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COVID Could Bring Fundamental Changes to Mideast, Analysts Say

Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian Foreign Minister, speaks during an interview with Reuters TV in Amman, Jordan, Aug. 14, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic is the third major crisis to hit the Middle East in a decade following the tumult of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and the start of oil price declines in 2014 and regional analysts suggest the health emergency has lessons that could help in bringing fundamental change to the region. They say innovation both in the Middle East’s economies—in particular, for Gulf Arabs who have relied heavy on oil exports--and educational systems is needed to confront new challenges as the world moves into more renewable energy sources and is increasingly tech-driven.

Speaking with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, says Arab governments used “authoritarianism” to skillfully tackle the coronavirus pandemic, however, they should not apply the same to socioeconomic challenges facing their countries.

We need to move from rentier economies to productive economies from patronage to productivity," Muasher said. "It’s easier said than done. But the oil era in the Arab world is over. Both oil importing countries and oil exporting countries need a different model of economic activity.

Analyst Dania Koleilat of the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy argues that shale oil and renewables are pushing down the price and utility of oil.

Writing in the Saudi daily, Arab News, she says oil majors, like Saudi Arabia do not have the luxury of moving gradually from a rentier economy based on oil wealth to a productive modern economy. “Saudi Arabia needs to achieve in one generation what other nations, like China, have achieved in three, and that’s why innovation is key,” she says.

Saudi Arabia has relied heavily on oil revenues for some 87 percent of its budget. Plans to diversify its revenue streams, however, have been hampered by COVID-19. Still, the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council reports that the kingdom’s renewable energy projects could create up to 750,000 jobs, while providing seven percent of its electricity output by 2030 as one positive development.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates’ is moving ahead to develop trade, green economy and food security as well as finance, energy and health sectors incorporating technological innovations and digitization. UAE vice president and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum says it aims to be the fastest recovered economy in the world from COVID-19 crisis.

Muasher argues that education that engenders critical thinking and innovation must be adopted quickly for the Arab world to move ahead.

We need to move from rote learning to preparing citizens. Our educational systems do not prepare citizens to deal with the complexities of life, I’m not even talking about preparing them for the marketplace. COVID-19 is one such complexity," Muasher said. "It is not going to be the only such complexity in the future.

Koleilat says Saudi Arabia must also generate and groom enough workers to take on new jobs as the kingdom transforms. Experts suggest artificial intelligence-based learning technologies can overcome current educational challenges and upgrade employees’ skills for the future.