Since its emergence a few weeks ago, Covid-19 has already fundamentally changed the fabric of our society and impacted the global geopolitical landscape, but in what ways?
Covid-19 Crisis: Global Crisis, Global Risk and Global Consequences is a new webinar series that examines various possible and visible consequences of the current crisis including its strategic and economic implications, impact on global governance, on gender or the role of technology.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Hello and welcome to the second episode of the GCSP COVID-19 crisis webinar series “Global Crisis, Global Risk and Global Consequences”. My name is Jean-Marc Rickli, I'm Head of Global Risk and Resilience at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. The topic of today's webinar is the impact that the COVID crisis will have, or is already having, on the Middle East. But before I start, let me just introduce you to what the Geneva Centre for Security Policy is all about. We are international nonprofit foundation physically based in Geneva, as you can see on the screen, in Switzerland, and our Foundation Council is comprised of 52 states, including all the permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations. The GCSP mission is to promote peace, international security as well as prepare and transform individuals and organizations so that they can create a safer world. The values that we promote are impartiality, independence and inclusivity. We have an extended network of global experts, as well as an alumni community of more than 1200 people. This week's topic has been chosen because the GCSP offers executive education, among others, and also research as well as public discussions and an innovative fellowship programme. And so this topic has been chosen because we are running a nine-month course executive masters program called Leadership in International Security, and this week's topic module was on the Middle East. So we are aligning the topic with this course. If you want to know more about our LISC executive programme, that is conducted in conjunction with the University of Geneva, feel free to check on our webpage so that you can register.
Today, it's my great pleasure to have a very distinguished panel of different experts, as you'll see, that will address different issues on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the Middle East. We have Prof. David Des Roches from the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University in the United States. My colleague Mark Finaud, Head of Arms Proliferation at the GCSP mission. Micheline Ishay is a professor at the Korbel School of International Studies at Denver University. Dr. Karen Young, she is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in the United States, and a special welcome to these two women because they work very early this morning on the timeline to be with us this afternoon. Then we have Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen from the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, United States. And finally, Mr. Abdulla, we bring our friend, who is a Senior Advisor at the Diplomatic Dialogue at the GCSP.
Last week, when we had our first webinar, we were approaching one million infections, and about 40,000 people had passed away. Today, we are approaching 1.5 million infections and almost 89,000 people have passed away in the world. The center of the pandemic is in Europe, as well as the United States. But the Middle East has not been immune to the proliferation of this pandemic. As a matter of fact, Iran has been the most affected country currently. And as of this morning, in the MENA region, 81,000, close to 82,000 people have been infected by the disease, with Iran scoring the most, followed by Israel and the GCC countries, the Gulf Cooperation countries.
What is peculiar with the crisis in the Middle East is that this crisis combined as well with a crisis in oil production that started early May, and as you'll see, in a few seconds, this crisis has been led by disagreement between oil producers. We have seen a dramatic fall of the price of oil down to almost 20 dollar per barrel. So the Middle East is currently facing two crises, a global health crisis as well as an oil crisis, oil price crisis. These have tremendous implications for the economy of these countries, especially those who are producing oil, because they obviously rely a lot for their economy on these assets. But also, the oil producers are actually employing a lot of workers from the region. So these crises, combined, have the potential to drastically change the power relationship in the region.
On top of that, the traditional geopolitical dynamics and rivalry have not disappeared: to the contrary. Last week, there was an attack, a missile attack on Saudi Arabia, conflicts in Syria in Yemen are continuing... So today, the idea of this webinar is to talk more in detail about different aspects of this very complex region that is affected by very complex dynamics. Without further ado, we will start the first presentation with Karen Young who will talk more about the economic impact that this crisis has, as well as the current oil crisis.
Dr Karen Young
Thank you. Thank you so much to GCSP for the invitation and Jean-Marc for getting in contact. It's nice to see you all. And I'm going to limit my remarks to really two brief questions. The first is, how did we get here in terms of oil markets and this oil price war, in which we're seeing really a dispute between all the major producers: OPEC, OPEC+ and then newer players into the oil markets, including the United States? And then, secondly what are the spillover effects of both the oil price war and the COVID-19 epidemic into the region, into the Middle East, and specifically, the implications for oil producers, the GCC states?
So how did we get here? It's really, I think, spectacular bad timing in that the fundamentals or the structure of the oil market, I think, to many of the OPEC producers, particularly Saudi Arabia, looks very similar to what they saw in late 2014. In that we saw declining demand, really coming from China, and a surge in production or an increase in production, mainly from new players and shale producers in the United States. The way that that had been mitigated since late 2014 was the “OPEC+” agreement, which was made in late 2016. So since late 2016, this agreement has been in place, in which Russia, as the plus of the OPEC, Mexico, and then the traditional players, Saudi Arabia being the most important, had begun to cut production, which has kept prices in a safe range of about $50 to $70 per barrel, which is nothing close to that magic decade between 2003-2014 where we saw oil prices very, very high between $80, $100, even up to $130 a barrel. That magic decade is very important because that's what allowed particularly the GCC oil producers (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE) to amass a large amount of savings, which they put into their sovereign wealth funds, and also funded many of the programs which we are seeing now, particularly in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So in the March 5th meeting of OPEC+, the kind of understanding of markets was very similar to what these producers had seen in late 2014. They thought, okay, we'll just do the same thing. We will just bear it out, right? And continue to produce and starve out those new producers. That was the Saudi strategy. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has intervened, and I do not think that there was any foresight on the part of Russia or Saudi to really take advantage of this crisis, that they could have possibly understood the demand destruction that was happening in China and then would spread to the rest of the globe, which is a reason why oil prices have continued to stay quite low. And today, Brent is about $33 a barrel. WTI, which is West Texas, is just over $26 a barrel. So very, very low prices at which these producers really are nowhere near their breakeven prices. And the problem is, there's no sense that demand will increase very quickly because of this pandemic situation that we are in.
So what are the spillover effects of these twin crises? Looking at emerging markets, generally, any kind of commodity producer (so we're talking about Sub-Saharan Africa all the way to East Asia) is affected right now because of the decline in global demand. We're all not working. We're all staying at home. We're all not traveling. So when you think about, especially transport demand for fuel, if, normally, before this before, our lives were changed so dramatically, we're talking about 100 million barrels per day of global demand for oil. If 3 billion people are not going anywhere, they're sitting at home, and 60% of that demand is in transport, you get an idea of the impact to global demand.
