Saudi was also expected to raise 17.3 billion USD in 2020 in the form of expat visa renewal fees, as well as the charges that are to be paid by companies for every foreign worker they hire. Therefore, this will contribute to a further reduction in government revenue.
FORECAST: A labor shortage will likely be experienced in the market over the coming months due to the departure of expat personnel, both high-earning professionals and low-income workers. This will likely be most acutely felt when the economy and oil prices rebound and stabilize to a relative degree, which will, in turn, facilitate the resumption of several infrastructural and development projects that have been currently postponed. The implementation of these projects will be hindered by the labor shortage. This is given that ambitious development plans adopted by the GCC states have largely led to an extensive, unregulated import of both skilled and unskilled labor. Moreover, the financial ability of these countries to purchase technology and knowledge also meant that professional development has not always been a top priority. This has led to a disconnect between rewards offered to nationals in the form of lucrative jobs in the public sector, unemployment and other benefits, and their level of merit and competency.
FORECAST: Therefore, GCC governments will likely face significant challenges in developing the skill sets of its national workforce to fill the gaps within the labor market over the short term. Authorities will be forced to provide substantial incentives for citizens in order to attract them towards the private sector at a time of diminishing resources, as employment in the public sector for most countries has either been or are approaching saturation. In the absence of such incentives, there also remains a possibility for protests in demand of better employment and economic opportunities. However, in many states, the overall lack of large civil society organizations and protest groups as well as a broader absence of a protest culture will render it difficult for a potential anti-government movement to mobilize.
FORECAST: Overall, COVID-19-triggered restrictions and resulting losses in revenue in both the private and public sectors have, and will likely continue to lead to, job layoffs and salary cuts across the region. For short-term delay, most GCC governments have announced emergency economic stimulus packages. These have included the expansion of government loans provided to businesses, direct cash transfers as partial payment of salaries, as well as deferments on rent and utility payments to help citizens and residents cope with the economic impact of the pandemic. Additionally, governments have been forced to utilize resources on protective measures and health infrastructure to mitigate the spread of the pandemic, bolstered by the free testing and treatment of the virus in several countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These costs are liable to increase in the event of further waves of infection. However, over the coming years, restrictions will gradually be eased in order to restore economic activity. Given the already diminished government revenue as well as the pressure to curb state expenditure and bolster public finances, states will be compelled to mitigate economic challenges by increasing taxes and training the local workforce. However, as noted, this will have a profound impact on the economic structure, social dynamics, and functionality of these societies.
Travel and operations can continue in GCC states while remaining abreast of COVID-19-related restrictions and procedures, as well as of social and economic developments due to changes to the workforce and reductions in state revenue.
It is therefore advised to take necessary measures to mitigate the potential adverse effect of these developments to ensure business continuity, while allotting for potential disruptions and service failures in these countries.
Furthermore, it is advised to maintain vigilance due to the heightened risk of anti-foreign sentiment in the GCC states on account of the perception among some parts of the local populace that expats are a burden on their resources.
Democratic transition stalls, military influence increases as COVID-19 pandemic threatens revolutionary gains – Sudan Special Report
Following the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the democratic transition in Sudan has largely stalled due to myriad factors, leading to a precarious security, economic, and political situation.
The government negotiations with armed groups remain fractious, with the rebel groups bound together in unwieldy alliances that undercut any progress made in talks. This tension is best exemplified by the fragmentation of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) coalition and tensions between factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North.
Further exacerbating the situation is friction between groups within the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC), with composite groups disagreeing on the state of relations with the military. This situation is further complicated by the inability of civilian opposition to protest given restrictions imposed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the volatile political climate is aggravated by the crippled Sudanese economy. While PM Abdallah Hamdok has attempted to get foreign investment, these efforts are stifled by Khartoum’s presence on the US ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list, which disallows aid and funding from international financial institutions.
Ultimately, the precarious political and economic situation will suppress the influence of the civilian wing of the government, allowing the military, which retains cash reserves and revenue through various state-owned companies, to increase their political influence.
Travel to Khartoum may continue while adhering to standard security protocols regarding criminal activity, while remaining cognizant of authorities’ instructions regarding restrictions, quarantines, and health procedures due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
A little more than a year after the toppling of President Omar al-Bashir on April 11, 2019 through military intervention spurred by months of massive nonviolent protests nationwide, the stability of Sudan remains precarious. Despite the appointment of the widely-respected Abdallah Hamdok as PM and the signing of a power-sharing deal, the transitional government of the military and the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC) revolutionary council of groups remains fragile. This fragility remains despite the signing of a constitutional declaration on August 4, 2019, which laid out the transitional agenda, including the new institutional arrangements for sustained peace. This agenda also included securing a peace deal with armed groups within the first six months of the transitional period.
This process has stalled, even as it is being implemented in the form of peace talks brokered by South Sudan in Juba starting in October 2019. The peace talks were set up as a platform to create a truce between myriad armed groups in the outlying areas of Sudan in return for the safe participation of rebel leaders in the national political process in Khartoum. However, these talks have become the main forum for political negotiations between the government and the rebel groups, upstaging and undermining the role of institutional transition, which remains an unfulfilled promise as envisioned by the constitutional declaration. The efforts of the government to bring the disparate armed groups into mainstream Sudanese polity is further undermined by the internal fragility of the armed groups and the myriad objectives of the groups engaged in discussions.
Key Actors & Groups
Sovereign Council: The Sovereign Council is the collective body that rules as the head of state. It consists of five civilians chosen by the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC), five military representatives, and one civilian chosen by common consent.
Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC): The DFC is a political coalition of civilian and rebel groups. The DFC consists of members such as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), unionist groups, and armed groups such as the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF).
Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA): The SPA is an umbrella organization consisting of 17 different trade unions. The group played an integral role in the mass protests that led to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF): The SRF is an alliance of armed groups from across the country that was formed in 2011 in opposition to al-Bashir. Following the overthrow of Bashir, the SRF has engaged in negotiations with Khartoum over positions in the transitional government.
Negotiations between the Sudanese government led by PM Abdallah Hamdok and the SRF that were supposed to conclude on June 20 with a final peace deal were reportedly extended again.
The breakdown between the government and SRF continued to be on matters of security arrangements, the system of governance, and the wealth and power distribution within the transitional government.
