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Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is tenuous and uneven. The performance of each of the region’s 20 economies depends on its individual exposure to oil-price fluctuations and how well it is managing the pandemic. Thus, forecasts for an average regional GDP growth rate of 2.8% in 2021 and a brighter 4.2% in 2022 if the pandemic recedes mask individual country differences.

On top of its tragic human toll, the global health crisis of 2020/21 has shown the extent to which economic performance depends on pandemic control, with MENA economies among those paying the price for decades of underinvestment in public health. Indeed, most MENA countries entered the pandemic overconfident and ill-prepared to cope and vaccination rates too will affect their economic recovery. Again, the outlook is uneven, with richer nations ahead of the field. By early December, the United Arab Emirates had the world’s highest fully vaccinated population at 90%, while Yemen only fully vaccinated 1% of its population. A more equitable rollout of vaccines across the region is essential for recovery.

In parts of MENA, political instability, fragility, and conflict compound the challenges faced as governments try to handle the pandemic. In Lebanon, economic collapse has had a catastrophic impact on public utilities and people’s livelihoods. In Yemen and Syria, continued armed conflict has combined with the pandemic to plunge the countries deeper into crisis.

MENA’s modest economic recovery follows a contraction of 3.8% in GDP in 2020, 0.6 of a percentage points higher than predicted in April that year. Overall, the region is facing a tenuous recovery, and one with much uncertainty, with the estimated cumulative cost of the pandemic in terms of GDP losses amounting to almost US$200 billion by the end of the year. These costs are calculated by comparing where the region’s GDP would have been without the pandemic.

GDP per capita—often considered a more precise measure of the standard of living—conveys an even more sobering message. A projected increase of 1.1% in 2021, after drop of about 5.4% in 2020, has left real GDP per capital 4.3% below its 2019 level.

The substantial borrowing that MENA governments have had to incur to finance emergency expenditure on health and social welfare has increased government debt dramatically. Average public debt in MENA countries is forecast to decline from 56.3% to 53.6%, while in the developing oil importing countries, public debt-to-GDP is forecast to rise from 90.4% to 92.3% in 2021, as fiscal deficits remain large.

Last Updated: Dec 15, 2021

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