So emerging markets, especially for oil producers, are grossly impacted, but commodity producers as well. When you look across the Middle East, what does that mean? Well, it means that tourism markets are completely destroyed. So many of the economies of the Middle East which are dependent on tourism, which would be Lebanon in the summer, Turkey in the summer, Jordan, Dubai as an Emirate... very, very sharp decreases. If you think about a case like Turkey, traditionally when oil prices are low, emerging market countries or oil importers across the Middle East would get some boost from cheap oil prices. But we're not seeing that because of the overall lack of transportation, demand and the overall demand destruction for all kinds of products. So Turkey, for example, its share of trade is about 20% within MENA, so that's a problem. Of course, any kind of exports that are going to the European Union; this means Morocco, Tunisia, are also very much affected. Those economies in the Middle East that do have some manufacturing base are in rough shape. Tourism revenues for a country like Turkey are about $26 billion a year, largely earned in the summer months, which is about three and a half percent of GDP. So this will be a very, very hard year for Turkey.
So that means, how do countries finance that loss of revenue? They're going to need to borrow. So we're going to see a real surge into debt markets for emerging market oil importers and oil exporters in the Middle East, and this will be easier for some than others. For the wealthier states, those with higher reserves, like Qatar, can issue a $5 billion bond, no problem. That's going to be a lot harder for weaker economies like Bahrain, Oman, or some of the other countries that are weaker in their outlook. What we're seeing in terms of the impact on US shale is that there is some starting out, so we expect 30-40% of US shale producers to go bankrupt. What's different this time than in 2014 and 2015? You know, shale producers were able to survive because many of them used US bankruptcy courts. They got more efficient, they laid off labour, they were more flexible. And this is why we're seeing tension particularly between the US, Saudi Arabia and Russia right now, because the US doesn't have the same levers in order to cut production. So I think the way we will see production come to a new normal will be, again, that some of these smaller players will simply fall out of the market, because they can't afford to keep producing. We're seeing that even in the major international oil companies cutting their capital expenditure by 30-40%. We've seen this by Exxon, we've seen this by BP as well over the last week.
Just a note on state capacity, what this does for MENA governments, particularly GCC governments. Of course, oil exporters are very reliant on government revenues for oil, and this means that they will have less money to spend on all kinds of things, including social services. So this is a great punch to the budgets. It also means now that the expenses of the public health sector in Saudi Arabia, for example, even the private hospitals in Saudi Arabia, many of them are reliant on the Saudi government for payment from the retirement fund, from the pension fund, from employees at the National Guard... And it is expected, and this happens in procyclical economies of oil producers, that the government will pay late or not pay at all. So this means that even private industries that are reliant on the government as their key customer will be in some pretty difficult financial situations. In the healthcare system, many private hospitals will expect to face this soon.
We can go into debate in the Q&A about the hope for a new agreement, in what OPEC++ might look at. There are important meetings happening today in OPEC+ and, tomorrow, a G20 meeting where there's the expectation that there will be some agreement on stabilizing oil markets. My personal view is that the United States is an open market and should not be in the business of either threatening oil producers or telling its private companies how to behave, I believe the market will sort that out.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Thank you, Karen. So if I may summarize what you said, which is very rich, the region faces both an oil and commodity market crisis that will have a differential impact on the countries in the region. There are those who will be able to withstand this crisis way easier than other countries, but the consequences are much more longer-term as well as wider interest in the Middle East when it comes to shale oil producers in the US. Thank you very much for this. The next speaker is Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, who will talk more about the impact that this crisis will have on the political level. I will just remind our viewers that you can interact with us through the question and answer tab that you find on your Zoom application. Kristian, the screen is yours.
Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Oh, thank you Jean-Marc for putting it together. Thank you GCSP for hosting us. I'll just pick up where Karen left off and talk about the Gulf, especially some of the political and strategic implications of this unprecedented, almost a black swan event that we're now going through on a worldwide level, not on a regional level. It's on a worldwide level. And if anything, is a definition of a black swan, surely this is it. I mean, firstly, it puts everything into perspective. It puts into perspective the squabble within the GCC, between Qatar and its neighboring states, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain which has been ongoing since 2017 and in which, as recently as February 2020, I saw the Qatari health minister reportedly being denied permission to enter Saudi Arabia to take part in a meeting of GCC health ministers. It puts into perspective the political differences of six states on the Arabian Peninsula, which have shown that when there is a common external issue, they realize they have more together than they have apart. It even puts into perspective the escalation of tension with Iran; we forget now because 2020 has been so extraordinary that we began the year with concerns and fears of a new conflict in the Gulf between Iran and the US. Actually, on that occasion, the Gulf states were very clear that the time was not right for conflict in the Gulf, and they were urging de-escalatory measures, in part because of the incidents last year, that pattern of attacks on maritime energy targets which really shocked a lot of Gulf governments. So the message should be “coordination, not confrontation is the way forward”.
Now, on the other hand, as in the European Union with the European states, each Gulf government has largely adopted national level policy responses. They've each tried to take decisions at the national level, rather than pulling them across the GCC as again, we've seen in other instances when the GCC has been marginalized as well. Right now, when we're still engaged in the immediacy and urgency of trying to flatten the curve, that may be a wise thing to do. But if and when we begin to move into a post-flattening phase, it will be instructive to see if the GCC can come back and region-wide coordination of efforts can begin to develop again, especially when there will be coordination of action required, especially, as Karen had said, we will see widening inequality, perhaps among the GCC states, where the economic impacts of COVID19 will not be felt uniformly. It will be felt harder in some countries, and even within some countries. That's another implication of this pandemic and of the crisis: it could easily widen inequalities, fissures and fault lines within states as well as between states. We’ve already seen a widening of those fault lines over the past decade, with the previous oil price decline, with the responses to the Arab Spring. Anything that widens inequalities could have implications.
