March 15, 2020 / 10:40 AM / 24 days ago

Saudi Arabia restricts movement, other Gulf states limit entry as coronavirus spreads

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia closed public spaces on Sunday and announced a pause in most government operations while Qatar and Oman imposed entry restrictions as Gulf Arab states broadened efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus and support their economies.

A gas station worker wearing a protective face mask sits next to a petrol station, after Saudi Arabia imposed a temporary lockdown on the province of Qatif following the spread of coronavirus, in Qatif, Saudi Arabia March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar reported new cases, raising the total number in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to 963, with no deaths reported.

Qatar, which now has 401 cases, said it would ban non-Qatari passengers from entering the country for two weeks starting on Wednesday. It announced measures to shield its economy, including 75 billion riyals ($20.5 billion) in incentives for the private sector and more state investment in the local bourse.

Oman said that as of Tuesday it would allow in only GCC citizens, and ordered the suspension of Friday prayers, social events such as weddings and closure of public parks.

Saudi Arabia reported 15 more coronavirus cases, taking its total to 118. Local municipalities tweeted directives for the closure of malls, restaurants, coffee shops and public parks, while exempting supermarkets, pharmacies and food delivery. Al Arabiya TV said the measures would apply across the country.

State news agency SPA reported that government operations were suspended for 16 days except for the health and security sectors. The justice ministry said earlier non-urgent judicial hearings were postponed indefinitely.

Regional tourism and business hub Dubai joined the UAE capital Abu Dhabi in closing cinemas, arcades, spas, gyms and parks, prompting a rush on supermarkets where many shoppers wore masks and gloves, residents said.

The Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange closed trading halls until further notice, a day after Kuwait’s bourse did the same.

The UAE recorded 12 more travel-linked infections among various nationalities — South African, Australian, Chinese, Filipino, Italian, Lebanese, British, Iranian, Emirati and three Indians — raising its total to 98.

DRASTIC MEASURES

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which previously cancelled the Umrah pilgrimage and locked down its eastern Qatif region, have taken the most drastic steps among Gulf states by halting international passenger flights. The UAE and Qatar have restricted entry visas. Emirates airline suspended more flights.

Saudi Arabia’s central bank will intervene to support the kingdom’s economy if liquidity is tight or credit is affected, its governor said, reiterating a commitment to the riyal’s dollar peg.

An American living in the Saudi capital Riyadh said his parents cut short their visit ahead of the kingdom’s two-week flight ban which went into effect at 0800 GMT.

“I’m glad that they’re off even though it means 24 hours in the airport hotel in Dubai,” he said.

Two gated compounds in Riyadh housing hundreds of expatriates each reported one case among residents, according to internal emails seen by Reuters. Some compounds restricted residents’ movements and guest access.

Citizens and residents in Kuwait, which went into virtual lockdown on Thursday, had their temperatures tested before entering bank branches, where long queues formed on Sunday.

RIVALRIES

Many cases in the Gulf are linked to travel with Iran, which on Sunday raised its toll to 724 dead and more than 13,900 infected.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Sunday the government had no plans to quarantine cities, state TV reported.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, both adversaries of Iran, have criticised the Islamic Republic for allowing their citizens to enter without stamping their passports.

Slideshow (2 Images)

However, the outbreak has also seen rivalries sidelined.

In a rare phone call, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan told his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif the UAE was ready to help, state media said on Sunday.

Iranian media said Zarif thanked the UAE, which has facilitated medical supply shipments.

Reporting by Stephen Kalin, Maher Chmaytelli, Dahlia Nehme, Parisa Hafezi, Alaa Swilam, Samar Hassan and Gulf newsroom; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Kirsten Donovan, William Maclean and Lisa Shumaker

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