Saudi Arabia decision on new COVID-19 strain will impact whole Middle East

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Saudi Arabia tends to be a trendsetter and have major influence over countries that it is politically and geographically close to, such as the Gulf.

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NO OTHER area in the world has so many complex conflicts than the Middle East
(photo credit: WALLPAPER FLARE).
Saudi Arabia recently hosted a subdued G20 that was badly impacted by COVID-19. Now the Kingdom is suspending all international commercial flights and banning entry through “land and sea ports for a week,” due to fears of a new strain of COVID-19 in the UK.

Riyadh’s decision appears like it will affect the entire Middle East quickly. Saudi Arabia tends to be a trendsetter and have major influence over countries that it is politically and geographically close to, such as the Gulf. It is also a global economic and religious power.

Riyadh made major strides earlier this year to confront COVID-19, including unprecedented restrictions on religious Islamic pilgrimages. Nevertheless the Kingdom suffered from the pandemic. The G20 was only one example. It has set back desires to open the Kingdom to more foreign tourists and push toward the economic and social changes of Vision 2030 that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is aiming for. The decisions in Saudi Arabia may have a ripple effect across the region.

Recently some 50,000 Israelis flew to the UAE in flights that go over the Kingdom. There have been calls in Israel to end the corridor of travel that did not require quarantine between airports in Tel Aviv and Dubai. It’s not clear when Riyadh’s decision could lead to wider Middle East closures but in the past when one country does something, others are affected.

Now Riyadh appears to be setting a high bar for fighting the new strain of COVID-19, precisely because the Kingdom may feel that its attempts to prevent the first major outbreak in February and March did not succeed. Like its wealthy Gulf neighbors in the UAE and Bahrain, two countries that have peace agreements with Israel, it is keenly aware of global trends and issues in the region.

The Middle East has been battered by COVID-19, initially through a terrible outbreak that was covered up in Iran in February and then a pandemic spread that affected places like Egypt where health care systems were strained. Many countries tried to deny the extent of the outbreak. Wealthier and smaller Gulf states tried their best to contain it and have been world leaders in testing and attempts to push forward with a vaccine.

Saudi Arabia’s decision is unique so far globally. Most other countries are beginning to consider bans on flights from the UK. Israel has banned visitors from the UK, Denmark and South Africa. Turkey banned flights from those states and the Netherlands. These efforts appear coordinated by information sharing among health ministries. Intelligence sharing also takes place.
It is not clear what playbook caused Riyadh to go further and ban land and sea entry for a week. Is it extreme caution or has Riyadh learned something that caused it to go further. In the past some states, acting on warnings from their embassies abroad or other sources, acted faster regarding the initial phase of the pandemic in February and early March.
Riyadh’s allies include the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, and it has good relations with Pakistan, Oman, Morocco, Kuwait and Jordan. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly went to Saudi Arabia in November. Kuwait has reported on Saudi Arabia’s closures. A newly opened land border with Iraq will apparently be closed.

Italy has joined the Netherlands and Austria with attempts to try to stop the new variant. Riyadh says it is suspending “all international flights for travelers – except in exceptional cases – temporarily for a week, which can be extended for another week, with the exception of foreign flights currently inside the Kingdom’s territory, which are allowed to leave.”

Furthermore. It has sought to “temporarily suspend entry to the Kingdom through land and sea ports for one week, which may be extended another week. Any individual who has returned from EU countries or any country where the new mutation has been detected, starting from December 8, must self isolate for two weeks from the date of entering the Kingdom, and must undergo a coronavirus test during isolation and repeat the test every five days.”

The Kingdom has gone further, looking back months. “All individuals who have returned from an EU country or any country where the new mutation has been detected or passed through one of those countries in transit during the past three months, must undergo a coronavirus test.”

Saudi Arabia may be a forerunner on this and it is worth watching to see if more countries follow suit in the coming days.

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