Assessments & Forecast
Eventual fragmentation of SRF likely to open new fronts of negotiations
The stagnation of the peace process is best exemplified by the talks between the government and the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), a coalition of nine Darfuri groups that have long been at odds with the government under former President al-Bashir. While the government negotiators and SRF leaders have managed to sign provisional agreements over resource sharing in Darfur and the cessation of hostilities by either the government security forces or the armed group, a comprehensive peace agreement remains elusive. The government has made some transitional justice in Darfur a priority and has actively worked to earn the confidence of the populace in Darfur. Steps such as PM Hamdok visiting Darfur in November 2019 and the continued prosecution of al-Bashir for both corruption and atrocities committed in Darfur have been hailed as much needed in building trust between Khartoum and the outlying areas of Sudan. Furthermore, the government has also sought to placate and empower the SRF by allotting four seats on the powerful Sovereign Council to the group.
These developments are threatened by factionalism within the SRF, as various previously antagonistic groups attempt to garner as much influence with the negotiations as possible, while also aiming to consolidate power within the SRF. This was illustrated by the withdrawal of the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) from the SRF on May 18 after consistently being rebuffed in its requests for reforms in the SRF structure that is currently headed by Hadi Idriss of the Sudan Liberation Movement – Transitional Council (SLM-TC). The SLM-MM, whose leader Minni Minnawi was the SRF deputy leader, has consistently criticized the organization of the SRF, while other groups such as the SLM-TC stress the need for progressing in the peace talks with the government and dealing with internal structural issues at a later date.
By withdrawing from the SRF, the SLM-MM is demonstrating its lack of faith in the ability of the group to negotiate with the government on even terms, given the structural instability within the SRF. However, that the SLM-MM has established its own SRF wing, which includes the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM-Dabajo) led by Bakheet Abdelkarim, is illustrative of the SLM-MM aiming to upstage the original SRF movement led by the SLM-TC. FORECAST: The breakaway faction is likely to pressure the government to negotiate with its constituents in the coming weeks and claiming that the new group is more internally stable than the original SRF organization given that it has fewer members.
FORECAST: To that end, the breakaway SRF will claim that any agreements made between Khartoum and the SLM-MM led faction would stand a better chance at actually being implemented. Additionally, the SLM-MM is likely to talk to other rebel groups within the original SRF to get them to secede and join the new faction, thereby escalating tensions between the already antagonistic groups. That said, the smaller size of the new SRF faction means that the government will likely continue negotiations with both groups simultaneously. The government will likely negotiate with both groups as a leveraging tactic and as a strategy to allow for more maneuvering space. This is likely given the entrenched distrust between both groups, and thereby the government will use this animosity to push for quicker resolutions in negotiations. However, given the wide variety of issues that need to be resolved, it remains unclear if such a strategy will succeed.
Progress with SPLM-N factions remains limited, with distrust between the groups remaining persistent
Meanwhile, the government has made some progress with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N) faction led by Malik Agar in terms of integrating the group into the political mainstream. On May 2, the government and the SPLM-N Agar agreed to reintegrate rebel fighters into the Sudanese military, police, security and intelligence, wildlife, customs, and civil defense. The government also granted the SPLM-N Agar areas to establish military camps in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. However, these developments have provoked protests from the rivaling SPLM-N al-Hilu faction, which accused the government of favoring the SPLM-N Agar and stated that the land allotted to established military camps was untenable, given that the Agar faction has a presence in Blue Nile, but does not control any land in South Kordofan or the Nuba Mountains, which remain an al-Hilu stronghold.
In this context, talks between the government and the SPLM-N al-Hilu faction remain volatile, given the group’s initial decision to refuse to negotiate until the government agrees to secularization and self-determination for the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions. However, given that SPLM-N al Hilu faction then agreed to restart negotiations with the government, excluding the points of secularization and self-determination, is indicative of al-Hilu’s cognizance that any government agreement with the Agar faction could lead to Khartoum favoring the rival group.
Ultimately, the renewal of talks with the SPLM-N al Hilu suggests progress, given the group remains one of the major armed factions in Sudan and controls a significant portion of territory. However, the decision of the SPLM-N al-Hilu to resume talks has likely not been made in good faith, given that the group only agreed to discuss issues that preclude the topics of secularization and self-determination. These issues are particularly important to them as a major segment of the population under their control is Christian and Animist, unlike the majority of Sudan. These groups perceive that, without concessions on these issues, they remain vulnerable to attack by Islamist government forces, as was seen by an attack by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in October 2019, which led to a suspension of the talks. In this context, it is likely that the group is only resuming talks to prevent the government from overly favoring the Agar faction. FORECAST: Given these conditions, it is possible that the government may agree to small concessions to the group, however, a larger peace deal will likely remain out of reach as the government contends with various Islamist groups and factions and their interests.
Factionalism within the DFC likely to further help the military undermine transitional efforts
Following the ouster of al-Bashir, factionalism within the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC) has increased over the past year. This is in contrast to the disparate groups within the political opposition working together with the common purpose of the revolution and preventing the military establishment from gaining total control in the aftermath. However, transitional efforts have been slow and patience among the civilian opposition has waned, with groups such as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which was a major driving force of the revolution, perceiving that the transitional government has been slow to install civilians into positions of power.
This tension is best exemplified by PM Hamdok’s decision on April 18 to postpone the appointment of state governors, allegedly due to the fact that the PM was still holding consultations with the leaders of the SRF. The delays were exacerbated by the SRF insisting that they should have input on how governors are chosen, despite the fact that the group has not signed a comprehensive peace deal with the government. This stance agitated members of the DFC, who agreed that the democratic transition needed to be inclusive of those in the periphery, especially Darfur, but perceived the SRF to be stalling for time in their negotiations with the government. The DFC raised this as a concern that the military wing of the government would use the delays to further entrench themselves in positions of power. FORECAST: In this context, the military will likely use their influence with the current military-appointed state governors to disrupt any attempts to democratize state institutions. This deadlock has led to violent protests in many parts of Sudan, which has, in turn, led to military leaders cracking down on the demonstrations, as they claim these instances of civil unrest to be a threat to national security.
Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the DFC in pressuring the government to hasten the democratization process is undermined by divisions within the political coalition. This can be seen with the divergent approaches of the SPA and the National Ummah Party (NUP) led by former PM Sadiq al-Mahdi. The NUP has consistently aimed to undermine the DFC, despite being part of the coalition, likely in an attempt to gain favor with the military leaders. Even during the process of the negotiations for the constitutional agreement, al-Mahdi publicly stated his acceptance of the military leadership in the country, as opposed to a power-sharing agreement. Most recently, the NUP froze all its activities in the DFC, criticizing what it perceived to be excessive demands by the armed groups during negotiations with the transitional government.