One immediate issue that comes to mind is citizen-expat relationships. We've seen already, in Kuwait for example, some tension rising up between citizens, who are almost blaming migrant workers or expatriates for importing transmission into the GCC. Of course, the fact that many workers and labourers live in close proximity to one another in camps, which may not be as healthy as could be, there's a situation where we see explosions of cases among migrant communities, among labor camps. We could easily see a situation where tensions begin to build in terms of expat-citizen ties, especially perhaps in some of the smaller Gulf states, where expatriates form the significant majority of the population and have always been viewed with a degree of reservation by some of the citizen communities. So that could also be an issue.
More broadly as well, if governments fail to get a grip, if some of the initial remedial measures, some of the lockdowns or the curfews fail to slow the spread of the virus, to spread the transmission, we could see a situation where governments try to seek external scapegoats to blame. I mean, we've seen in the past as well how, in times of crisis, the initial or the instinctive response is to try and find a scapegoat to deflect attention from potential political and economic shortcomings on a domestic level. We saw that in 2011, for example, and the initial instinctive response to the upheaval in Bahrain, for example, was to blame Iran, blaming Iranian meddling. Then in 2012, when we saw unrest spreading to other parts of the Gulf, such as Kuwait, it was suddenly the Muslim Brotherhood which was the external organisation singled out to try and externalize the root causes of any potential discontent. Sp if some of the measures continue to fail to resolve the transmission of COVID-19, we could see an issue developing. We already saw that to some extent in Saudi Arabia, where they mistreat or blame people, Saudis, for example, who have gone to Iran, who would have returned through third countries and who, allegedly, could have gone in defiance of Saudi government wishes. Now, I think there's no coincidence that the first city in Saudi to be locked down was Qatif in the Eastern province. So we could see potentially a widening of the blame game as well. We've already seen on social media how there have been attempts to pin the blame on this crisis on Qatar and Iran, and various other countries as well.
So this crisis should bring people together, it should put things into perspective, it should show that coordination is the way forward. But if it goes badly, if it goes wrong, and if governments are looking for external scapegoats to try and deflect attention away from their own policies that don't produce results, then it could also have the opposite effects. And we could see this widening of fissures and inequalities, which could make the Gulf an even more unstable place, at least in the medium term. So with that, though, I’ll pass you back to Jean-Marc.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Thank you, Christian. Just to follow up, you talk a lot about the way this crisis could play at the domestic level; at the regional level, do you see this crisis as worsening tensions between Iran and the GCC or worsening the conflicts in Yemen or in Syria?
Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Well, I don't think geopolitical issues like that are at the forefront of people's minds, at least at the GCC-wide level. I think that between individual states, we have seen the UAE for example, reaching out to offer humanitarian support. And we've seen today also the Saudis suggesting they might put in place a two-week ceasefire in Yemen, which may or may not work and I have my doubts that it will lead to anything significant. I think that’s my feeling right now. The immediate need is to focus on COVID-19, to offer humanitarian support and to at least try and mitigate some of the immediate aspects of this crisis. And then perhaps, later on, these issues, your geopolitical issues will resurface.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Got it. So the immediate consequences are rather domestic. As you mentioned, there might be a risk of scapegoating people within these countries, they rely a lot on foreign labor forces, and these could actually be at risk of being used as scapegoats. Just to mention that Christian has published his latest book, Qatar and the Gulf crisis, last year. Now we'll turn to Marc, who will probably tell us more about the impact this crisis may have on the JCPOA and Iran. Marc?
Can you see my slides? Okay, good. So basically you asked me four questions, so there will be four slides, two minutes per slide. There will be rushing through. First, as you mentioned, Iran has the highest rate of infections and deaths in the Middle East or, if you take the figure of deaths per 1 million population, it's 49, which is certainly below the high rates that Italy or Spain have, which is over 300. But it's much above the regional average, which is one per million, especially in the most advanced countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia or the Emirates. Iran started to test people early, but it put into place the quarantine, especially in the city of Qom, where it started, late, and it conducted its general elections, which certainly contributed to mass infections. It closed its flight from China also late. Then it mobilized the military, which, of course, is a very important component of society in Iran. You know, health care staff who died of the various were made martyrs and to publicize their sacrifice. The paradox about Iran is that it has a very resilient health care system, very widespread, very advanced, but in this case, it was very much affected by the American sanctions. Of course there was, as could be expected, some misinformation or lack of information (some disinformation actually coming from opposition groups outside the country), some extremist violence, mostly due to some religious groups protesting against the closures of mosques, but these were isolated incidents.
The economic impact, of course, will be still very early to evaluate clearly, but it will be much worse than in the other Middle Eastern countries where now it says that it will reach around 11%. Well, in Iran, probably a decrease in GDP of 25% or 30%. As we can expect, the main reason is a drop in the oil price aggravated by the ongoing sanctions, and therefore the deficit leads the government to print money. The central bank keeps printing money, which of course will lead to higher inflation. Paradoxically, the stock exchange remains strong with a skyrocketing dollar, and that also can be explained by this context of inflation. As we know, Iran has the IMF for a $5 billion loan but this is being blocked by the US at the moment.
The JCPOA. As we know, the crisis started with the US withdrawal. One year after the US withdrawal, Iran started its measures of suspension of implementation of some of the technical commitments, including stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, percentage of enrichment, number of centrifuges, etc. But it didn't stop implementing the rest of the agreement, including high inspections, although there's been a recent dispute with the IAA about some isolated facilities. Obviously Iran wanted to put pressure on the Europeans to put pressure on the US for lifting sanctions. The EU’s reaction or the E3’s reaction was the triggering of the dispute resolution mechanism. But at this stage, this process is suspended at the request of the EU High Representative who was chairing this process in order to allow for more negotiations. One of the effects of COVID could have been, finally, the operation of the INSTEX mechanism, to allow for humanitarian transfers of trade from Europe. Actually, INSTEX had been in place for some time. The first transfer that took place is not directly related to COVID, but it could help pave the way for more transfers, bypassing, in a sense the US sanctions.
