March 19, 2020 / 7:09 PM / 14 days ago

Saudi king urges solidarity to overcome 'difficult period' of coronavirus

RIYADH, March 19 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s King Salman spoke publicly on Thursday for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus, pledging to continue measures to curb its spread and urging citizens to work together to confront the global pandemic.

“We are living through a difficult period in the history of the world, but we are fully aware that it will pass despite its cruelty, bitterness and difficulty,” the 84-year-old monarch said in a televised address to the nation.

In a five-minute speech, he urged people to act with solidarity and cooperation and to adhere to official directives.

Saudi Arabia recorded 36 new infections on Thursday, bringing its total to 274 with no deaths so far.

It has taken drastic measures to address the outbreak, including halting international flights, suspending the Umrah year-round pilgrimage to Mecca, closing mosques, schools, malls and restaurants, and asking people to stop going to work.

Amid volatility in regional markets and plunging oil prices, the world’s top crude exporter has prepared a 50 billion riyal ($13 billion) package to help small- and medium-sized enterprises cope, and has cut its state budget by nearly 5%.

De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son and heir apparent, has talked by phone with several foreign leaders but not spoken publicly since the country went into virtual lockdown last weekend. The government has halted its regular Cabinet meetings.

Coronavirus infections among the Gulf Arab states now top 1,300, with one death in Bahrain. Many of the cases are linked to travel to Iran, an epicentre of the outbreak in the Middle East with 1,284 deaths and more than 18,000 cases of infection.

$1 = 3.7590 riyals Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Marwa Rashad Editing by Frances Kerry

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