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Saudi bars Gulf citizens, residents; Iran deaths hit 77

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia yesterday barred citizens and residents of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries from entering the kingdom for 14 days after returning from outside the region due to coronavirus concerns, state news agency SPA reported. Travellers coming from any fellow GCC state – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar – must spend 14 continuous days there and show no signs of the coronavirus before being granted entry, SPA said, citing an interior ministry source.

Saudi Arabia reported its first case of coronavirus on Monday in a Saudi national returning from Iran, which has reported the most deaths outside China, where the flu-like disease originated. The other GCC states have also diagnosed the infection in people who had visited Iran, totaling more than 145 cases. The Saudi health ministry said it was testing 70 people who had come into contact with the infected Saudi citizen, who remains in quarantine in hospital. The authorities have said he had not disclosed his visit to Iran upon returning home.

Iran hosts several important shrines and pilgrimage sites for Shiites, who make up a minority of Saudi Arabia’s population. The Saudi foreign ministry tweeted a video yesterday reminding citizens of an existing ban on travel to Iran, which is locked in a struggle with Saudi Arabia for regional supremacy. Saudi Arabia took several measures last week to prevent the spread of the disease to the kingdom, banning foreigners arriving for the Muslim umrah pilgrimage, Gulf Arab citizens visiting Makkah and Madinah, and tourists from at least 25 states where the virus has been found.

SPA also said that Saudi citizens or residents entering from a GCC country must inform authorities upon arrival in the kingdom of any travel outside the GCC in the preceding 14 days. The kingdom will cooperate with any GCC country that wishes to apply the same procedures to travellers from the kingdom, it added. Saudi Arabia’s Center for Disease Control late on Monday urged citizens to postpone non-essential travel to Germany and France, where more cases have been reported.

Meanwhile, major concerts and sporting events in Gulf states have been cancelled or postponed. There have been at least 2,476 cases of the virus in the Gulf region, mostly in Iran where 77 people have died. Cases have also been reported in other Middle East nations. In the United Arab Emirates, a tourism and business hub, this month’s electronic music Ultra festival at Abu Dhabi’s 25,000-capacity Du arena and K-pop concert Music Bank at Dubai’s 17,000-capacity Coca Cola Arena have been cancelled.

Electronic group Major Lazer, whose members include renowned DJ Diplo, and DJ Afrojack were scheduled to perform at Ultra. Ultra organizers cited travel restrictions imposed by some countries and airlines due to the rapidly spreading virus in its reasoning for cancelling the two-day festival. Music Bank organizers cited the spread of the epidemic in South Korea, which is the highest outside China, and elsewhere.

Conferences, concerts and sporting events are a major draw-card for foreign visitors to the UAE, which has reported 21 cases of coronavirus. Dubai’s flagship international art fair “Art Dubai”, scheduled for this month, has been postponed. A women’s forum in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi was postponed while a yoga festival in Abu Dhabi and a Hindu Holi festival in Dubai were cancelled. The opening round of the 2020 World Triathlon Series scheduled in Abu Dhabi this weekend has been postponed. American rapper and producer Russ will now perform in Dubai in November instead of March because of the virus. “I know, wild lol (laugh out loud) but outta my control,” he said on Twitter.

The Oman Petroleum & Energy Show (OPES), due to take place in the sultanate in March, has been postponed to September, the organizers told Reuters. Oman yesterday confirmed six new cases of coronavirus, taking the total there to 12. Qatar has cancelled a defense exhibition and Bahrain postponed two oil and gas conferences from this month to the second half of the year. Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry said yesterday that people entering the kingdom by land, including via the causeway linking the country with Bahrain, were being screened.

The coronavirus has claimed 77 lives in Iran, officials said yesterday, as the emergency services chief became the latest high-ranking official to be infected in the deadliest outbreak outside China. Iran has scrambled to halt the rapid spread of the virus, shutting schools and universities, suspending major cultural and sporting events, and cutting back on work hours. Yesterday it announced another 11 deaths and 835 new infections – the biggest increase in a single day since the COVID-19 outbreak began in the Islamic republic nearly two weeks ago.

“According to the latest figures, 835 new patients have been added” to the overall number of infections, Iran’s stand-in deputy health minister Alireza Raisi said. “Unfortunately, we have 11 new deaths, and with this amount we have reached 2,336 new confirmed cases and a total of 77 dead,” he said in remarks aired live on state television. The national emergency services chief Pirhossein Kolivand was the latest high-profile official to contract the illness, a spokesman for the services told AFP.

Confirmation of his infection came a day after Tasnim news agency reported that the virus claimed the life of Mohammad Mirmohammadi, 72, a member of the Expediency Council which advises Iran’s supreme leader. It also comes a week after the country’s original deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, fell ill with COVID-19. Harirchi admitted he had tested positive a day after he had coughed and wiped sweat from his brow during a news conference that was beamed live around the country on Feb 25.

But the judiciary said a jailed British-Iranian woman, whose husband said she feared she had been infected behind bars in Tehran, was “in perfect health”. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016, is serving a five-year term for sedition at Evin prison. “Yesterday she talked to her family by phone. There has been news about her recently that was fake news,” judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said.

Iran announced on Feb 19 its first two deaths from the coronavirus in Qom, a center for Islamic studies and pilgrims from abroad. The country now has the highest death toll for any country outside China, where the virus has killed more than 2,900 people since late December. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iranians to stick to hygiene guidelines to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading. “The healthcare guidelines for preventing infection from this virus should be observed,” said Khamenei, who was seen on state television wearing gloves as he planted a tree.

Khamenei said Iran was being transparent with its figures on the outbreak and accused other countries of trying to conceal them. “The #Coronavirus has affected many countries,” he was quoted as saying on his official Twitter account. “Our officials have reported with sincerity and transparency since day one. However, some countries where the outbreak has been more serious have tried to hide it. Of course, we ask God to heal the sick in those countries too,” he added. Iran on Saturday dismissed a BBC Persian report that the real number of coronavirus deaths in the country was more than 200. The United States and Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders have accused Iran of concealing information about the outbreak. – Agencies

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