Iran’s strategy [...] you know, I would leave it to the better experts on this issue to decide whether it's likely that a debate will take place. It's sort of latent in Iran, between those who want to focus more on the economy, on health care, on domestic issues, and those who support the external wars and the military. As was mentioned by Kristian, there are opportunities for de-escalation or talks on Yemen, with the UAE and possibly Saudi Arabia. But, you know, we are in a situation where it's very volatile. The risk of military incidents in Iraq or against US interests or in Syria, with Israel... and therefore, you know, [it’s too early] to say at this stage what Iran would choose as a strategy: to take advantage of these positive openings or opportunities or still maintain some military pressure in the region. Thank you.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Thank you, Marc. Could you just tell our viewers that are not all specialists of the region what INSTEX is all about?
Yes, this is a mechanism to allow European companies to do trade with Iran, bypassing the American sanctions because they will not use American dollars or use them American transfer systems. Basically it’s a sort of barter trade agreement with some “clearing house” role played by this facility. It is open to more European countries. It was very difficult to put into place. But now, finally, probably under the pressure of the pandemic, it’s operational. Whether it will change things dramatically, I don't think so. The problem with European companies is that they're still deterred very much by the risk of suffering American sanctions fines, exclusion of the market, and therefore even if they are protected in a way by this EU mechanism, they don't want to take the chance.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Thank you, Mark. So if I could summarize, what you said was that this crisis, in a way, magnifies the problem that Iran is going through in terms of not having access to the open global market and that there is a risk of inflation. But there might be some opportunities too, as we've just talked about INSTEX; maybe this European mechanism, barter system could. finally take off. Maybe also you might see some opportunities in terms of de-escalation in Yemen. Now let's turn to David Des Roches from National Defense University. David, the screen is yours.
Prof David Des Roches
Okay. Could you put up the slides, please? Thank you. Well, look, it's an honor to be here, to be among this group of experts. Much of what I put in the slides have been covered, so I'll probably go pretty fast through that and take your questions. I always have to point out that while I've served in the US government, my views do not represent government policy. So please don't quote me as such. Next slide, please.
So this shows the spread of the Spanish Flu in 1918. It originated in the United States at Fort Riley, Kansas. The primary means of spreading initially was actually the United States Army. It started just very close to an army base, where American soldiers were being trained to go to Europe. It transferred to Europe on troop ships, and then was spread. You can see by the spread, it basically follows the sea lanes for the United States and its allies, France and Britain. That was kind of how these contagions work. So there was a security nexus with contagions going way, way, way back. Next slide, please.
Today, the primary means of this, and this gif shows how transport grows, is the number of flights into and out of hub airports in the course of an average business day pre-COVID-19. What you see is that the Middle Eastern countries are at the center of that. The primary vector is indeed air travel. In the 2009 SARS epidemic, for example, one of the outbreaks was Toronto, and that was traced to one passenger going from Hong Kong who had contracted it in the course of an elevator ride in a hotel. The start of the disease was in China, just outside of Hong Kong, then it moved to Hong Kong. So the vectors now are commercial transport. And this is important for the Middle East, because aside from hydrocarbons, transportation, Emirates Airlines, etc. passage of the Suez Canal, that's one of the main economic and security interests and strengths of the Middle East. Next slide, please.
These numbers are the best I could come up with yesterday. They're expected to change, please don't quote me on them because they're likely to change quickly. Kristian already spoke about some of the peculiarities of them. I want to just make one or two points. The first one is, I don't think we can trust all of these numbers. And it is important that eventually we do, that there is an accounting, because when these countries talk about diversifying from a hydrocarbon-based economy, what they're talking about is bringing in foreign investment, true foreign investment, companies that have to make a product, not offsets or parastatals. They're talking about people saying this is a place to do it. And that is going to depend on establishing a reputation for probity and veracity in the investment market. If the numbers have been fudged, then people will not want to invest and they will insist on cash up front. Now, the numbers of deaths and the overall numbers of cases that are reported outside of Iran are very, very small. But they are expected to rise and they're probably not evenly distributed, as Kristian has noted. So, if you look at Saudi Arabia, which only has 41 deaths in a country of 32 million, that's very, very small. That's a day's worth of traffic deaths. However, you know, cities and provinces are closed off, the Hajj has been suspended. So there is a very, very major reaction to this. This is a key test of government competence, and it carries over into the security realm. When you look at Iran, the fact that the Revolutionary Guard has supplanted the Ministry of Health, it’s response is taken, at least among Iran watchers in this administration, as, basically, the National Guard or the Revolutionary Guard seizing or solidifying his control on Iran, in addition to the outsized role it plays in the Iranian government and economy, it’s kind of seen as a slow, creeping coup. So there are implications to these deaths. Next slide, please.
Israel. I normally don't speak about Israel, but because Jean-Marc asked me to, I just want to make one point here. When you look at how people from outside Israel analyze Israel, it really is a special case. You can't just look at the overall numbers, you have to look at four populations. We don't necessarily have good numbers for these. The first population is Israel itself, and the population of Israel all total is 8.7 million. Of course, you can argue over the definitions of who's included, West Bank, Gaza, etc. But basically, these four populations, Israel as a whole and the Jewish population within Israel; Israeli Arabs (and you might want to disaggregate Jerusalem from that); then the West Bank, exclusive of settlers; and then Gaza. If there is seen to be any disparity in the reaction among each of these four communities, that will damage Israel's reputation overseas. Now this reel is already seen, you know, Israel's most critical partner is the United States and Israel is very dependent on foreign goodwill from the United States. They're our largest recipient of foreign aid on a per capita basis. Support has been weakening as the Netanyahu administration lurches onward and onward. But we've already seen indications like for example, in group number two, reports that the Arab hospitals in Jerusalem are being overwhelmed. So in retrospect, when when this is all done, and we have what we think are good numbers, if there is any disparity among these four things, particularly if it's seen that, you know, West Bank, Gaza really suffer disproportionately, then it is likely that this will reinforce the softening in domestic American support for Israel. And these are a couple of indicators we've got there: what you can see is, for example, Gaza only has 40 ICU beds for 1.8 million people. So there is a potential there for that happening and that doesn't work for it. And we can see, this is August 2019, there was supposed to be new data put out in March by the Gallup organization, but they suspended the release, I think, due to the COVID-19 crisis, but you could see that there was a dip downwards among both Republicans and Democrats in the United States for supporting Israel, starting in 2018. And this dip could be accelerated downward again, if it's seen that the Israeli government, you know, somehow doesn't handle this well or doesn't handle this in an even-handed manner. So this is a moment that might have some security implications for Israel. Next slide, please.
