The lockdown on Qatif on Sunday, an eastern area that is home to around 500,000 people, is the first action of its kind across the Gulf region, which has confirmed more than 230 coronavirus cases – most of them people returning from religious pilgrimages to Shia-majority Iran.
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Given the kingdom’s 11 recorded cases of the new coronavirus are from Qatif, “it has been decided to temporarily suspend entry and exit” from the area, the interior ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).
Although the ministry said the lockdown was temporary, it risks fuelling resentment in the flashpoint region whose residents have long accused the Sunni-dominated government of discrimination, a charge Riyadh denies.
Four more cases of Covid-19 were reported in the kingdom on Monday, three of whom were said to have had contact with a person with the virus who had reportedly returned from Iran via the United Arab Emirates, but did not disclose his visit to the authorities. The fourth case was an American who had visited Italy and the Philippines.
The government also decided to temporarily suspend “the travel of citizens and residents to the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, South Korea, Egypt, Italy and Iraq, as well as suspend the entry of those coming from those countries”, the agency reported.
“The kingdom also decided to stop air and sea travel between the kingdom and the mentioned countries,” it added.
The decision is expected to leave expatriate workers from those countries as well as Saudi travellers stranded.
Riyadh also announced it was closing all public and private universities and schools across the country from Monday until further notice, SPA reported. all educational and Koranic activities in mosques in the country were also cancelled.
Saudi Arabia has blamed Iran for its spike in coronavirus cases, while condemning Tehran for allowing its citizens entry without stamping their passports.
The Saudi government has reminded its nationals of a standing ban on travel to Iran, as the two countries jostle for regional supremacy.
Iran is home to key shrines and pilgrimage sites for Shias, who make up between 10-15% of Saudi Arabia’s population of 32 million.
The kingdom has also suspended the umrah year-round pilgrimage over fears of the disease spreading to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the west. The unprecedented suspension has raised uncertainty over the annual hajj pilgrimage, scheduled for the end of July.
The pilgrimages, a major source of revenue, could also be a source of contagion and the move mirrors a precautionary approach across the Gulf to cancel mass gatherings – from concerts to sporting events.
Bahrain’s Formula 1 Grand Prix scheduled for 20-22 March will be held without spectators, the organisers said on Sunday, the latest sporting event to be affected by measures to contain the disease.
Saudi Arabia is also grappling with a coronavirus-led slump in oil prices just as it seeks to raise funds to finance Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious economic transformation plan. The price of crude oil plunged more than 20% after Riyadh said it would step up production next month.
Tensions mounted in the kingdom on the weekend following the arrest of Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, the only full brother of the monarch, King Salman, and Mohammed bin Nayef, who was heir to the throne until being ousted by Prince Mohammed. Both arrested men face treason charges after being accused of organising against the ambitious heir to the Saudi throne.
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