Covid-19 countermeasures widen in the Middle East

27 February 2020
Saudi Arabia bans entry to Mecca and Medina, as several Gulf countries clamp down on public gatherings

Saudi Arabia has temporarily halted entry to Mecca and Medina for pilgrims from countries hit by the new coronavirus, which emerged from Wuhan, China in December 2019.  

Visits to conduct the Umrah pilgrimage in Mecca and visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina have been suspended, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed.

Entry to the kingdom by visitors holding tourist visas from countries with confirmed coronavirus outbreaks has also been halted.

National identity cards cannot be used instead of passports to travel to and from Saudi Arabia as part of the kingdom’s temporary suspensions.

Exceptions will be made for Saudi nationals who departed the kingdom using their national identity cards, and GCC citizens planning to exit Saudi Arabia after entering the country with their national identity cards.

The use of passports is expected to help Saudi Arabian authorities review the travel history of arriving passengers more easily.

The ministry stressed that “these measures are temporary”, state-run Saudi Press Agency reported.

Rumours about the closure of King Fahd Causeway, which links Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, were denied by the kingdom.

Bahrain impact

Similar closures have been announced by Bahrain’s Civil Aviation Affairs (CAA) authority, which suspended flights to and from Iraq and Lebanon for an indefinite period.

Passengers arriving at Bahrain International airport will be tested if they are suspected of having contracted Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

National carrier Gulf Air, following CAA orders, suspended flights to and from Dubai International airport for 48 hours on 25 February.

Bahrain has formed the National Taskforce for Combating the Coronavirus, with various agencies issued instructions to suspend their services.

Travel and tourism agencies have been ordered to halt any promotions for trips to Iran by the Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority.

Three pharmacies have been shut down by the kingdom’s Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism for tampering with the prices of face masks.

Public and private schools, including kindergartens, will be closed in Bahrain for two weeks from 26 February.

Thirty-three cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in Bahrain.

Seven patients, who were identified on 26 February, had arrived at Bahrain International airport through indirect flights from Iran.

Bahrain’s Health Ministry said one of the newly recorded cases was of a Bahraini citizen who had returned from Iran before the country announced the pandemic.

Home quarantines have also been enforced for some patients.

UAE update

Abdul Rahman al-Owais, the UAE’s Minister of Health and Prevention, said a medical facility was being established “far away from residential areas” to isolate and treat Covid-19 patients.

Thirteen cases have been reported in the UAE and Al-Owais said the country was monitoring the spread of the virus in Iran, Italy and Korea.

Egyptian investment bank EFG Hermes said its annual One on One investment conference, due to be held on 2-5 March in Dubai, had been cancelled in light of “the spread of the virus […] to multiple countries from which we expect guests”.

The UAE has suspended passenger and cargo flights to and from Iran. Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways has suspended Hong Kong flights until 28 March.

The UAE Embassy in Rome also urged its citizens to postpone their travel plans to Italy as the country rapidly emerges as the centre of Europe’s Covid-19 cases, with more than 370 infections and at least 12 deaths.

Kuwait response

The Kuwaiti Cabinet agreed to suspend government and private schools, colleges, universities, military colleges and Awqaf and Islamic Affairs educational centres from 1-12 March.

Kuwait has also demanded that the World Health Organisation (WHO) send “a specialised global team as soon as possible to review and assess” the measures implemented by its state bodies.

The country’s health ministry said 26 cases had been recorded in Kuwait. One of the most recently identified cases was of a Kuwaiti national that had recently travelled to Iran.

National carrier Kuwait Airways will operate a special flight today to evacuate Kuwaitis from Milan, where deaths related to Covid-19 have been reported.

Kuwait evacuated 700 people from Iran last week.

Kuwait’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry has cancelled all events and exhibitions planned in the country until further notice.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry has closed 19 pharmacies across Kuwait after they failed to commit to the medical mask prices fixed by the authority.

Around the Middle East

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani ordered special flights to evacuate Qatari and Kuwaiti citizens from Iran.

Oman announced two new cases on 25 February, raising the total number of Covid-19 patients in the sultanate to four.

The Ministry of Health in Oman said the two new cases were linked to a recent trip to Iran conducted by the patients.

Iraq has banned public gatherings and suspended entry to travellers from Kuwait and Bahrain.

Iraqi citizens are banned from travelling to China, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Italy, Bahrain and Kuwait, local media reported, citing Reuters.

Schools, universities, cafés, cinemas, clubs and other public spaces have been suspended or closed from 27 February to 7 March.

In Iran, viewed as the epicentre of Covid-19’s spread in the Middle East, at least 139 infections and 19 deaths have been recorded, according to health ministry spokesperson Kianush Jahanpur.  

Iran has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths outside China.

Deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi is one of the Iranian nationals to have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Around the world

The number of coronavirus cases has increased to 400 in Italy, representing a 25 per cent jump in 24 hours.

Italy is also being traced as the source of new cases in neighbouring European countries, including Austria, Croatia, Greece, Norway, Switzerland, Georgia and North Macedonia, according to the BBC.

Thirteen cases have been reported in the UK, and the US has recorded 60 cases, including 45 Americans that were repatriated from Wuhan and the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked in Japan.

The US’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on 27 February that it might have identified the first case of community spread in the country.

A California resident tested positive for the coronavirus despite not having travelled to infected countries, or being exposed to known patients.

More from MEED on the impact of coronavirus


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