Saudi Arabia reopens borders for travel

17 May 2021
Abu Dhabi is also planning quarantine-free travel this summer as regional vaccination plans advance

The number of Covid-19 cases in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region crossed 8,467,276 on 17 May, according to Worldometers data collated by MEED.

Countries in the GCC account for 22.4 per cent (1,892,591) of all regional cases, and Iran’s 2,751,166 cases comprise 32.5 per cent of the Mena tally.

Since 10 May, 172,285 new Covid-19 cases have been reported in the 17 Mena countries tracked by MEED.

Plans to resume travel are gaining traction as weekly case growth slows in the region.

Travel to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has lifted its travel ban as planned, with ports reopened as of 1am on 17 May. The kingdom’s General Directorate of Passports said individuals wishing to travel from Saudi Arabia must follow Interior Ministry regulations for the category they have been assigned. Categories of travellers include individuals who:

  • Have received both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine
  • Have received one dose at least two weeks prior to travel
  • Are recovering from the virus within six months of their travel date
  • Are citizens aged under 18

International flights began today from King Khalid International airport in Riyadh to Sarajevo International airport. Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International airport in Medina has also reopened for citizens departing from or arriving in the kingdom.

Fully vaccinated travellers to Saudi Arabia, including citizens and foreigners, are no longer required to quarantine upon arrival. Residents and nationals must ensure their vaccine status is updated in the Tawakkalna application, and other travellers must show proof of having received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca or Moderna vaccines, or one of Johnson & Johnson.

Foreigners must carry proof of vaccination at all times, and people travelling after receiving only one vaccine dose or a negative PCR test must quarantine at their own expense. Quarantine-free travel does not apply to arrivals from countries where high-risk variants have been detected.

According to the interior ministry, the use of national identification cards remains suspended for GCC nationals, who must travel with their passports. All travellers to Saudi Arabia must have health insurance to cover the cost of Covid-19 treatment in case they are infected while in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia will continue to ban nationals from travelling directly or through a third destination to the following countries:

  • Afghanistan
  • Armenia
  • Belarus
  • Democratic Congo
  • India
  • Iran
  • Lebanon
  • Libya
  • Somalia
  • Syria
  • Turkey
  • Venezuela
  • Yemen
Abu Dhabi eyes tourism

Dubai Airports’ CEO Paul Griffiths has confirmed he supports the global push for ‘vaccine passports’ as a critical tool to resume international travel.

“I do not think there is an alternative,” he told the BBC. “I think the problem is not the vaccine passport and its discrimination. It is the need to roll things out and have a proper, globally equitable vaccine programme.

“I just do not think the world can survive without [mass] mobility for much longer, certainly socially and economically, but you can understand why countries around the world are being very conservative. The last thing any politician wants is a surge of infection on their turf.“

Starting 1 July 2021, Abu Dhabi is expected to permit quarantine-free travel to boost tourism in the emirate.

Quarantine-free travel is offered for individuals arriving from countries on Abu Dhabi’s green travel list, which is expected to be expanded from the third quarter, with more countries likely to be added this week.

Travellers from India will still need to quarantine until its status is reviewed in around September, but Abu Dhabi will respond to the situation as it develops, Ali al-Shaiba, executive director of tourism and marketing at the emirate's Department of Culture & Tourism, told local newspaper the National.

“It also depends on India itself, if they will allow their people to travel,” he added.

“We will see when India recovers, either partially or fully. We will definitely reactivate that market when the time comes.”

Vaccination progress

Regional governments are expanding inoculation programmes as they prepare to widen the net for travellers in the summer months.

On 11 May, Manama authorised the emergency use of Russia’s single-shot Sputnik-Light Covid-19 vaccine, making it the sixth jab to be approved in Bahrain after those manufactured by Sinopharm, Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Sputnik-V’s two-dose vaccine is also approved in Bahrain.

The health ministry has issued regulations for private sector companies to procure Covid-19 vaccines for their staff. Privately held companies must contract ministry-authorised healthcare facilities, with the price of a single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s jab set at RO20 ($51.94), and an RO3 cost to administer the vaccine. Reservation requests must be paid for digitally and submitted using this link. The distribution of booked quantities is expected to begin in June. On 10 May, Oman postponed the administration of the second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines until June so as to prioritise the innoculation of grade 12 students before their final exams.

Tehran said on 11 May that it had commenced the mass production of its locally manufactured Covid-19 vaccine, Coviran Barekat. Iran plans to produce 1 million doses of the jab by 21 May and about 10 million doses of the vaccine are expected to be distributed by June, according to Hojjat Niki Maleki, director of the information department of the Barekat Foundation, which is producing the vaccine. Coviran Barekat is understood to have undergone three stages of clinical trials, the last of which reportedly covered 20,000 people. 

On 13 May, Cairo is understood to have received 1,768,800 Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine doses through the Covax facility. The shipment comes more than a month after Egypt received its first batch of 854,400 doses of the jab. Egypt is to be allocated 4.5 million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses through Covax. A separate shipment of 500,000 Sinopharm vaccine doses arrived from China, the Egyptian health ministry said on 13 May. Cairo is in agreement to receive 20 million Sinopharm doses, and plans to manufacture the Chinese Sinovac and Russian Sputnik-V vaccines locally.

The Covax facility has also supported Iraq this month, with the 499,200 Oxford-AstraZeneca doses sent to Baghdad on 9 May bringing the total number of vaccines received by Iraqi health authorities from Covax to nearly 1 million. A total of 441,121 people have received vaccination in Iraq, with an average of 15,000 people getting vaccinated every day, according to Ahmed Zouiten, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) representative in Iraq.

Earlier this week, the UAE launched the first phase of a vaccination drive to inoculate refugees in Jordan and Iraq against Covid-19. Emirates Red Crescent is delivering the initiative in partnership with the Department of Health Abu Dhabi, and will work with health ministries in Iraq and Jordan, as well as the UN Refugee Agency, to vaccinate 12,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and 15,000 displaced people from Syria and Iraq in Kurdistan.

Over the weekend, Rabat is understood to have received 650,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through Covax, raising the country’s total receipts through the facility to 950,000. Morocco is expected to receive 1.6 million doses of the jab through Covax. 

About 100,000 people have received the first dose of Covid-19 vaccines, Libya’s National Centre for Disease Control said on 11 May. According to local media reports, the country’s vaccine stock includes 201,252 doses of Sputnik-V, of which 101,252 were received through the UAE, 57,600 doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine from Covax and 150,000 doses of Sinovac.

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