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Travel and Trade Suffer as COVID-19 Reaches Arab World
A trader wears a protective mask as he follows the market at the Boursa Kuwait stock exchange in Kuwait City on March 1. (Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images)

Travel and Trade Suffer as COVID-19 Reaches Arab World

Authorities cancel flights, close borders as governments race to prepare for possible outbreaks

Arab states are stepping up measures to halt the transmission of novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, as the first cases are being identified in Iraq, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have already reported instances of the illness.

Iran, the region’s largest non-Arab state, is coping with the world’s greatest outbreak aside from China. On Sunday, health authorities reported close to a thousand confirmed cases and 54 deaths – although the BBC, citing hospital sources, reported over the weekend that there could be more than 200 deaths in the Islamic Republic.

The Emirates News Agency reported on Sunday that the UAE had ordered its citizens to refrain from traveling to both Iran and Thailand.

Dubai-based Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East and the world’s fourth-largest air carrier by scheduled passenger-miles, has asked staff to take paid or unpaid leave due to a “measurable slowdown” in the demand for travel.

The airline has halted most flights to China and suspended all operations to Iran. It also has stopped passenger flights between more than 20 countries and Saudi Arabia, the carrier’s biggest market in the Middle East.

Ahmed Alsyaaf, a Dubai-based writer, author and analyst, told The Media Line that such precautionary moves were vital, especially as there is still no vaccine against COVID-19.

“These measures are necessary so that the [UAE] doesn’t become a contributing factor in the spread of the virus,” he said. “Emirates connects East with West. Therefore, it’s normal to suspend airline operations and to deal with this virus with extreme caution.”

The UAE was the first Gulf country to report cases. On January 29, four members of a Chinese family that had arrived on vacation a week earlier from Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the outbreak, were diagnosed with COVID-19.

On February 21, EgyptAir said it would resume some flights to and from China as of February 27. The announcement sparked outrage on social media, and Mohammed Goma’a, an Egyptian analyst and journalist, told The Media Line that the airline had since reversed its decision.

According to Goma’a, Egypt’s only COVID-19 patient has already recovered. The 33-year-old non-Egyptian national was isolated under the supervision of both the Egyptian Health Ministry and the World Health Organization. He was also the first case of COVID-19 identified in Africa.

In Kuwait, the cabinet canceled all activities related to the country’s February 25 National Day. A ban on all sports activities in the country will remain in place until further notice.

Additionally, Kuwait’s civil aviation authority announced the suspension of all flights to and from South Korea, Thailand, Italy and Iraq.

Qatar Airways has announced that arrivals from Iran and South Korea will be subject to quarantine for a period of 14 days. The Qatar Ports Company said it was inspecting all arriving ships. In addition, the 14th Doha Interfaith Dialogue Conference on Religions, titled “Religions and Hate Speech… Practice and Scriptures” and scheduled for March 3-4, was postponed due to the virus.

Bahrain has banned its citizens from traveling to Iran, and travel and tourism agencies have been ordered to stop all promotion of such travel. Iraqi Airways has also suspended all flights to and from Iran.

Iran’s parliament announced on Friday that it was suspending its work indefinitely. A day later, lawmaker Mohammad Ali Ramazani Dastak died. Official news agencies announced that he had died of the flu, but other media outlets reported that the case was COVID-19.

Most Arab countries that have yet to identify cases of novel coronavirus have announced precautionary measures. The Arab League has put on hold a summit that was scheduled for the end of March in Algeria.

Tareef Ashour, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority’s Health Ministry, told The Media Line that as of Sunday, there were no cases in the West Bank. However, the ministry has prepared a comprehensive, three-stage contingency plan because the virus has been identified in about half of the countries in the region, of which Palestine is a part.

“Countries around Palestine, such as Egypt, Lebanon and Israel, have reported coronavirus cases,” he noted. “Therefore, we have to take precautionary steps. The first stage takes place prior to the virus’s arrival. It involves training hundreds of medical staff on how to deal with the coronavirus, in addition to educating the public about hygiene.”

On Sunday, the ministry ordered the cancelation of all conferences in the West Bank, as well as all university and school field trips. Ashour explained that this was a “preventive” measure aimed at reducing contact with foreign nationals.

“Also, we have ordered people not to participate in any such workshops abroad, as the human body is a carrier of the virus,” he stated.

Last week, Saudi Arabia suspended the entry of foreigners from all countries hardest hit by coronavirus, and said it was barring foreign Muslims from traveling to Mecca and Medina for the umrah pilgrimage, which can be made at any time of the year. Discussions are already underway on whether to allow foreign Muslims to enter the country for the annual hajj, which is set for July 28-August 2.

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