We can see a peaceful Middle East in our time

The pandemic is giving the Middle East lessons on what really matters, and the region should never forget them

TOPSHOT - An Iraqi protester gestures as he stands on the Al-Jumhuriyah bridge in the capital Baghdad on May 11, 2020, during an anti-government demonstration. Modest anti-government rallies resumed in some Iraqi cities Sunday, clashing with security forces and ending months of relative calm just days after Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi's government came to power. The protests first erupted in Baghdad and Shiite-majority southern cities in October, demanding an end to corruption and unemployment and an overhaul of the ruling class. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

The Middle East and North Africa is often unfairly characterised in other parts of the world as being a region that only knows conflict. As this newspaper's coverage has shown, this is a place where innovation and collective achievement – in science and medicine, the arts, sport, business and other areas of civil society – thrive. And as the world continues to reel from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, progress can be found in every corner of Mena, from locally designed healthcare robots in Tunis to the development of laser-based Covid-19 tests here in Abu Dhabi.

At the same time, a disproportionately large number of countries in the regional map are embroiled in one form of armed conflict or another. Separatist militants continue to destabilise the Sahel. In Libya, the civil war grows increasingly brutal. In Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, a combination of jihadists, Iranian proxies, weak institutions and external powers launch wave after wave of assaults upon one another. In the eastern wing of this map, ISIS's influence resurges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while at the very heart of the region, Israel prepares for an unprecedented annexation of Palestinian territory.

Yet for the first time in a very long time, as coronavirus continues to wash through every country on the map, there is a growing sense that the conflicts plaguing Mena pale in comparison to the actual plague brought on by the pandemic. This is especially the case today, when the nations of the region mark Eid Al Fitr, a time that would any other year be celebrated with family reunions and public feasts.

No war in the history of the Middle East has ever quieted Eid across the entire Muslim ummah the way the pandemic has. It is a force no army or band of militants can reckon with, and a lesson that the well-being of everyone in the region relies on seeing the larger picture.

The United Nations is just one of many voices that have repeatedly called for the nations of the world to use the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity for a total ceasefire. The benefits of such actions to the Middle East and North Africa would be immeasurable.

The political aspirations that fuel the region’s wars are not trivial, nor would they be resolved through a ceasefire alone. But ending wars has little to do with either side’s desires, and more to do with what it can realistically achieve. Should the Mena region be completely overrun by a highly contagious and, in some cases, deadly virus, little will be achieved for anyone.

The pandemic is a force no army or band of militants can reckon with

Now is the time for the region to rest, convalesce and to take stock of what really matters. Co-operation in health care and economic recovery, and the exploration of political solutions to old conflicts are the wisest courses of action. With a bit of space for these considerations, at least some of the actors in the region’s many conflicts might find that their aspirations can be more aligned than they had previously thought.