This is a 2017 poll of how Americans think their money should be spent, and you’ll note that at the very bottom, military aid to other nations and economic aid to other nations scores at the bottom of how Americans think their money should be spent. Now, the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis, and I can send, if anybody's interested, another more recent poll that shows how Americans think COVID-19 is very serious, that tends to reinforce this trend: spending more on domestic and less on overseas. So countries that are dependent on the American security guarantees, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council states, or are dependent on American engagement, such as Iraq, or American assistance, such as Israel, they are likely to see the urge to support them weakened. Given the fact that it looks as though we have two presidents who are running on a platform of focusing on domestic policies in the United States, these are potentially perilous times, particularly given the expected hits in the American economy to come in consequence of our lockdown, which goes on week three. Next slide, please.
And again, as you can see when we do support foreign aid, the aid that tends to be more strongly supported is food, medical assistance and disaster relief for needing countries at the top and the bottom of this. So the American public could be expected to support providing assistance, but that's going to be a very, very short term, and it's usually under the condition that it doesn't detract from domestic needs. Military stuff basically is not supported unless it's seen as supporting a vital ally who's in a point of need, or paying for itself, and again, that covers most countries in the Middle East. Next slide, please.
This is a picture of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, where it is currently anchored in Guam. Of course, there's been a big imbroglio here in the United States. The captain of the Roosevelt and the acting Secretary of the Navy were both relieved over the handling of a COVID-19 breakout on the USS Roosevelt. I show this just to let you know that people are used to a robust, active, rotating American presence in the region and it is possible that some of this activity will be suspended. What I think is most likely is that ships that are at sea will be kept at sea, will not make port calls. That's because those populations who don't have COVID-19 will need to be kept isolated from the possibility of catching COVID-19. And then ships that have facilities, air wings, units, etc. will remain where they are. The Army and the Marine Corps have currently suspended intaking new recruits for basic training. There's a stop order on movement, forces that are in the Middle East are not being moved back to the United States and they're not being replenished, and we'll see some knock-on effect. There will be a temporary dearth in junior soldiers coming into the army and the Marine Corps. We’ll see problems, for example disruptions, families of senior officers who have children in school, if they're kept in place and not rotated back, they'll probably remain for an additional year just so that their children don’t get pulled out of school in the middle of the school year. So this robust American presence is going to be not degraded but somewhat impeded, it'll be less likely to move.
Now, this is talking about ordinary means of doing business. If there is a war, we will surge. I think the final point I want to make here is that when we talk about defense spending and arms transfers, most of the defense spending by Middle Eastern states is viewed as discretionary spending, because most of the American partners exist under what's viewed as an American security umbrella. Since it's discretionary spending, if the economic impact and the governmental budget impact of the COVID-19 crisis is big, what you'll see is a suspension of big ticket arms buys. Traditionally, that has meant that ship purchases, naval ones, which is viewed as least useful in regime preservation, goes to the bottom of the priority, and Middle East countries have made a change calculation that countries that produce ships, they are domestically vested because shipbuilding is a big business, particularly in European countries. And the European countries will build the ships even if the buyer is uncertain, as we saw with France, originally building command ships for the Russian Navy and then when they saw that this would not be good for the Western Alliance, they eventually found a buyer for those in Egypt. So I think we'll see a deferral calculated on that, and I think that at the top of the cut list will be naval forces. I've covered a lot of ground but I think it's more important that I reserve time for questions and I welcome your questions later on. Thank you.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Thanks, David. So your angle was to look at how this crisis will impact US allies in the region, as well as the US security guarantee or your support in the region. And basically the point is that the first impact has to be looked at from the domestic perspective, how it will impact the finances, funding that could have an impact on a support that the United States will continue to give to its allies in the region, as well as the impact of the disease itself impacting US sailors. That could actually degrade US military capabilities.
Now we'll turn to Prof Micheline Ishay from Denver University, who’ll talk more about the impact it will have on civil society and human rights. Micheline has published last year a book called The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East. Micheline.
Prof Micheline Ishay
Okay, good. Just let me... Sorry about the technology, I'm in Denver so things happen slowly here. Just a second.
Jean-Marc, nice to see you again and to be part of this panel. You have all covered some of the economic implications, the political, the geopolitical ones, and the pandemic. My remarks will address two questions. First, how might we view the Middle East impact of COVID-19 through the lens of human rights, and what can we say about the post-pandemic future of the Middle East, particularly in light of recent social upheaval in the region? So first, regarding my first question, I will consider three statements that come from the WHO, the World Health Organization, on health and human rights, and how they play out in the Middle East. Then regarding my second question, I would just really consider possible paths beyond COVID-19.
So first, the right to health. This is my entry point. It was guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over the years, it became so much more comprehensive. The WHO regards the right to health as a fundamental human right, which includes the right to access health care, the right to access information and the prohibition of discrimination in the provision of medical services. So if I were to take just those three statements, and to see how they play out in the Middle East, it would start like that: individuals have the right to access health care. Yes, of course, that's a very important statement because what does the right to health mean? Already the French labour activist [Blanqui?] asked that question in 1848 during the cholera epidemic, if one does not have the material means to access healthcare. The current pandemic already confronts the United States and other developed countries with that same old question, which becomes more acute as the virus spreads into the developing nations and the world's crowded refugees camp. Healthcare facilities in the Middle East, some of you have spoken about that, have already boosted infection control in response to the respiratory syndrome MERS, which as you know originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012. However, most countries in the region, with perhaps the exceptions of those in the Gulf, have relatively weak healthcare systems and a fragile economic infrastructure with which to deal with the current crisis. So access to sufficient health care is a problem.
Now the second point of the WHO is the right to access information. Government must prevent disinformation at all costs and provide timely and accurate health guidance. Now, if governments should have taken one lesson from China's handling of the coronavirus, it's that limiting information and shutting down the debate in the name of stability or some form of collective security really carries grave risks and can be disastrously counterproductive. In the Middle East, Iran has questioned or detained journalists who contradict or question official reports, warned that those publishing statistics other than government figures would be arrested, and issued censorship orders to news outlets. Even last week, the Prime Minister of Egypt, Moustafa Madbouly, warned legal action would be taken against anyone who spread false rumor upon the pandemic.
