Photo: Reuters

Gulf Arab states tighten anti-virus restrictions

Arab member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are increasing measures to combat the coronavirus amid a corresponding rise in mortality rates and infections.

The total of fatalities in the GCC Persian Gulf nations – namely Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – has increased to just over 2,500 cases, with eight deaths.

Saudi Arabia has the highest tally of infections at 900 and 2 reported deaths. The Kingdom tightened a nationwide curfew yesterday, barring all travel in and out of the capital Riyadh as movement between all provinces, as well as to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. A total curfew between the hours of to 3 PM to 7 PM has been enacted in all three cities starting today.

The decree was published by state media upon approval of King Salman. All international flights have been halted, the granting of visas for the year-round Umrah pilgrimage has been suspended, and closure has been enacted for mosques, schools, malls and restaurants.

Saudi Arabia had introduced an initial, tentative three-week curfew on Monday, after a spike in infections. Its second fatality was a 46-year-old foreign resident of Mecca, among 133 new cases that took the Kingdom’s tally of to 900. 29 people have reportedly recovered.

The restrictions are altering daily life in the country of some 30 million, where late-night gatherings at coffee shops or private homes are common.

The state-backed Human Rights Commission announced today that Saudi Arabia has released 250 foreign detainees held on non-violent immigration and residency offences, as part of efforts to contain the spread of the disease.

Two meetings of G20 economies due to be held in Saudi Arabia have been postponed.

Riyadh’s Interior Ministry reported there has been “high compliance” with the self-isolation orders, which were imposed under the threat of fines or incarceration for those who commit violations.

64 people are currently facing legal action in the UAE for not obeying a 14-day home quarantine order after coming into contact with infected individuals, according to a government tweet. There have been 2 reported deaths of the virus, 333 confirmed cases of infection, with 2 people listed in critical or serious condition.

About 10 million people live in the sovereign constitutional monarchy, which is a federation of seven emirates consisting of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain.

UAE authorities have yet to announce an official curfew or suspended work, but they have instead called on the public to remain at home unless they need food, medicine or healthcare, or work in vital sectors.

The Emirates, which are considered the regional hub for tourism, business and transit, today began a widescale effort to disinfect all public facilities. All public transportation will be shut down starting at 8 PM today until 6 AM on Sunday, as reported by the state WAM news agency. During these days, the movement of traffic and people will also be limited.

Hundreds of Europeans have been stranded in the UAE after airports suddenly stopped flights on Tuesday with little warning in the capital of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the federation’s most populated city. Oil engineer Jamie Richardson had been due to return to Britain on Wednesday for a new job. “It’s proper stressful,” he told Reuters, “You have no idea what’s going on.”

The business regulator in Dubai instructed private companies to implement remote working for 80% of staff through 9 April.

Pharmacies, grocery stores, supermarkets and cooperative societies have all been exempted. Other critical sectors, including banking, industrial and manufacturing, construction, logistics and delivery, are also permitted to maintain operations.

All food shops have been told to stay open 24 hours a day, but to limit capacity to 30% and enforce a 2-meter distance between customers.

Organizers of the Expo 2020 Dubai World Fair, which is slated to open in October and expected to draw 11 million visitors from abroad, have confirmed one coronavirus case among staff; and say they are now ‘reviewing their preparations.’

In Bahrain, there have been 4 virus-related deaths and 419 total reported cases. 2 of the patients are in serious or critical condition, while 190 others have recovered. The majority of infections in the island state have been linked to travel to Iran, which has emerged as an epicenter for the virus in the Middle East.

Manama today continued the evacuation of several hundred of its citizens from Iran, who were stranded after making pilgrimages to the Islamic Republic. A second repatriation flight of around 60 Bahrainis arrived overnight from the holy Shi’ite Iranian city of Mashhad, operated by Iranian airline Kish. Earlier this month 165 people were returned home, but a number of subsequent scheduled flights were canceled. At least 85 of the first batch of evacuees tested positive for the virus.

Bahrain has longstanding differences with Iran and has criticized the Islamic Republic for not stamping Bahraini citizens’ passports.

When the last census was taken in 2018 there were 1,569,446 citizens in the oil-rich Islamic constitutional monarchy, which declared independence in 1971 from the United Kingdom.

Formula One called off the Bahrain Grands Prix slated to be held on March 22, even though it had already been scheduled to be held without spectators under floodlights at the Sakhir circuit.

Bahrain and Kuwait have also announced prisoner releases in attempts to curb the COVID-19 contagion.

Kuwait is reporting 13 new cases if COVID-19 infections, for a total of 208. There are yet to be any fatalities connected to the disease in the Islamic country, which is a non-NATO ally of the United States.

Health authorities set up testing and quarantine sites across the capital of Kuwait City, to test travelers returning from Europe. Anyone showing symptoms of the virus were admitted to hospitals after having their temperatures checked and noses swabbed. A quarantine site was set up about 88 kilometers south of Kuwait City at a beachside resort where passengers returning from highly-infected countries are being accommodated and tended by the Kuwaiti Red Crescent. Metal fences and blue buoys were erected around the resort to prevent unauthorized access. Residents of the quarantined site are being

The Gulf Arab state, whose population of nearly 5 million is estimated to consist of at least 70% expatriates, was the first among its neighbors to impose major measures against the coronavirus. The declaration of a state-wide public holiday from 12-26 March was later extended to 4 August. All schools and universities will remain shuttered at least until that time. Kuwait City has also suspended all commercial passenger flights since 13 March. The KUNA state news agency reported that people were banned from going to restaurants and cafes, and asked to no longer hold Kuwait’s traditional diwaniya private and public gatherings.

Qatar is reporting 537 infections from the coronavirus, and 41 recoveries. 6 people are in serious or critical condition. According to the state news agency, Doha today revealed that it was signing agreements to increase its strategic food stuff reserves. The agency also reported that the agreements were in line with state food security plans and with Trade Ministry efforts to enforce the partnership between the public and private sectors.

In efforts to bring home its nationals travelling abroad, Qatar Airways announced expanded operations to Australia today. 28 frequencies, amounting to some 48,000 extra seats, will be added to the main gateways of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, In addition, a daily service will be operated to Brisbane aboard a Boeing 777-300ER, marking the first such route Qatar will run to the Australian city.

Only 313,000 of the overall 2.6 million total population of Qatar are citizens and the other 2.3 million are expatriates, according to an early 2017 survey. The Health Ministry reported that many of the infected are non-citizens.

The season-opening Qatar Grand Prix which only hosted the Moto2 and Moto3 after the MotoGP was cancelled due to quarantine and visa restrictions on visitors from Italy. The MotoGP race had been slated for the Losail circuit on March 8, and is now scheduled to take place instead at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, on April 5.

Oman has 99 reported virus cases, 17 recoveries and has yet to record a death attributable to the virus. State television in the Sultanate announced that it will suspend all internal and international flights as of March 29, except cargo operations and flights to Musandam amid coronavirus contamination efforts.

Muscat has also put all loan talks on hold after the crash of oil prices.

The dual shock of the coronavirus outbreak and plunging oil prices, declard the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that should push Gulf states to prioritize fiscal support for affected sectors of their non-oil economies, which are expected to slow this year. The six oil exporters’ governments and central banks have so far launched broad-based stimulus packages to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic.

Stimulus packages offered so far come to nearly 30% of GDP in Oman and Bahrain, more than 10% in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and over 4% in Saudi Arabia, according to Fitch Ratings.

The IMF warned this week the coronavirus outbreak will cause a global recession in 2020 that could be worse than the one triggered by the financial crisis of 2008-2009.