With more than a million cases of COVID-19 worldwide and only a handful of countries reporting they are coronavirus-free, states are racing to stem a rising tide of infections.
A pandemic of this scale has been deemed a once-in-a-lifetime event. In recent years, prescient warnings by policy experts, medical professionals, and intelligence analysts took a backseat to what were perceived as more urgent national security issues, including counterterrorism, cyber defense, border control, and combat readiness.
It is an unfortunate reality that the global health security agenda is often relegated to international fora in which states make lofty — and at times unachievable — pledges to strengthen preparedness planning. It comes as little surprise, then, that many states’ pandemic responses are underfunded, underdeveloped, or understaffed.
Yet as the host of some of the world’s largest religious pilgrimages, Saudi Arabia has historically invested heavily in global health security. For the Kingdom, preparedness planning has been a strategic necessity of grave national concern: the 2019 Umrah season alone attracted over 6.1 million visitors to Makkah, with 2.5 million more gathering for the Hajj that year. With an early warning surveillance system put in place with the help of the World Health Organization (WHO), Saudi Arabia has long recognized that emerging health issues can quickly go global.
Saudi Arabia’s proactive management of health threats, including the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak of 2012, led then-US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Joseph Westphal to state: “The Kingdom is not only committed to expanding its own healthcare capabilities, but also to assuming a leadership role in encouraging other nations to do so.”
From the start, Saudi Arabia’s response to COVID-19 has been international in nature. The Kingdom has stood out in the region both for the domestic measures it has taken to curb the virus’ spread and its efforts to strengthen ties with states disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
In a recent conversation with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman affirmed the Kingdom’s commitment to leading international efforts in the fight against COVID-19. During a call between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Crown Prince, both sides affirmed the need for coordinated action in developing a vaccine and reducing economic strain.
Days later, King Salman chaired an emergency virtual G-20 meeting with world leaders to strengthen the global response to COVID-19.
“It is our responsibility to extend a helping hand to developing countries and the least-developed countries to enable them to build their capacities and improve their infrastructure to overcome this crisis and its repercussions,” King Salman stated at the extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit.
The Saudi leadership has kept its promise, turning outwards to assist those in need.
On March 31, the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center donated $10 million to the World Health Organization to fund urgent response activities and stimulate vaccine research.
In neighboring Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s donation of $3.5 million worth of medical assistance included medication and testing kits to help the country avert a devastating outbreak that would further overburden a healthcare system strained by years of war.
And in China, Saudi Arabia contributed more than 2,000 medical devices, 300,000 masks, and 1,000 other pieces of personal protective equipment to help medical staff in Wuhan in the early days of the outbreak.
Few nations can afford to act unilaterally in combating COVID-19. After closing borders and banning the entry of foreign nationals, some states may be drawn to a sort of isolationism that might endure beyond this crisis.
Yet despite these restrictions, states are working together to alleviate suffering in the immediate term and lay the groundwork for broader multilateral cooperation on global health issues.
In the long term, international engagement on the global health agenda is critical. Countries like Saudi Arabia have much to teach the world on ways to control one of the greatest health threats of our lifetime.
While the COVID-19 crisis has exposed weaknesses in global health commitments, efforts to fight the pandemic have underscored a simple truth: robust and durable international partnerships are essential in driving policies that save lives.
Through these global health coalitions, states can share expertise, allocate resources to places in need and apply consistent measures across continents to extinguish flare-ups.
When the COVID-19 crisis ends, many countries will have developed institutional knowledge at a national level on pandemic response. States will eventually be able to come together again, whether at the next UN General Assembly, Munich Security Conference or the World Government Summit, and each country will have a story to tell — one of adversity, loss and triumph.
These experiences will determine how the global community responds to the next all-encompassing threat. For those willing to transform lessons learned on global health preparedness into concrete action, there is strength in numbers.
• Madison Clough is a strategic communications professional residing in the Gulf. She holds a master’s degree in international security from George Mason University and specializes in communications on geopolitical and cultural issues.