In contrast, the SPA remains highly suspicious of the military and consistently voices its disagreement on occasions where it perceives that the civilian government under PM Hamdok is ceding too much control to the military generals. The SPA has sought to preserve its influence nationwide by keeping neighborhood resistance committees active and occasionally holding protests to pressure the government into adhering to its schedule of democratization, though this approach has been disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions. The SPA has also taken divergent stances in terms of dealing with armed rebel groups, exemplified by the SPA’s support for the SPLM-N al-Hilu demand for a secular state and self-governance of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State. This position is at odds with the DFC position, which has tended to downplay the SPLM-N al-Hilu’s demands, likely perceiving that any acquiescence to secular demands could lead to a loss of support to the government from the various Islamist groups present within the DFC.
FORECAST: The NUP will likely continue to issue statements criticizing the DFC and the government while positioning itself close to the military establishment. Al-Mahdi likely perceives that any possible eventual failure of the transitional government and subsequent increase in military control would allow the former PM to be positioned to be the civilian face of the military-dominated government. However, given that the generals are unlikely to be willing to divest much influence to even nominal supporters such as al-Mahdi, the NUP’s impact in national politics is likely to remain one of complication, rather than of any real influence. More broadly, the military generals are likely to portray the NUP’s support, and the SPA’s public divergences in policy choices, as proof of the DFC’s disorganized nature as a threat to national security, further putting pressure on the government to cede influence to the military.
Fallout from COVID-19 pandemic likely to further cripple government standing, strengthen military control
Sudan recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 13, with the majority of cases being reported in Khartoum. However, the disease has expanded its reach exponentially, with the number of cases now doubling approximately every 13 days. The authorities remain ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic with contact tracing procedures remaining relatively non-existent. In this context, the medical infrastructure already incapacitated by decades of authoritarian rule under Omar al-Bashir has all but collapsed. The nationwide lockdown prevented doctors from going to work, with some professionals self-isolating due to the severe lack of protective equipment. The resulting staff shortages have led to many hospitals shutting down, with existing doctors noting that the burgeoning infection and mortality rates are likely being caused by the breakdown in healthcare services. While the government has implemented strict curfews and implored the citizenry to follow social distancing protocols, the low public knowledge of the disease has led to many of these instructions being ignored.
That said, while the military has precluded the treatment of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals, military leaders have used the pandemic to jostle for more influence while improving their image among the public. This is best exemplified by the fact that the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohammed Hamdan “Hemetti”, took advantage of the cracks within the DFC to rise to head the Emergency Economic Committee, a powerful ad hoc panel which decides matters of national importance such as economic reforms and the national response to COVID-19. Hemetti further attempted to burnish his image by pledging to deposit 200 million USD of his own money into the Central Bank to tackle the economic and COVID crisis.
Amid this play for power by Hemetti, he remains cognizant of his negative reputation among the population and international community given the RSF’s violent repression in Darfur during the al-Bashir era. Given this wariness, Hemetti has sought to allow PM Hamdok deputy positions in government committees, including the Emergency Economic Committee. The PM has not been the driving force for the democratic transition, instead seeking consensus from a fractured DFC, the military establishment, or in many cases both parties. However, such consensus has been difficult to achieve, given the parties involved are at odds with each other. Hamdok has also lost trust within the DFC after he rejected the nomination of DFC figures as state governors. The DFC perceives the PM as being too willing to acquiesce to the demands of the military establishment, with this perception being further bolstered by Hamdok’s statement that he viewed his relationship with the generals as a “partnership which is working,” despite the PM’s power being gradually stripped away.
Exacerbating the situation is the continued downward spiral of the Sudanese economy, with PM Hamdok’s attempts to liberalize the economy being disrupted by the DFC, who have consistently sought to block the implementation of policies that would allow for investment from the “Friends of Sudan” group of foreign donors, which includes the USA, France, Germany, Britain, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt. One of the major demands of foreign investors is the removal of a crippling system of subsidies on fuel and wheat. While the removal of subsidies is a way to halt the repeated monetized deficits and currency collapses in the medium term, it will likely lead to a further rise in prices of these essential goods in the short term, which greatly affects members of the DFC, of which unions play an important part. Furthermore, inflation continues to near 100 percent, with experts estimating that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause the economy to contract by seven percent. On the street, there remains considerable discontent over the inability of the government to control the rising prices of goods and services.
Since taking office in 2018, PM Hamdok has sought to solve Sudan’s economic woes by attempting to garner financial support and pledges of aid from various Western governments, most notably the US. In December 2019, Hamdok arrived in Washington, DC, becoming the first Sudanese leader to officially visit the country since 1985 as a result of President al-Bashir’s decision in the 1990s to provide havens for various jihadist leaders such as Osama bin Laden. These policies led Sudan to be placed onto the US ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list. While on this list, the US government is mandated to veto any debt relief for Sudan from international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
While being on the ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list does not place Sudan under formal sanctions, the designation acts as a deterrent to foreign investment and debt relief efforts. Khartoum has gone to significant lengths to prove its commitment to reform, including agreeing to pay damages for its role in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. While the exact amount of damages has not been made public, the depressed state of the Sudanese economy will make it hard for any damages to be paid, which may further delay any US assistance.
FORECAST: Furthermore, given that US President Donald Trump has decided against fast-tracking Sudan’s removal from the list, this means that the case will likely be caught between the various committees of the State Department, national security agencies, and the US Congress. Ultimately, while the government is likely to continue pleading with the US to take Sudan off the list, Khartoum will likely remain low on the list of priorities for Washington, thereby further delaying any prospect of economic recovery through international investment.
In this context, while the government has traditionally been unable to borrow money from international donors and institutions, Khartoum has received relatively regular aid from China and the Gulf states. The Arab governments, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, have generally been significant donors, though much of this aid has been directed toward the military generals with an aim to control the levers of power within government and aid the Gulf states in their strategic aims. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to historically low oil prices, denting the economies of the Gulf countries, leading to pay freezes and layoffs. Another source of foreign exchange that has been affected by the pandemic layoffs is the remittances sent home by Sudanese workers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as both countries have implemented the prioritization of nationals in the workforce. Recent estimates are that remittances are expected to drop by approximately 20 percent given the layoffs, meaning that this money, which is often the sole source of income for families in Sudan, will diminish, thereby heightening insecurity and strife among the populace.
FORECAST: The government and PM Hamdok will continue to seek international assistance and investment, mainly garnered through donor conferences such as the ‘Friends of Sudan’ conference slated to be held in Berlin in June 2021. However, given that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a global economic downturn, with many of the wealthy foreign nations facing slowing growth or recessions, it remains highly uncertain whether these countries will be willing to pledge the large sums of money required to resuscitate the Sudanese economy. In this context, the military establishment will use its control of state-owned companies to keep patronage networks functioning, thereby further undermining the government.
