Gulf nations introduce more measures as infection numbers rise

The first public acknowledgement by a Saudi official that the annual Hajj pilgrimage could be cancelled because of the COVID-19 virus was made on March 31.
Sunday 05/04/2020
 A nurse uses a swab to test the passenger of a car for COVID-19 at a drive-through verification centre in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi, April 2. (AFP)
New precautions. A nurse uses a swab to test the passenger of a car for COVID-19 at a drive-through verification centre in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi, April 2. (AFP)

LONDON - Gulf Arab nations continue to see a rise in the number of coronavirus infections, forcing authorities and health officials to extend and intensify measures in an effort to flatten the COVID-19 curve regionally.

In Saudi Arabia, where the number of infections has reached 1,885 cases, authorities have extended a curfew introduced a week ago, including a 24-hour lockdown in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

“The curfew will be effective in all parts of the cities of Mecca and Medina for a period of 24 hours a day, with continuing ban of entry into and exit from the two cities, as of today until further notice,” an official source at the Ministry of Interior said.

Authorities have also extended the curfews in the city of Dammam, Eastern Region, and in the governorates of Taif and Qatif to 3pm, until further notice based on the recommendations of the health authorities.

And while cases in the kingdom continue to increase, the first public acknowledgement by a Saudi official that the annual Hajj pilgrimage could be cancelled because of the COVID-19 virus was made on March 31.

The kingdom’s Minister for Hajj and Umrah, Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Banten, urged Muslims intending on performing this year’s Hajj to postpone their plans in light of the ongoing pandemic.

In a televised interview broadcast on Al Ekhbariya TV, the Hajj Minister said that King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were “concerned with the safety of all pilgrims and visitors who are in health isolation hotels and are in good health.”

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is prepared to secure the safety of all Muslims and nationals,” Banten told Al Ekhbariya TV. “That’s why we have requested from all Muslims around the world to hold on to signing any agreements (with tour operators) until we have a clear vision.”

In the United Arab Emirates, where the total number of cases stood at 1,024, authorities have been working on repatriating Emirati citizens stranded abroad, after international flights were suspended in numerous countries.

The Gulf state’s foreign ministry said that "1,743 Emiratis and those accompanying them have been evacuated", without naming the countries from which citizens were repatriated, the state-run news agency WAM said on March 31.

Meanwhile, the UAE’s first full lockdown came into effect in Dubai’s Al Ras district.

Dubai enforced the lockdown on a district housing the emirate’s famous gold and spice markets on Tuesday, to disinfect the normally bustling tourist and trade area as part of efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The UAE also launched its first drive-through COVID-19 testing facility in Abu Dhabi on March 28, which was inaugurated by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

“We will never hesitate to take any measures against any potential threat to people’s life. At the same time, we won’t let the development grind to a halt,” Sheikh Mohammed said, according to local media.

Gulf state Qatar, which has 949 cases confirmed, also set up a drive-through COVID-19 testing station, however, they are intended for individuals who have returned to the country from abroad.

The "testing is reserved for... those who have returned to Qatar from overseas between 10 and 21 March and those who have been undergoing quarantine at home and have signed an official undertaking for this," the ministry tweeted on April 1.

In Kuwait, where the total number of coronavirus infections has reached 417, authorities have managed to evacuate more than 2,700 citizens stranded in several countries.

"Kuwait's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has returned 2,713 citizens stranded in the US, Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain, France, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Lebanon," state-owned news agency KUNA reported on March 31.

KUNA reported that all of those who returned were tested for COVID-19 at the airport.

Meanwhile, the country’s head of state, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, has ordered the donation of $16 million to a fund for COVID-19 efforts.

Additionally, the country’s central bank announced a stimulus package designed to cushion the economy from the impact of the COVID-19.

"The package aims at reducing liquidity and capital adequacy requirements for banks and cutting risk weighting for small and medium enterprises from 75% to 25%," the central bank said in a statement on April 2.

In Oman, where confirmed cases of the coronavirus are at 231, authorities placed an entire district under lockdown. The district of Muttrah in the capital Muscat is now under full quarantine in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

The district will be quarantined until further notice and all roads leading to the district have been closed, Al-Roya online quoted police as saying on April 1.

Police added that the supply of foods and basic services will nonetheless be facilitated.

3