Saudi Arabia widens travel ban; Kuwait reassures citizens

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has extended flight bans to the European Union and other countries and Kuwait tried to reassured citizens panicked by its own virtual lockdown, after the number of coronavirus infections shot up in the region.

Saudi Arabia, which had locked down its eastern Qatif region earlier this week, announced 24 new cases overnight, bringing its total to 45. It halted flights to the EU and 12 other countries, extending an earlier ban on 19 countries, including neighboring Arab states, state media said on Thursday.

Saudi citizens and residents in the affected jurisdictions have 72 hours to return to the kingdom, state news agency SPA said, citing an official source at the Interior Ministry.

Passenger traffic through all land crossings with Jordan was also suspended. Commercial and cargo traffic continued.

Kuwait on Thursday reported eight new coronavirus infections, taking its total to 80, as the country started a two-week public holiday announced by the government as part of measures to contain the spread of infections.

Authorities on Wednesday also announced a ban on all commercial passenger flights to and from the country starting Friday. Its stock market was shut on Thursday.

Trade Minister Khalid Al Roudan, in an audio recording shared by the ministry, reassured citizens concerned about the availability of essential goods.

“There is no need for all this panic because shipping lanes are still open and cargo flights continue. There are sufficient strategic food stockpiles for several months,” he said.

No Gulf Arab state has so far reported a coronavirus death. Many of the recorded infections are linked to travel to Iran, the epicenter of the disease in the Middle East.

Bahrain on Wednesday reported 77 new infections among citizens evacuated by plane from Iran. A second government-chartered repatriation flight is scheduled for Thursday.

Qatar on Wednesday announced 238 new cases among expatriates in a residential compound that had been placed under quarantine after three residents tested positive for the virus on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia’s latest flight ban includes Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti, and Somalia.

Millions of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia come from many of those countries. The decision excludes health workers in the kingdom from the Philippines and India as well as evacuation, shipping and trade trips, SPA said.

The kingdom has said it will impose a fine of up to 500,000 riyals ($133,000) on people who do not disclose health information and travel details at entry points.

Other preventive measures include locking down the oil-producing region of Qatif, where many of its cases are centered; suspending the Umrah pilgrimage; closing schools and cinemas nationwide; cancelling conferences and sporting events; and postponing a G20 ministerial meeting scheduled for next week.

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