FORECAST: In this context, the shortage of funds for the government is likely to further bolster the standing of the military. The military is unlikely to be affected by a lack of funds as it owns approximately 100 state-run companies, including establishments that sell lucrative commodities such as gold, gum arabic, oil, water, and weaponry. The military also has deep connections with the banks, telecommunications, and real estate, which means that the generals will likely remain liquid financially, money which they can lend to the government or use to gain control of government committees such as the Emergency Economic Committee. While the government has approved a plan to liquidate and privatize many government companies that do not pay taxes and are connected to the military elites, it remains to be seen how well this plan can be implemented. Given that many of the business elites in Sudan are allied to the military leaders, this means that any bidding process for these companies will also likely be compromised. Given these conditions, the government will likely struggle to raise funds for essential services. These entrenched issues mean that the political transition in Sudan will remain highly volatile in the coming months.
Travel to Khartoum may continue while adhering to standard security protocols regarding criminal activity, while remaining cognizant of authorities’ instructions regarding restrictions, quarantines, and health procedures due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Immediately consult a doctor if you are concerned that you have potentially contracted the disease. Only procedure medication and medical advice from vetted professional institutions and remain cognizant of any fake or counterfeit medication.
Those operating or residing in Khartoum, as well as other urban centers across Sudan, are advised to avoid the vicinity of all gatherings and protests given the associated risks of violence.
We advise against all travel to the Darfur region as well as South Kordofan and Blue Nile states given the volatile security situation.
For any further questions or consultation, please contact us at [email protected] or +44 203 540 0434.
Global Forecast – COVID 19
This report was released on April 1 and all information is updated as of that date.
At the start of April, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached nearly every country and territory, exceeding 870,000 cases worldwide and more than 43,000 deaths. Many countries have enacted travel bans, border closures, and lockdown restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the virus as it grows exponentially.
While this is foremost a health and humanitarian crisis, the pandemic and global response has a cascading effect on economic and political stability, creating a range of security risks. These include civil unrest, anti-foreigner violence, opportunistic and financially motivated crime, and cyber attacks, among others. Many of these risks are exacerbated by the proliferation of misinformation and fake news. The slowdown of the global economy and the disruptions to supply chains and movement of goods is expected to have long-lasting ramifications that will prolong many of these challenges.
These challenges will vary by region and country and will require prompt and tailored action in order to mitigate the risks to safety and business continuity in the weeks and months ahead.
In the immediate term, a decline in large-scale protests and mass movements is expected amid the proliferation of COVID-19 cases globally.
Smaller, localized protests are liable to develop due to shortages of essential goods or unpopular government measures, with the risk of low-level clashes with police.
Anti-foreigner sentiment, particularly targeting individuals of East Asian extraction, raises the risk of violent or verbally abusive confrontations. Individuals from countries with major outbreaks also stand to be targeted.
Fake news and hoaxes circulated online could serve as triggers for unrest.
Impact on protest movements
A significant global outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming weeks and months will be the overall decline in mass protest movements. This is due to the restrictions imposed by governments on gatherings and efforts by the local population to implement social distancing. Global activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, for instance, have canceled all upcoming protest events in light of these concerns.
Recent prominent anti-state protest movements in particular have been significantly hit. For instance, students who have been at the forefront of the year-long anti-government protest movement in Algeria voluntarily canceled all nationwide demonstrations following the outbreak of coronavirus, even before the government issued a ban on demonstrations on March 18, while intermittent unrest in Sudan has continued, with protesters accusing the authorities of taking advantage of the pandemic to suppress the movement. Furthermore, since the outbreak of the virus, ongoing large-scale anti-government protest movements in Lebanon, and Iraq have lost momentum, while smaller protests over more localized issues have been in decline in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and Turkey.
In India, demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), which saw millions of protesters in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Pune since December 2019, will largely diminish over the coming weeks, following the nationwide lockdown that went into effect on March 25 for 21 days. That said, anti-government sentiment is liable to simmer even after the COVID-19 crisis abates. Protests against the legislation, along with other related concerns, may pick back up in some form, however, turnout is unlikely to return to its pre-pandemic numbers.
In Europe, Yellow Vests and pension protests in France that were previously well-attended and witnessed violent unrest on a weekly basis are no longer taking place on that same magnitude amid the pandemic. While Yellow Vests protests still occur, attendance and violent unrest has reduced significantly given that France is one of the countries hit hardest by COVID-19 and their strict mobility restrictions in response.
Clashes, riots, and unrest between authorities and migrants that were widely recorded on the borders of Greece have diminished significantly, yet, are still taking place as of writing. Given that neither Turkey nor Greece has claimed responsibility for the migrants on the border, these individuals remain in place and continue to protest. Violent unrest was recorded in Cyprus as well, as dozens of protesters attempted to break through barricades in an attempt to keep people from entering the country.
Response to state measures
Discontent over quarantine measures could manifest in violent incidents. To illustrate, Chadian students who recently returned from Cameroon demonstrated to denounce the conditions of their quarantine. The protest was met with a strong-handed security response involving the use of tear gas. Similarly, when citizens were repatriated to Ukraine, violent unrest was recorded outside clinics and hospitals by concerned locals afraid of contracting the virus. Individuals burned tires outside medical facilities and threw items at buses carrying repatriated citizens. These sentiments have since subsided, as repatriation of citizens has become largely routine regionwide. Quarantine and medical facilities will continue to be the focal point of localized unrest, as witnessed thus far in the New Territories in Hong Kong as well as in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Thailand.
A prominent factor that may influence such pushback will include the manner in which such measures are implemented. The issue of alleged police excesses during the implementation of lockdowns will arise, particularly in countries with a precedent of poor law enforcement. In India, for instance, the deaths of at least two individuals due to alleged police action is liable to sustain the latent risk of mob violence targeting police patrols in certain areas. Kenyan and Ivorian police have reportedly been engaging in acts of “extreme violence” to enforce the curfew instituted by the government. Their actions have been strongly denounced by civil organizations and may result in protests which carry a high potential of snowballing into larger unrest when the security forces respond to the unauthorized gathering.
