Saudi Arabia locks down Qatif region as coronavirus cases rise in Gulf

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia on Sunday imposed a temporary lockdown on its eastern Qatif province, home to a large Shi’ite Muslim population, to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the kingdom after recording four more cases that raised the total to 11.

FILE PHOTO – General view of Kaaba at the Grand Mosque which is almost empty of worshippers, after Saudi authority suspended umrah (Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) amid the fear of coronavirus outbreak, at Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Ganoo Essa

The move risks stirring resentment in Qatif, which has been a flashpoint between the Sunni-dominated Saudi government and minority Shi’ites in the country who have complained of discrimination and marginalization, charges the government denies.

Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry said all the individuals diagnosed with the disease are from Qatif. Saudi authorities have previously said those infected have either been to Iran or interacted with people who visited the Islamic Republic, home to major Shi’ite holy sites.

The restrictions in Qatif could also raise tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran after Riyadh on Thursday denounced Tehran for granting Saudi citizens entry amid the coronavirus outbreak. Saudi Arabia has banned travel to Iran and said legal actions will be taken against any Saudi national traveling there.

Iran has emerged as an epicenter for the disease in the Middle East. The Islamic republic has reported 194 deaths from the virus on Sunday, putting it on a par with Italy as the country with the highest death toll outside China.

The Saudi interior ministry said it had temporarily halted movement into and out of the oil-producing Qatif region while ensuring returning residents could reach their homes and that commercial supplies to the province continue.

“Work at all public and private institutions is halted as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the disease, with the exception of vital facilities that provide security services and necessary provisions,” a ministry statement said.

The lockdown is not expected to have any impact on the kingdom’s oil production, two industry sources told Reuters.

Cement blocks were placed on the main road to Qatif, a resident said, declining to be named due to sensitivities.

The Saudi health ministry earlier said the newly diagnosed people, three of whom are women, interacted with another case reported previously who had returned from Iran via the United Arab Emirates but did not disclose his visit to the authorities.

On Saturday, the Saudi government restricted land crossings with the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain to commercial trucks only and said passenger arrivals will be limited to three Saudi airports.

Several other Gulf states recorded new infections on Sunday.

Kuwait reported two more cases, raising the total to 64. Its central bank announced a 10 million dinar ($32.79 million) fund to support state efforts to fight the virus.

Qatar recorded three more infections bringing the total number of people infected to 15.

Bahrain said its Formula One Grand Prix will go ahead this month without spectators, a blow to its tourism sector.

In Oman, all events at the Royal Opera House in the capital Muscat, scheduled for March and April, have been canceled as well as tours of the site, state news agency ONA reported.

Reporting by Alaa Swilam, Aziz El Yaakhoubi, Alexander Cornwell; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Louise Heavens and Jane Merriman

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