That brings me to the third point that I want to highlight of the WHO: the prohibition of discrimination in the provision of medical service. Now, we know that, more than in the developed world, in the Middle East, discrimination in the provision of medical service, in addition to the differences within social classes, might be expected to be a serious problem in the midst of warfare and large-scale refugee movements. For example, one should not be surprised that COVID-19 is exacerbating sectarian tensions in the Middle East. Refugee International for instance says that at least 12 million refugees and internally displaced people live in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey will gravely suffer from a high death toll. Of course, we don't have all the numbers now, but that's the prediction. Most do not have the privilege of physical distancing, sanitation, or even working from home, particularly if they are in camp.
So that takes me to the second question: what can we say about a post-pandemic future of the Middle East, particularly in light of recent social upheaval in the region? So here are two opposite paths that I was noting, and I will note that my fellow panelists focus on the first path, I'm going to do also the second. The one can expect authoritarian leaders to continue to grow powers in growing civilian societies solidified by quarantines. COVID-19 has indeed strengthened authoritarian trends so far, with emergency law intended to contain the spread of the virus in the Middle East. With the spread of COVID-19, the Arab human rights protests of 2019, heralded as an echo, of the Arab Spring, came to a halt. Citizens now found their movement tracked by mandatory apps on their cell phone, such as China, Israel, Singapore, but whether you are in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, governments have used the coronavirus as an excuse to suppress freedom of speech, ban demonstration, jail dissenters and consolidate their power.
Now, let me just for the brief amount of time that is allocated talk about the other path, which the panelists have not yet discussed. The popular demand for civil and political and economic rights, which were expressed both during the Arab Spring in 2011 and through 2019, were not met. So now COVID-19 will propel 8.3 million people in the Arab region into even greater poverty. But against the authoritarian power grab in response to the pandemic, one can expect a new wave of social protests revived with even more urgency after the immediate dangers have passed. Even a pandemic could lead to a new beginning by bringing to the forefront global concerns that have been overlooked in this populist and isolationist age. The times are today, I would suggest, more auspicious for meeting demands for human rights, both globally and in the Middle East. The continued popular demands for universal and nationalized public health; the pill of, even now in the United States, of universal basic income; the development of vast global cooperations in science; addressing climate change; building a green economy; resisting sectarianism; and seeking political transparency have also made some inroads.
Many of the current hardships and the future possibilities I have recounted in the recent book that I've just written, in the Levant Express. There I suggested a possible path for the future of the Middle East, not for tomorrow, but 25 years ahead, based on basic human rights guidelines and drawn from post-World War Two reconstruction efforts. FDR, yes, we do need FDR, principles of freedoms for domestic and international politics provided, at the time, a critical underpinning for European civilizations and recovery after World War Two. I would suggest the New Deal proposal applied in the Middle Eastern context becomes even more relevant in the post-pandemic world. In my book, aside from accounting for the conditions that led to the Arab Spring and the derailment of human rights in the region during the subsequent “Arab winter”, I discussed at length possible future paths based on civic, political, economic, security and women's rights. This proposal will be especially important, as human rights and economic security are very much at risk now, after the pandemic. If you want to ensure that the path towards human rights is secure, I think that we really need to invite an urgent conversation about creating the conditions for that second path with the Middle East, I don't know, connected by railways, roads, trade routes, uniting financial, commercial governmental interests, and finally, fulfilling basic human rights. Finally, I will say that the Middle East desperately needs American and Western assistance to advance human rights as a precondition for long-standing stability. That was true prior to COVID-19, it's even more so today. The viability of Western democracy, in turn, needs a peaceful Middle East as an essential step toward halting the global refugee before and after the post-pandemic crisis. I would just add that Professor Kissinger just wrote this article in the Wall Street Journal, and if Kissinger really believes that this is the time to think about the post-pandemic, and how to really revive a liberal international order... this is a realist, I'm a human rights professor; I think that if we can agree on this, maybe there is more agreement that can come as a result of that.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Thanks, Micheline. So basically your take was to look at the situation, the impact this crisis will have, and human rights. And basically, there are two paths possible: the authoritarian path, or we could try to use that momentum that we have now to go to, basically, bring more human rights into the equation in politics in the Middle East, because the international community, everybody has a stake in having a peaceful Middle East. We'll turn now to the last presentation from Abdulla Ibrahim, who is our Syrian expert at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, for a small perspective on the impact this crisis is having on Syria. Abdulla.
Abdulla Ibrahim Erfan
Well, thank you very much, Jean-Marc. I will try to be brief, though I wanted to exchange with the interesting views I got from the previous brilliant speakers. But the question is: do we have corona in Syria? The government says no, everyone is in doubt, and we need to really know what is the situation in Syria. Currently, the official numbers are 19 infected and two dead. Not everyone believes this. But we need to really know: is this a baby slope for Syria? Or this is the tip of the iceberg? I believe that this is actually the big question for the rest of the Middle East, because if you look into the numbers, with the exception of Israel, Turkey and Iran, they are extremely small. What does it mean? That is a big question for us.
You have different arguments about the numbers. It is not about the government underreporting, but also about the real situation: we do not have enough indicators that it is really bad In Syria or in these other places. I will tell you why now, it might be bad later but not now, so we need to really be careful about our assessment. We will say it is the younger population, but after 2011-12, many young people left the country, so is this still the case? They will tell you they have a stronger immunity due to the hardships, but also we are still not so sure about that. Look into the surrounding. Turkey, no one says that the Turks have less immunity, but they are being hit so far.
How to know the situation not only in Syria, but also in Lebanon or Yemen, where we have no information, or Libya? Basically, if you look into the numbers we have normally, if you are 100% infected, 80% can stay at home, 20% needs normally to go to the hospital and 2% will die. Unfortunately, if the situation is really bad, you can see crowded hospitals in these capitals that are underreporting. That's not the case so far and not everywhere in Syria is as hard to report on, for example Idlib: we are hardly having a few cases now and I do believe that we should know if the situation is bad or not.