Conversely, political leaders and government are also liable to face criticism for perceived suboptimal approaches to the crisis. For example, citizens protested in Colombia after President Ivan Duque decided to remove emergency measures taken by mayors and governors. These protests were conducted from home, with individuals banging pots and pans together to protest Duque’s response. Similar instances are liable to occur in Brazil as well, given President Jair Bolsonaro’s muted response to containing the epidemic. In fact, Bolsonaro participated in a pro-government rally in the midst of the global health crisis to demonstrate his lax attitude towards the pandemic.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s initial comments on generating “herd immunity” to combat the virus may lead to protests as the outbreak continues given the considerable backlash that his strategy provoked. However, the UK has shifted its response to COVID-19 in recent weeks and tightened mobility restrictions significantly, making the possibility of protests less likely in the near term. In fact, such protests are liable to occur after the crisis has lessened, potentially calling on the PM to resign. Moreover, given the economic toll that the situation will take on the UK, protests towards the end of the year are likely to be recorded, surrounding various Brexit issues that will likely change according to the extreme circumstances.
Following Hungary’s declaration of a state of emergency, which gave Prime Minister Victor Orban sweeping powers for an indefinite period and was strongly condemned by the opposition, the likelihood of protests increased. This is especially the case if the state is enforced for longer than is deemed necessary and is perceived as an attempt to usurp democracy.
Meanwhile, left-wing groups in countries such as Russia are liable to raise concerns over governments using the outbreak to restrict people’s rights, particularly with regards to privacy and freedom of assembly. In some instances, authorities are liable to roll back restrictive measures to a certain degree to prevent unrest. Small-scale disruptive protests in Honduras led to the temporary suspension of containment measures to ensure access to scarce resources and money remittances for lower-economic sections of the society
Despite stringent measures, local paranoia will continue to significantly escalate, manifesting as a run on stores to stockpile essentials, causing shortages and price hikes. Concerns over shortages are liable to spur localized incidents of unrest and vandalism, as well as protests against the authorities. For instance, demonstrations took place in various cities in Mexico led by unions and human rights groups. Nurses in Mexico City protested the shortage of supplies and protective equipment. In the longer term, losses in livelihood, and the suspension of humanitarian and developmental aid in hard-hit conflict zones amid an atmosphere of intensified paranoia could further influence future protest movements.
Anti-foreigner sentiment, which has been exacerbated by the health crisis, may manifest in crimes such as hate speech, violent confrontations, and vandalism. Racially-motivated attacks particularly against East Asian nationals or those of Asian extraction, who are perceived by locals to be responsible for the pandemic given its origins, will be a significant risk for the foreseeable future. For instance, there are reports of Chinese nationals being called “coronavirus” and being denied services in Kenya. In Indonesia, protests erupted upon the arrival of 49 Chinese foreign workers to Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi on March 15. It is important to note that the pandemic has exacerbated preexisting anti-China sentiment across the region. This has been seen in online campaigns in Japan, Indonesia, and Singapore, the spike in racism in Australia, and the services denied to Chinese tourists in countries like South Korea and Vietnam from the onset of the outbreak.
While countries, particularly those with strong trade partnerships with China, have warned against racial profiling, locals are unlikely to adhere to these advisories. Consequently, governments may be forced to take action to preserve their economic alliance. Anti-foreigner sentiment may also manifest in the virtual sphere, including social media campaigns, or hate speech towards Chinese nationals. Further, crimes such as vandalism targeting Chinese interests, businesses, or diplomatic missions, as well as localities with considerable Chinese communities, is a latent risk.
Further, while the prejudice was initially primarily confined to the Chinese, as locals are aware that most of the cases in Sub-Saharan Africa can be traced to Europe, there has been an uptick in the targeting of Westerners as well. To that point, on March 1-2, two cruise ships attempting to dock in Reunion Island were met with protests with some locals throwing stones due to fears that people on board, primarily Westerners, were infected given that the ship had previously docked in Thailand. Additionally, the US embassies in Ethiopia and Cameroon issued warnings of a rise in anti-foreign sentiment and reported instances of stone pelting, denial of services, and verbal harassment. Video footage to this effect circulated in the Ivory Coast as local residents harassed light-skinned people, accusing them of spreading coronavirus. This trend is expected to persist over the coming weeks with a heightened likelihood of foreign nationals being targeted and denied service.
Impact of fake news on unrest
Misinformation campaigns and hoax correspondence, which has become more prevalent in the last week as criminals seek to capitalize on the COVID-19 panic, has the potential to ignite protests. In Peru, a false statement circulated under the name of an official government agency regarding the prevention of the spread of COVID-19. In India, Uganda, and South Africa, a spike in fake news and online hoaxes has been reported in recent weeks. If these incidents are not clarified and corrected immediately, these types of misinformation campaigns can be extremely dangerous, as the public depends on official government statements for guidance and instruction. While authorities throughout the Americas may bolster their cyber capabilities to combat this threat, given the ease at which this crime can be committed, it is highly likely to recur.
Spontaneous unrest due to misinformation emanating primarily from far-right politicians cannot be ruled out. Italy’s former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini pushed theories that China ‘created’ COVID-19 in a lab. This combined with the extended lockdown imposed on the country, carries with it the potential to result in both attacks targeting individuals of Asian extraction and people defying government orders. This is possible in several countries where far-right politicians carry considerable influence, including Austria, Germany, Hungary, and others.
A hoax email discussing information about COVID-19, believed to originate from Russia targeting Ukraine, allowed them to spread misinformation and resulted in unrest on February 20. Misinformation campaigns have been widely reported since the onset of the pandemic. In another example, posters with the name of Extinction Rebellion surfaced in the UK, stating that COVID-19 was the cure for the human race which is the ‘disease’. The environmentalist group has denied ownership of this poster. Misinformation campaigns are expected to continue in the coming weeks with the possibility of the spread of such information leading to unrest.
In the short term, supply shortages, particularly of medical equipment, along with travel restriction will lead to looting and vandalism in many countries.
Over the long term, the global economic decline is liable to cause an increase in both violent and non-violent financially-motivated criminal activity across the world.
Crime of opportunity
If government restrictions on movement, particularly in the form of curfews or lockdowns, are maintained over a long period of time, there is a potential for a significant increase in criminal activity globally.
Fear over supply shortages has already led to a run on stores for the stocking up of groceries, medicines, and other essential supplies in many countries. While most countries are currently not experiencing any shortages in food supply, a shortage of health equipment, including face masks, sanitizers, and medicines has been common, which has given rise to a black market for these products.
For instance, a group of 70 individuals looted a grocery store in Mexico, and others stole disinfectants and masks to resell them for inflated prices. In Singapore, 11 individuals were recently arrested for allegedly selling fake protective masks via a popular messaging application and an e-commerce website. In Indonesia, there are reports of individuals hoarding face masks and re-selling them at marked up prices. Medical stores in parts of India have also been incriminated in selling basic supplies at higher rates and cheating customers. This has prompted governments to impose severe punitive measures on those involved in selling these products on the black market. For instance, the Iranian government recently released a statement saying that any individual found to be selling face masks on the black market could face capital punishment. Such incidents are liable to increase in frequency, especially should lockdowns be extended, leading to potential supply shortages and in turn, an increase in localized crime, particularly in the form of looting and vandalism of local stores and businesses. This is also likely to translate to a heightened risk associated with movement to and from these essential stores. The risk is especially pronounced in countries such as South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria where crime is entrenched in urban areas.
