Written by Maya Hammad, former International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG)


Countries in the Gulf region, such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE experienced the pandemic as a ‘double crisis’ since its economic ramifications occurred simultaneously with a significant drop in oil prices (OECD 2020). Like the rest of the world, countries in the Gulf region were negatively affected by the pandemic and implemented various measures in the areas of social insurance, labour market and social assistance. This blog is a summary of a larger report which analyses the shock-responsiveness of the measures implemented by Gulf countries, assesses the extent to which those measures were child-sensitive and finally compares the response implemented to that of similar high-income countries that rely on commodity revenues such as Singapore, Australia, and Brunei Darussalam (Hammad 2022a). The report relied extensively on the IPC-IG’s Social Protection Responses to COVID-19 in the Global South: Online Dashboard (2021).


What are the main features of the social assistance response?

The Gulf countries, in total, implemented 35 social protection measures in response to COVID-19, most of which (18) were social assistance (see Figure 1 below). Within social assistance, the most prevalent measure was subsidies, followed by free healthcare and emergency in-kind transfers mostly as food parcels. Most measures were vertical expansions of existing programmes (through top-ups to regular cash assistance programmes) or horizontal expansions, i.e the coverage of new groups, through the establishment of new programmes. Interestingly, according to the information available none of the four Gulf countries studied sought to expand the number of beneficiaries of existing cash assistance programmes.

As for the high-income countries, they implemented almost double the number of measures as the Gulf countries (51). Labour market measures were more prevalent than social assistance measures among high-income countries. Within social assistance, the high-income countries relied less on subsidies and implemented a more varied mix of instruments such as topping up existing transfers and school feeding programmes. Like the Gulf countries, the high-income ones mostly implemented top-ups of existing programmes or established emergency programmes to cover new groups. They also did not seek to horizontally expand the number of beneficiaries of any of their existing cash assistance programmes.

Figure 1 - Number of Measures Implemented by Social Protection Component

Source: Author’s elaboration based on IPC-IG (2021).


How did the Gulf countries and high-income commodity countries perform on key shock-responsive social protection (SRSP) indicators?

Shock-responsive social protection systems are those that can flexibly respond if a covariate shock occurs that affects many people simultaneously (Oxford Policy Management 2015). To assess shock responsiveness, three indicators are usually used: timeliness, coverage, and adequacy.

  • Timeliness is the extent to which assistance is provided at the time when people need it (Beazley, Marzi and Stellar 2021)
  • Coverage looks at the percentage of the population benefitting from a particular programme
  • Adequacy addresses whether the amount of support provided meets people’s needs

Applying those indicators to the countries of the Gulf region is hindered by the lack of available information. For example, data on the timeliness of measures was only found for 3 of 18 social assistance measures but, nonetheless, it indicated that Gulf countries announced responses on average 5.6 weeks after the beginning of lockdown measures. On the other hand, Singapore, and Australia [1] announced social protection measures on average 3 weeks before the implementation of stay-at-home measures (see Figure 2) potentially due to Singapore and Australia’s proximity to the virus’ origin.

Figure 2 - Number of weeks between stay-at-home measures enforced in countries and the announcement of the response (for cash and in-kind support only)

Source: Author’s elaboration based on IPC-IG (2021).


When it comes to coverage of measures that were vertically expanded, the high-income countries studied including Australia, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore had coverage rates that were almost 3 times those of the Gulf countries. However, the difference in coverage rates for programmes that were horizontally expanded is slight (54% for HIC and 43% for the Gulf countries). As for the adequacy of benefits, the Gulf countries of the sample were very generous with their benefit values reaching almost six times those provided by the HIC (see Figure 3 below) and twelve times the benefits provided globally. However, the value of the benefit should be considered alongside its duration since the Gulf measures studied were all temporary top-ups.

Figure 3 - Benefits in USD PPP for selected social assistance measures in the four GCC countries and the HIC Group

Source: Authors’ additions to (IPC-IG 2021). Note: Duration of measures indicated in between brackets [ ], measures that had different benefit values are included twice with the year indicated in the title | HIC and GCC averages calculated based on the measures listed with information available on their benefit values.


