Najat Al Saied, an independent researcher at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on March 25 about steps the UAE has taken in the global fight against the spread of COVID-19.
Iran, the UAE's neighbor across the Straits of Hormuz, has been hit the worst by the pandemic, but travel to and from Iran has had little impact on spread of the virus in the UAE, unlike in other Gulf states. "Some Kuwaitis and Saudis were visiting Iran and when they came back, they had the virus and that was how the virus ... spread," said Al Saied, but the UAE banned all air traffic with Iran early enough to protect itself.
Initially, flights were banned only to "certain countries like China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Iran, Japan, Singapore and Italy," but now all flights have been banned. The UAE's aviation sector has been hard hit by these measures.
Other precautions instituted in the UAE include cessation of group prayers, widespread cancellation of large-scale public events, and closures of markets, malls, restaurant seating, beaches, parks, and sports centers. "The only retailers that remain open are supermarkets and pharmacies," Al Saied said.
The government has not issued an official order compelling employees to work from home, or imposed mandatory curfews as is the case in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but advisories recommend the switch to distance learning and remote work in the public and private sectors for the members of high risk groups such as the elderly and disabled.
"We find ourselves having to break norms which only a month ago would have been unthinkable."
The most difficult cultural changes the Emiratis have experienced, she remarked, were those requiring social distancing among a people who are usually more demonstrative. "We find ourselves having to break norms which only a month ago would have been unthinkable," said Al Saied. "Not everybody is abiding by the rules," especially "the expats," but most locals are heavily influenced by guidance from UAE leaders, so much so that a recent video stressing the importance of hygiene led people to stop shaking hands after it was posted on social media.
In an effort to mitigate the economic impact, the UAE Central Bank announced a $27.3 billion stimulus package on March 14, while financial institutions are adopting measures such as rescheduling of loans and reductions in fees and commissions.
The UAE has followed a strategy of moving toward remote working "gradually until it makes sectors that are not ready for [it] start to be ready," said Al Saied. Though most employees are still going to work, employers have put it place a range of precautions, from checking temperatures to distributing gloves and masks. Face-to-face meetings and events are increasingly being cancelled, with more communication taking place electronically. Ultimately, remote working will mitigate, but not eliminate, the harmful impact of the coronavirus on the UAE economy.
Unfortunately, "even with all the precautions they are taking, [COVID-19] is still spreading" in the UAE, and Al Saied expects the government to continue tightening restrictions. "So you never know what will happen."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.