In countries where groups feel that their government has not enacted the proper response to ensure the safety of citizens amid COVID-19, there remains a possibility that criminal organizations will take this responsibility on themselves. For instance, organized crime groups in Brazil were recorded imposing curfews to contain the spread of the pandemic. Further, a surge in ammunition and weapons charges were recorded in the USA. While these measures are meant to be preventative, the potential for violent outcomes to arise from this behavior exists.
The pandemic is also likely to stress criminal justice systems and infrastructure as several countries have suspended judicial proceedings. Additionally, prisons and detention centres present a major challenge to the containment of the disease given the relatively poor hygiene and sanitation infrastructure. Prison riots and attempted escapes associated with COVID-19 have been reported in Argentina, Cameroon, Chile, Colombia, Ethiopia, Iran, Italy, Mexico, Panama, Syria, Thailand, USA, and Venezuela in the last few weeks. As the virus continues to spread with more cases and deaths reported daily, similar attempts are expected in the near term. This along with delayed judicial proceedings is likely to translate to an increased presence of criminal elements in society, elevating the risk associated with burglary, hijackings, home robberies, and violent crime.
The adverse impact of COVID-19 on the manufacturing sector will compel companies to either operate at minimum capacity or even halt production due to the overflow of supply. This, in turn, may lead to the layoff of workers in this sector. Labor in the construction sector is either hired on a contractual basis or remains unregistered in some countries and therefore the suspension of these projects does not entitle them to benefits. Those involved in the tourism industry are also likely to be significantly affected, as their wages are seasonal and dependent on the tourist cycle. Hence, the global pandemic will impact the daily disposable income of such low- income households.
The fall in daily disposable income combined with a hike in prices of essential goods due to supply shortages may make individuals more likely to engage in financially-motivated criminal activity. ATMs are likely to be hotspots for muggers, particularly as banks across the region remain closed and citizens become more dependent on ATMs for cash. There may also be an increase in credit card fraud, while criminals are also liable to be inventive with their modus operandi and capitalize on the paranoia and misinformation surrounding the pandemic to carry out burglaries and robberies over the coming weeks. This is exemplified by a private healthcare company in South Africa being forced to issue a notice after criminals were posing as company employees conducting home screenings to gain access to homes in several areas of Western Cape. Foreigners and expatriate workers are generally considered as soft and more lucrative targets for financially-motivated crimes, and are therefore at a higher risk of being targeted than locals.
White supremacists and other extremists
Lastly, the spread of COVID-19 has seemingly bolstered the platform of white supremacists. Far-right groups have been recorded propagating negative sentiments towards Asians, using the fact that COVID-19 originated in China to justify anti-migrant sentiments, pointing to economic losses and deaths from COVID-19 as a direct result of migration. White supremacist groups in the USA were reportedly encouraging their members to spread COVID-19 to law enforcement and Jews. Hate crimes and anti-Chinese sentiment has increased significantly in the region, particularly in the USA with President Donald Trump referring to the virus as the “China virus”. Incidents against those of Asian extraction have been recorded in Canada, USA, and other countries. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned that they expect a surge in crimes targeting Asian Americans amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Given that an individual was planning to bomb a hospital in the USA and another individual was arrested after he threatened to blow up a testing facility, reiterates the potential for locations linked to the outbreak response to become targets for extremists as the global health crisis continues. A hospital director in Haiti was kidnapped and released on the same day near his residence. The doctor’s kidnapping prompted his hospital to refuse new patients in protest. While details surrounding the incident remain unconfirmed, it remains possible that kidnapping a prominent member of the medical community was somehow related to the COVID-19 crisis. In crime-ridden and unstable countries like Haiti, similar incidents are likely to recur.
Instances of fake or misguided information will continue to circulate, intended to spread malware through phishing emails, along with inflaming tensions regarding government responses to COVID-19.
Advisories have led to multiple corporations switching to a work-from-home policy, thereby increasing potential vulnerabilities and endangering company network infrastructures to cyberattacks.
Ransomware continues to be a primary method of attacks focusing on companies, with hackers expecting corporations to pay quickly in order to instantly resume already disrupted services.
Reports indicate that an increase in global cyber crime has already been witnessed as a result of the many significant changes due to the virus. Multiple coronavirus-related malicious email campaigns and downloadable files infected with malware have been uncovered. The Israeli Police issued a statement on March 19 indicating that there has been an increase in reports of “fraudulent events”, particularly cyber crimes, with over 40 complaints with regards to financially-motivated cyber crime recorded since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Furthermore, recent weeks have witnessed an increase in phishing emails with themes tied to COVID-19 to spread malware. These emails have been disguised to look as if they have been sent either by the World Health Organization (WHO) or local governments to advise on guidelines to combat COVID-19. Cyber criminals have also reportedly set up fake websites with themes tied to COVID-19 to extract sensitive information of users. For example, a software masquerading as a dynamic map produced by a US-based university to track the global spread of coronavirus was reportedly identified as malicious spyware focused on gathering personal information.
Low-level cyber crime
With COVID-19 resulting in multiple corporations instructing employees to work from home, the number of devices connecting remotely to a network will increase, thereby increasing the potential vulnerabilities to a company’s network infrastructure. The new devices connecting to the network may not be completely secure, including employee’s personal devices and home wi-fi, which may suffer from critical security flaws due to a lack of appropriate security knowledge.
Hackers are likely to employ Man In The Middle (MITM) attacks in order to gain access to sensitive data, likely compromising users through phishing campaigns disguised as links to remote meeting softwares and news about COVID-19 measures. MITM attacks intercept communications between a user and the web application or network that they are accessing without the knowledge of both parties, allowing hackers to steal and view sensitive data including passwords.
Organizations that use VPNs to tunnel all traffic through their servers may face an increased risk from hackers using freshly discovered vulnerabilities, which may have been identified and patched in the latest releases but may not have been updated on the company side. This is due to the fact that such networks largely run continuously, with scheduled maintenance potentially pushed back as a result of continuous access by employees, especially those at home.