Were the responses implemented child-sensitive?

To assess the child sensitivity of the response, 6 main criteria were studied which look at whether measures were:

Within the Gulf countries, 7 of a total of 18 social assistance measures were child-sensitive (39%) and the most implemented child-sensitive criteria were targeting children directly or indirectly, followed by supporting children’s access to nutrition and increasing the benefit values with the number of children. Notable child-sensitive measures include:

  • UAE’s Education Uninterrupted measure which supported children’s continued education
  • Saudi Arabia’s paid sick leave for pregnant women
  • Bahrain’s wage subsidy measure covering wages of kindergarten and nursery teachers indirectly supported children’s access to education
  • Kuwait’s Emergency Distribution programme which supported children’s health through the provision of hygiene kits

As for the high-income countries studied, 9 out of 18 social assistance measures mapped were child-sensitive (50%) and the most implemented measure was also targeting children directly, similar to the Gulf countries, followed by supporting children’s access to nutrition. Notable design aspects of the child-sensitive measures implemented by the high-income countries include:

  • using cash support for businesses in the early childhood education sector, particularly to ensure that ECE services remain available for children of front-line workers
  • increasing the benefit values of not only social assistance but also of wage subsidies and unemployment insurance for workers supporting children or those with larger families


Key Takeaways and Recommendations

All in all, the Gulf countries studied focused primarily on the implementation of subsidies or the temporary increase of benefits to existing cash assistance beneficiaries. Nonetheless, some aspects of their response are noteworthy including:

  • Faza’a Kuwait campaign – which showcased strong coordination and collaboration between governmental agencies and the NGO sector
  • Education Uninterrupted in UAE supports children’s access to education through collaboration between the government and NGOs
  • Bahrain’s Tamkeen wage subsidy supports informal workers including those working in early childhood education thereby indirectly supporting access to early childhood education
  • Saudi Arabia’s extension of free COVID-19 testing and treatment to non-nationals regardless of their migratory status (Hammad 2022b)

Some recommendations for improving shock responsiveness and child sensitivity of social protection in the GCC countries include:

  • Increasing financial and technological capacities to implement horizontal expansion of existing social assistance measures to be utilised in times of future crises
  • Studying the feasibility of more inclusive social protection response measures for migrants.
  • Ensuring that Emergency Frameworks or laws include ‘social protection’ as part of the national response to particular crises
  • Increasing transparency in the reporting of SRSP measures to allow for better evaluations
  • Considering implementing smaller benefits with longer durations instead of one-off measures.
  • Ensuring that emergency measures target the different age groups of children, i.e newborns, pre-primary aged children, primary-aged children and youth
  • Removing the cap on per capita benefits to accommodate the large household sizes in the Gulf
  • Ensuring emergency measures support access to private early childhood education in the Gulf (Hammad 2022b)




[1] The information on timeliness was not available for Brunei Darussalam


This post is part of the ‘COVID-19 Social Protection response series’, a 12-piece blog series featuring discussions based on data and evidence from the interactive dashboard ‘Social protection responses to COVID-19 in the Global South’, developed by the former International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) in partnership with SPACE and sponsored by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and UNDP Brazil. The dashboard illustrates part of the data compiled in the COVID-19 tracking matrix and provides detailed insights into countries’ social protection responses to the crisis, working as a repository of experiences and government practices in shock-responsive social protection taking place in developing countries worldwide. Its indicators are divided into seven thematic sections: overview of responses, type of adaptation, timeliness, identification of beneficiaries and application tools; delivery mechanisms; coverage; and adequacy of benefits. This blog series is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) of Australia.

Programmes de protection sociale : 
  • Social assistance
  • Social insurance
  • Labour market / employment programmes
Fondations de la protection sociale: 
  • Policy
    • Coverage
  • Programme design
    • Benefits design
Approcjes de la protection sociale: 
  • Child-sensitive social protection
  • Shock-responsive social protection
Domaines transversaux: 
  • Health
    • COVID-19
  • Middle East & North Africa
Les points de vue présentés ici sont les auteurs et non ceux de socialprotection.org