Re-opening Saudi Arabia

Mekkah has been off-limits because of COVID-19

Countries across the Middle East have hunkered down and closed shop during the coronavirus pandemic. Other countries around the world have done the same. Although the severity of lockdowns has differed everyone has suffered, especially small businesses, and those in the tourism, aviation and the hospitality sectors.

Some of the strict restrictions are being lifted around the world, although at a different pace and by different means. Saudi Arabia which has 22,753 cases and 162 deaths, at the time of writing (Friday 1 May), is among those countries easing the virus restrictions. As of April 29, it was allowing business and markets to reopen. All international flights were prohibited and people could not go to Mekkah for fear of passing on, or contracting, the virus.

The price of oil collapsed as a trade war erupted between Russia and Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer. There is concern that the rules-based trading system in the form of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) may not survive. What will this mean for Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries, and the rest of the world, going forward?

This article from Al Monitor quotes news service, Reuters, and explains how the largest Gulf country, Saudi Arabia is lifting the restrictions. The need to do so is strong for economic and societal reasons, particularly since it is the holy month of Ramadan.

Apr 29, 2020

Saudi Arabia allowed businesses and markets to reopen today, becoming the latest among several Middle Eastern countries to relax its coronavirus-related lockdowns.

The government allowed stores, malls and open-air markets to reopen. Civilian movement between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. was also eased, according to Reuters.

Schools, mosques and restaurants remain closed, however, because social distancing is difficult in those places. Social gatherings of more than five people also remain banned because of COVID-19, Reuters reported.

Saudi Arabia will also now allow travel into and out of the eastern Qatif province, which it sealed off in March.

The Saudi economy has suffered under the restrictions and due to the global oil crisis. Oil prices plummeted after Saudi flooded the market amid a price war with Russia in March. The massive decrease in worldwide travel and in business operations due to coronavirus-related lockdowns around the world has also lessened demand for oil. This has caused massive revenue losses for Saudi Arabia, which is the world's biggest oil producer.

Saudi Arabia's central bank announced that its foreign currency reserves fell at the fastest rate in at least 20 years in March.

Many Middle Eastern countries have eased their virus mitigation measures in the past few days, including Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. In the Gulf, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates also reduced its lockdown restrictions recently.

Many countries felt the need to restart their economies after the lockdowns led to job losses and food shortages. Others, such as Lebanon, reported relatively few confirmed coronavirus cases.

The Middle East is also in the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast during the day and then eat and worship together at night. This has created both economic and societal impetuses to reopen.

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Tuesday, 02 June 2020