The question is, will corona come or not? And if it will come, will it come with a sudden, radical increase of the slope, or will it come gradually? This is important to assess how bad the situation will be, and whether someone would be able to help them or not. Let me give you an example: if we have corona now, no one really will be ready for them. If the peak in Syria, especially in Idlib, in the north, will come in two months, then maybe the peak of Turkey will pass and then the Turks will be able to help the Syrians. So I'm looking into the management of the situation. The other question to look into is basically what is the impact of corona itself, if it means people getting infected, and the impact of the current situation, the current lockdown. That is a very important distinction. Because if the current lockdown is affecting people already, and if in the coming weeks they are getting infected by the virus, then the situation will really be worse, and then that will take us some time, maybe to the end of the year, to fix it, and it will have really serious implications.
But anyway, let me quickly look into the humanitarian, economic, military and political impact. We do not know what will happen, since we do not have enough cases or enough indicators of the situation. But hopefully it will not be hard, however, we really cannot predict but if the situation is bad, it is really hard to help people now, if it comes now. A place like Italy, for example, no one will go help them, they have no one to help. I do not expect humanitarian support from outside: the Turks are busy with themselves, and international organizations are also confused as to what to do in such situations. So yeah, it will not be really good. So the only hope for us is that corona will hit them a little bit later, so we will have some time to work with them. Basic supply shortages will of course hit hard, and regime areas of agriculture, which is basically one of the remaining areas of productivity for the economy, is hit hard. They will really have a hard time given the fact that every border is closed and the production capacity in general is extremely tarnished after 10 or so years of conflict there. The reliance on Iran and Russia will not really help, but also we should be able to see how the situation will develop. The same for Idlib, we hope if corona will hit, it will hit only after some time, maybe after the Iranians and the Russians will have some space of mind and maybe some space of money to share with the Syrians. I mean the Syrian people here; it will not be easy at all. We do not need to talk about how the international economic situation will affect the citizens because they are cut off all of this system for quite some time. Sanctions and the international isolation will not allow them even to have access to IMF loans or whatever other mechanisms, so we are still wondering how that actually will work.
I want to quickly jump into the economic situation. 83% of the population are really poor. So you can imagine how it would be really affecting them. If we stay a little bit longer than this, that most probably will also affect the dynamics within the government itself. It will affect the relationship between the government and the population. It remains to be seen how the government will react. Given the density of the cases, we really don't know, we cannot predict. For example, If you have a bad situation in Latakia and Damascus, it will be different from Homs and Aleppo, for example. We need to see how the government will allow civil society to help in such a situation that is related to human rights and opening up the space for the society to contribute in the efforts to contain the virus impact.
Militarily speaking, this is good news because basically everyone is distracted now by the virus measures, not by the virus itself, because we have no proof that the virus hit any of the forces. The Russians and the Americans and the Turks are in a force protection mode. So everyone is in their own base and trying to limit the contact with the civilians, but again, we don't know if the situation will be bad with the civilians. It's very hard to isolate yourself. So we will see how that can play out. The Turks can go home quickly and come back, so really not a big change. The Russians can isolate themselves in their bases. The Americans might need to leave if the situation is really bad. For the future, it will be worse, more for the militias, either on the Turkish side and in Idlib or in other areas, or even for ISIS. If there will be any good news out of all of this, it’s that ISIS will also be badly affected in terms of the foot soldiers and the leadership. The leadership will not be able to really communicate due to the limitation of movement, and the foot soldiers are already mixing with the population. So if the population is affected, they will also be affected, with less accessibility to hospitals and health care, because you do not expect an ISIS member to run to the hospital to get cured. So that applies to others as well, in Idlib or even in other places, in Iraq. So if there will be good news it will be this one.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Abdulla, for the sake of time, because time is short for this webinar, I think we got your message that, for now, the implications for Syria are still unclear. It will depend on how badly the people on the ground are affected, and it has potential to actually worsen the situation. As we have less than 15 minutes left in this webinar, we will now turn to the Q&A round. There will be only one round. Ashley, our Q&A moderator will ask a question to each panelist. I am asking you to be brief in your response so that we can finish on time.
Thanks, Jean-Marc. So my first question is actually grouped together and directed towards Kristian and Karen: do you see a greater role for China in the MENA region going forward? Would you assess that to be in competition or cooperation with Russia? Additionally, do you expect that American isolation post-corona will allow for wider engagement from other countries in the political processes in MENA? Thank you.
Dr Karen Young
Shall I start? Well, I think the trend line for some time has been what I wrote in a paper called “the Gulf’s Eastward Turn”, and that there has been more alignment with Gulf oil exporters to China and to India, because those are their most important consumers. That relationship will continue. But, you know, the trustworthiness of China, I think now, because of the COVID crisis, has come to play. And there are lots and lots of reasons why the relationship of the United States within the region has been shifting. That dates back to the Obama administration and now, of course, to the Trump administration as well. So we are seeing these major, structural, seismic shifts inside of the region in terms of what are the great power dynamics, and those will continue to change. But I think the perspective from the GCC states now is they probably feel even more alone than they did four months ago, at the beginning of 2020. They probably feel that the United States is even less reliable, particularly as we see this heightened tension over oil prices, and China's ability to really be a superpower in the region, and and Russia's ability really to be a true partner and a trustworthy partner in oil markets and an arms supplier called into question. So I think this actually heightens a sense of vulnerability for the Gulf states, and it will hopefully make them want to be more self-reliant. In the short term, though, that could lead to a propensity for perhaps more conflict, particularly with Iran.
Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
I agree with everything that Karen just said. I also agree with the question; I think, had that question been asked pre-COVID-19, I would have agreed with the premise of the question. We will be seeing a kind of diversification of the political and security relationships as well as economic. Now of course, with the pandemic, with the responses, and also with the oil spat between Saudi and Russia, I think all that is called into question. I just don't think we can predict with any certainty how the world will look at the end of this, just because there's so many different dynamics simultaneously. But until recently, I would have said yes, in the longer term, Russia, China and India and others would have had a greater role in the Gulf, partly because of the sense of abandonment by the US, which is at least perceived if not real. And of course, that also brings to play what happens with the US presidential election in November as well.
Great, thanks. My next question is directed towards Marc and David. How likely is it in your assessment that Iran and the US move to new nuclear negotiations in the near term? And will the next US presidential election play a role in that?