Corporations that may temporarily forgo VPN-only access due to increased load on the system and limit the number of connections allowed are also at risk, given that their servers are being accessed directly from employee computers that may be compromised if the employee’s hardware is already infected. Companies without appropriate response plans to incidents that require a large number of employees to work-from-home are likely to face such difficulties again, with the potential for cybercriminals to research targets, choosing ones that faced the most disruptions while attempting to switch over.
High-level cyber attacks
On the other hand, the main motivation for state actors to engage in cyber crime is espionage to obtain confidential information. As countries across the region continue to impose restrictions on international travel, state actors will become more reliant on cyber espionage to access sensitive information, which may lead to a spike in state-sponsored cyber attacks. Such attacks are likely to mainly target the oil and gas sector, telecommunications, transportation, and government agencies and infrastructure.
Multiple state-sponsored groups have allegedly utilized COVID-19 concerns as part of wider geopolitical campaigns, with incidents involving China, North Korea, and Russia. In Russia, hackers from the Hades group allegedly carried out a trojan attack in Ukraine, which was hidden in documents resembling information about the virus, appearing to be from the Ministry of Health. The information reportedly led to unrest in the country, over false reports of COVID-19 cases on February 20. Chinese groups with alleged state links sent emails containing attachments designed to look like emails from the Vietnamese Prime Minister about the virus outbreak, which installed trojan malware in computers of the victims. North Korean hackers allegedly employed similar tactics, attempting to disguise malware as information about South Korea’s response to COVID-19.
Given that such cyberattacks have increased with the uncertainty and considerable media coverage surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, driving individuals to search for information, such attacks are highly likely to recur over the coming months as the pandemic continues. As already witnessed in the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and the USA, government agencies, hospitals, and other healthcare services tasked with responding to the outbreak are liable to be targeted, especially with ransomware, in the hope that the urgency of the issue may force quick payouts. The demands are likely to be in the form of cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, which allows criminals to evade detection. Such attacks have been repeatedly witnessed in the UK and USA in recent years, with local UK National Health Service (NHS) trusts and US hospitals being targeted by ransomware that has disrupted services by restricting access to computer systems. Given the unprecedented nature of restrictions announced to combat COVID-19, these attacks are likely opportunistic, hoping to take advantage of relaxed cybersecurity protocols among private companies and delayed deployments of IT vulnerability fixes. Sophisticated cybercriminals are likely to be on the lookout for newly registered domains by international and government agencies, as was seen at the time of the Equifax breach where multiple fake settlement websites were made due to the company using a simple phrase for the website title, which led to impersonations.
The economic effects due to the lack of tourism, downtick in oil prices, and decline in foreign exchange reserves are expected to create unrest and political instability
Popular discontent with the response to the pandemic are also likely to create unrest, while opposition parties and movements will capitalize on criticism of their governments to make political gains
Geopolitical relations are expected to be strained by the crisis, in part as countries use the opportunity to double down on existing tensions
Economic effects to have adverse impact on stability
The spread of the pandemic has compelled most countries across the world to impose severe travel restrictions. These include a suspension of all international passengers flights and the closure of all land and sea ports. Many governments have also imposed curfews to limit the movement of citizens in their cities, provinces, or countries. Many countries have suspended public and private sector services, except for vital sectors like health and food, as well as limited public gatherings.
These restrictions are having a negative effect on a wide range of economic sectors. In countries that are heavily dependent on tourism such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as a number of countries in Southern Europe and the Caribbean, are most likely to be affected by these travel bans. These restrictions have also caused global oil prices to plummet by over 37 percent over recent weeks to below 20 USD a barrel as of the time of writing. This fall in global oil prices will have a significant negative impact on economies that are heavily dependent on the oil and gas sector, such as those of Egypt, the UAE, Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Russia, and Venezuela. In particular, state-controlled economies that are dependent on oil such as Algeria and Saudi Arabia will be affected in their ability to invest in other sectors of the economy, such as health, housing, and infrastructure. This may in turn aggravate the socio-economic grievances of low- and middle- income households in these countries, leading to unrest and instability.
The slowdown of the world economy and the resultant decline in exports is liable to result in a decline of foreign exchange (forex) reserves. This is especially likely for countries like Nigeria who are heavily reliant on oil exports given the effect of the continuous fall in global demand, further compounded by the sharp decline in crude oil prices, while import needs continue to rise. Further, as foreign investors withdraw money in response to the ongoing uncertainty due to the pandemic, the central banks are likely to engage in interventionist measures to stabilize forex markets as India did in the week of March 20. This puts pressure on the forex reserves of the country and consequently, India’s forex reserves fell by approximately 12 billion dollars. A decline in these reserves is liable to lead to devaluation of the currency while compromising the countries’ ability to pay for imports. Countries like Zimbabwe, which have had low forex reserves over the past years and consequent shortages of food, fuel, and medicines, are at particular risk. Shortages of any of these essential commodities due to the government’s inability to pay for it is likely to heighten discontent and potentially lead to protests and unrest. Further, the decline in reserves as the governments manage the crisis is likely to have long-term ramifications for the respective countries’ economies even once the pandemic is concluded.
Countries around the world are also hit hard by the disruptions to supply chains. Despite many countries taking measures to ensure the continued transport of cargo, there have been delays worldwide. In industries where some countries are heavily reliant on expatriate workers, travel restrictions can lead to a shortage of labor and create service disruptions. This will compel manufacturing plants to operate at minimum capacity or even altogether halt production activity, which will disrupt current infrastructure and development projects. The disruption of infrastructure and developments projects will in turn have a negative impact on other sectors of the economy. This can be seen in the Middle East mostly in the Gulf countries, while the travel bans in Sub-Saharan Africa are particularly preventing the movement of Chinese labor for Chinese development and infrastructure projects, causing large-scale delays. Further, the restriction on the internal movement of migrant workers in countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar to urban centers will further dampen their economic outlook in the coming months.
Poor government responses to exacerbate dissatisfaction
Iran’s handling of the crisis has been the worst in the Middle East, which has exponentially increased the risk of political instability in the country. Tehran initially downplayed the severity and extent of the outbreak, which caused the virus to spread swiftly across the country over a short period of time. According to the Iranian authorities, 41,495 confirmed cases of coronavirus have been recorded in the country as of March 30, as well as several members of parliament (MPs), including the deputy Minister of Health, as well as powerful clerics. However, it is highly likely that these statistics have also been understated in order to prevent mass panic and showcase the government as capable of handling the crisis. Anti-government sentiments have already been on the rise in Iran over recent years, manifesting in the form of periodic nationwide anti-government protest movements. In this context, the Iranian government’s mismanagement of the outbreak is likely to add to the local population’s dissatisfaction with the establishment. This, in turn, will further destabilize the current government.
