Saudi Arabia locks down Qatif region, suspends schools over coronavirus

Worshippers, some of them wearing protective masks, walk around of Mecca's Grand Mosque on March 6, 2020, a day after Saudi authorities emptied Islam's holiest site for sterilisation over coronavirus fears. PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI (REUTERS) - Saudi Arabia imposed a temporary lockdown on Sunday (March 8) on the eastern oil-producing province of Qatif, home to all 11 people in the kingdom who have tested positive for the coronavirus, and suspended all schools and universities nationwide.

The interior ministry announced the lockdown in Qatif, which has a large Shi'ite Muslim population, after the four latest cases were confirmed in Saudi Arabia. It is not expected to have any impact on Saudi oil production, two industry sources said.

But the decision could stir resentment in Qatif, which has been a flashpoint between the Sunni-dominated Saudi government and minority Shi'ites who have complained of discrimination and marginalisation, charges the government denies.

Saudi authorities have previously said those infected have either been to Iran or Iraq or had contact with people who visited those countries, home to Shi'ite holy sites.

The restrictions in Qatif could also increase tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, rivals in a regional struggle for influence. Riyadh denounced Teheran on Thursday for granting Saudi citizens entry during the coronavirus outbreak.

Saudi Arabia has already banned travel to Iran, which has reported 194 coronavirus deaths.

The Saudi interior ministry said it suspended movement into and out of Qatif 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.

Cement blocks were placed on the main road to Qatif, one resident said. Other residents reported a rush to grocery shops in Qatif after the lockdown began.

The health ministry said the newly diagnosed people, three of whom are women, had contact with a person with the virus who was reported to have returned from Iran via the United Arab Emirates but did not disclose his visit to the authorities.

Riyadh announced other precautionary measures on Sunday, including suspending all educational and Koranic activities in mosques in the country, the birthplace of Islam.

All public and private schools and universities would also be suspended from Monday until further notice, state media said, adding that distance learning measures would be implemented.

The new Saudi Games, billed as the country's largest sporting event, due to start on March 23, have been postponed until further notice, Al Arabiya TV said.

The Saudi government on Sunday restricted land crossings with the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain to commercial trucks and said passenger arrivals would be limited to three Saudi airports.

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

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Qatar, which has 15 cases, announced it would temporarily bar travellers from 14 countries from March 9.

Bahrain said its Formula One Grand Prix would go ahead this month without spectators. It has confirmed 85 cases of the virus.

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