If I can start… Yes, of course in the short run, it seems very unlikely. It's not even clear whether the US really wants to have such a negotiation, the way Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, then Pompeo set 12 conditions for resuming negotiations, and then removed those conditions. At the same time, of course, the ambition is to talk about what is not in the JCPOA: the missile program and the external action of Iran. So, at this stage, it seems unlikely, even maybe with some efforts from the Europeans, which seem to have a major impact on the Trump administration. Now, of course, what could come after the election is a big question mark. If Trump is reelected, this can remain a top issue but it could also be more autonomous versus the anti-Iranian lobby and maybe negotiate a new agreement, a “Trump agreement” or deal. But of course, if the Democrats come back to the White House, obviously, that will change because they already confirmed that they will revert to supporting being part of the JCPOA.
Prof David Des Roches
Well, slight disagreement. So the Trump administration's view of the JCPOA is that this was a deal that freed up money; money is fungible. The Obama administration felt that if you had progress here, the progress would then move into other areas, and the Trump administration's view is that the benefits of JCPOA were pocketed and then subsidized continuing bad behavior, as Marc said, in missiles and proxy militias, Hezbollah, things of that nature. I think there is a misunderstanding in the casting of this as a partisan issue, which I don't think events will bear out. It's important to know that one of the most prominent opponents of the JCPOA away was Senator Charles Schumer, who is the leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate. The opposition to it was bipartisan and, within the United States, when people say, well, you should have done JCPOA. I don't think that reflects a necessary adherence to or recognition of the value of the JCPOA, I think rather, it’s being used as a stick to beat Donald Trump. He really is a polarizing figure, and people will adopt political positions that they don't necessarily agree with, just because they dislike the man so much. That's just his nature. He elicits strong emotions. I think that the JCPOA, publicly, is seen as not a way to move forward. If there's going to be a new rapprochement between the United States and Iran, regardless of who's doing it, it's going to have to be done on the basis of these issues that Marc raised: Iran's action overseas, the ballistic missile programme, and a few other things. Because just restoring to where we were in 2016 is not going to enthuse the base. It's important to remember that in America, the next election of consequence is only two years after the presidential election, with the congressional election. The Senate map is unfavorable for the Democratic Party then, and the house map, of course, every seat is open. So I don't think that there's any value in going back to the JCPOA unless you make progress in those other areas before that.
Thank you. So, I'm going to clump Micheline and Abdulla, two questions for you guys. Micheline, do you have any recommendations for how leaders can deal with any new wave of social protests during or post-pandemic? And Abdulla, feel free to comment on that as well. But there's a question: will we see the same for prisoners that we have seen in Afghanistan, with prisoners being released, for example, ISIS prisoners, prisoners of war? Thank you very much.
Prof Micheline Ishay
So the question is what should be the recommendations for leaders with respect to social protests during or after the pandemic. Well, we know what the leaders were doing prior to COVID-19, and they were just sort of attempting to assuage the populations in Algeria, certainly in Iraq, we saw that the social protesters were trying to change, and in Lebanon, the power sharings and push away the Iranian influence. Now, post-COVID, I am not going to go through all the demands of those protests, the leaders currently are asking the social protests in 2019 to take a step back and have them just be able to manage the situation, the economic crisis that was discussed by Karen Young and others. And I think the International Monetary Fund, for instance, has provided some money to the Lebanese government as a result of that. The questions being also post-pandemic, I think that any specific leaders in the Arab world cannot redeploy its forces and address the economic crisis on its own, with the exception perhaps of one or two countries in the GCC, but it won't be enough. We are really talking here in the post-pandemic era of a major global and international effort and a regional effort to recreate new economic infrastructures, new large-scale economic infrastructures to bring back the populations, back to work. And I think that that's true for January 2020, and it's going to be even more so the case later.
With respect to the second question, if you could just remind me, it's about the prisoners. There was a release, as you know, of a great number of prisoners in Iran. Turkey has announced 100,000 prisoners would be released, it's not yet happened. There will be prisoner releases because of the fear of contagion. Even though the signs are not there, because there is not testing in the non-GCC countries, or not enough testing. There will be still some prisoners that are deemed as highly problematic like in Egypt, the Muslim Brothers, some of the public officials have suggested that they are the carriers of the disease. So we are going to see it's going to be highly politicized. For convenience purposes, there will be a release, and then some people who are deemed to be still a threat to the stability of the regime will continue to be in jail.
Abdulla Ibrahim Erfan
Well, if I will say anything, it will be that I still do not see corona in the Middle East so far. We are under 10% of everything going around, in terms of infections or deaths. So, basically, everything will depend on how hard it will hit. And if anything will come, it will affect everyone. This is actually the new thing about this impact, if corona will hit, it will not hit only the population, it will also hit the government structures. That will of course change the relationship and I'm not so sure that any government would be able to suppress anyone. I do expect sympathy from the police forces towards the protesters. I also expect understanding from the population. Look at Iran, for example, you do not see anything against the government. People are unhappy, but they see that this is beyond their capacity or skill or even imagination. So, again, I do not want to make speculations here, because we just need to wait for two more months to have a better understanding.
Dr Jean-Marc Rickli
Thank you, Abdullah, and thank you to all the speakers for your insight about this crisis. I know, time is short and passes very, very quickly, and we unfortunately have to conclude this webinar session. First, I would like to really thank you for your contribution. I know that our viewers might be frustrated, we received more than 50 questions to all of you, covering different aspects. Obviously, it's impossible to cover them all, but so the question might be covered later, starting next week, because the third episode of this webinar series will take place next week, on the 16th of April from 14:00 to 15:15 CET. The topic will be the use and misuses and malicious uses of technology, not just in the Middle East, but in general. We'll talk about how technology can be leveraged for good to fight this crisis, but also how it can be misused in terms of surveillance and other uses. There were a few questions also about the impact will have on terrorism. This will be the topic of a fourth episode in two weeks, 23rd of April, where we will look at the impact of this crisis on terrorism and violent extremism. So stay tuned to our webinar series. You can have all the information on our website gcsp.ch. If you haven't seen the first episode or you want to see it again, or this one, it will be uploaded very soon on our YouTube channel. Again, thank you very much for watching, and until next week, be safe.