Similarly, countries, such as Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, India, Hong Kong, and Indonesia, as well countries across Latin America, where anti-government sentiments over either socio-economic grievances or government incompetence are currently high, may also witness an increase in local dissatisfaction with the authorities. This would further destabilize the current governments in these countries, which, in turn, would exacerbate the level of political instability over the coming months. This is especially in a country like Egypt, where the government has been cracking down on opposition as well as international media for criticizing the government’s insufficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic or alleging that the government is under-reporting the number of confirmed cases in the country. These measures by the authorities may be perceived by the local population as a government effort to further restrict freedom of speech and media in the country under the pretext of safety and security. This may elevate the locals’ perception of government incompetence and overreach, which would contribute to political instability.
Pre-existing anti-government sentiment in locations such as India, Indonesia, and Hong Kong is liable to be augmented by recent disaffection with the administrations’ perceived shortcomings in handling the pandemic. Despite the current drop in protests, such sentiments are liable to simmer in the long term, increasing the risk of domestic political volatility in the country once the outbreak recedes. Issues such as minority rights and alleged police excesses during the government’s imposition of the lockdown will remain flashpoints. This is particularly in countries such as India, given that inter-religious hostilities and friction between law enforcement and activist groups remain high since the recent wave of civil unrest over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA). The unrest in Kenya over the enforcement of lockdowns and overall violent interactions between police and the populace in DRC and South Africa are liable to raise tensions and undermine authorities, particularly in areas where there is already persistent weak governance.
Political opposition, activist groups to take advantage of crisis
The stringent measures that governments are taking to contain the spread of the virus may be viewed by opposition parties and groups to be a tool of suppression. Opposition political parties across the world are liable to capitalize on this situation and attempt to subvert supporters of the ruling parties given that the response to the crisis is going to significantly impact the approval of the country executives.
In Ghana, this was evidenced by the opposition mounted by minority parliament leaders on the approval of an Imposition of Restrictions Bill brought to the floor by the government to enable the executive to control the movement of people as a response to the virus. The minority leaders raised concerns over the unlimited authority accorded to the government by the bill. Other countries are likely to see similar opposition, which may manifest as opposition activists and supporters refusing to adhere to the regulations and a consequent uptick in protests. This is particularly likely in the case of Guinea, which has seen weekly, often violent, demonstrations over an existing political crisis.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists have attempted to keep protests going despite an overall drop in the frequency and scale in recent months. This has involved joining protests on pandemic-related issues such as disaffection over the establishment of quarantine centers in certain neighborhoods. While such protests are relatively limited in size and localized, they carry a continued risk of clashes, given that the current restrictions will be used to justify a harsher crackdown.
COVID-19 has raised questions and concerns on the ability of the EU to effectively respond to global crises. For a significant period, the EU ruled out the possibility of closing the Schengen borders, likely due to the political implications and ramifications of doing so. This was perceived by more right-wing opposition groups as careless and was further exacerbated by the EU’s delay in a concrete economic plan to combat the impact of COVID-19. The crisis will likely open the union up to significant criticism from Eurosceptic parties, who may argue that individual nations were not quick enough to close borders and lockdown, due to the freedom-of-movement policy.
A political rift was reported in Brazil when President Jair Bolsonaro criticized his ally, Governor Joao Doria of Sao Paulo, for imposing a lockdown, as Bolsonaro believes the panic surrounding COVID-19 is “fear-mongering”. As the crisis puts pressure on every aspect of the political sphere, harsh criticism is likely to continue, with a number of politicians who are deemed to have not taken the crisis seriously seeing much of the blame. Leaders who have traditionally been more isolationist, and are deemed to have acted in kind, are liable to see significant backlash. This is visible the criticism that President Donald Trump has received for initially downplaying the virus, which is likely to have its most significant impact in the USA. This will likely strongly impact his chances for reelection in November 2020.
Political opposition parties are further likely to question the government’s handling of the pandemic in countries that are slated to go to the polls in 2020, such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, and Tanzania. With that, some upcoming elections are likely to be disrupted or postponed. Presidential elections in Bolivia have been suspended and arrangements for the presidential elections in the Dominican Republic in May are being discussed. While discussions regarding presidential elections in the USA remain premature, given the obvious disruptions to campaigning, President Donald Trump may call for special accommodations for the elections or a postponement altogether. As the global health crisis continues, political stability is likely to continue to waver regionwide.
Far-right groups have continued to peddle conspiracy theories that accuse governments of overreacting, as seen with politician Matteo Salvini in Italy attempting to garner support from the public by stating that ruling groups are impacting the economy by unnecessary placing restrictions.
Due to the anticipated decline of Iran, governments that rely on it for political power and military support, namely Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, will become more vulnerable to foreign actors that rival Iran, as well as to domestic opposition groups. The same is true for non-state actors that govern territories and rely on Iranian support, such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza. This has the potential to aggravate existing conflicts or trigger new ones in these regions.
Geopolitical relations strained by pandemic
In terms of geopolitical implications, the pandemic is liable to limit any efforts by the US and China to resolve their longstanding trade conflict in the immediate term. While no action has been taken at present, certain factions of the US administration are reportedly pushing for tariffs on China in a bid to protect domestic industries that have been hit hard by the outbreak. Meanwhile, in accordance with the phase one trade deal between the two countries, China is slated to buy 200 billion USD in goods and services, but such measures are likely to be delayed, further weighing on both countries’ economies in the long term. Further, China’s recent expulsion of US-based journalists from the country is likely to raise concerns that Beijing is seeking to limit coverage of the spread and its management of the crisis.
Meanwhile, another indirect outcome of the recent pandemic has been the rise in frequency of North Korea’s missile tests. Such activity has likely mainly been triggered by the upcoming South Korean elections and frustrations with the US over sanctions, as well as the lack of progress on dialogue. However, the tests can also be seen, in part, as efforts to project normalcy amid concerns from the international community that Pyongyang remains in denial about COVID-19 cases in the country. The pandemic also will preclude a thawing in relations between South Korea and Japan. Despite ongoing trade talks, both countries have refrained from meaningful cooperation to handle the outbreak. Rather, COVID-19 has the potential to worsen the relationship; this was witnessed in Seoul’s reciprocal termination of visa-waivers for Japanese travelers, a day after Tokyo implemented such a measure.
Pre-existing political tensions have largely remained throughout the crisis. Russia banned the entry of eastern Ukrainian breakaway Donbas residents who do not have a Russian passport and Ukraine banned entry to unregistered individuals in the ‘uncontrolled territories’. Further, attacks in the Donbas have been reported multiple times amid COVID-19, reflecting the sustained conflict.