Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia extends tourist ban as cases mount across the region

Countries are taking new measures to prevent the spread of the disease as health officials warn of 'pandemic potential'

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Middle East countries introduced tougher measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak on Friday with more than 360 cases confirmed across the region.

Saudi Arabia suspended entry for visitors holding tourism visas from nations worst affected by the virus, including China, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Kazakhstan.

The kingdom closed off the holy sites, barring pilgrims from Makkah and disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims visiting the kingdom on Thursday.

The suspension of visits to Makkah and Medinah was extended to include GCC citizens on Friday, but the kingdom's foreign ministry said it will exclude, from that decision, GCC citizens who had been in Saudi Arabia for more than 14 days and didn't show any symptoms.

The move is a first for Saudi Arabia - home to Islam's holiest sites, which remained open during the 1918 flue epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.

Egypt’s Al Azhar University ruled the step was compliant with Sharia.

"These measures are permissible, legitimate and rewarded. Rather, they are a legal duty to protect people," Al Azhar said in a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency.

“We expect that this will give Saudi Arabia a chance to really strengthen their own disease control measures for the moment,” said Rick Brennan, the WHO’s emergency director for the Eastern Mediterranean.

There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Saudi Arabia but the measures are an indication of the concern accompanying the spread of the virus across the region.

“We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said as it announced the decision to close access to the holy sites.

A muslim pilgrim wears a protective face mask to prevent contracting coronavirus, as he prays at the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Ganoo Essa
A Muslim pilgrim wears a protective face mask as he prays at the Grand mosque in the holy city of Makkah. Saudi Arabia has halted Umrah and tourist visas in the kingdom. Reuters

No firm date has been given for the lifting of the restrictions, leading to concern that plans for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah at the end of July could be interrupted if the virus continues to spread.

A Ministry of Tourism spokesperson said the moves were "temporary and are subject to continuous evaluation by the competent authorities".


Authorities at Cairo’s international airport said the decision created “intense confusion” and “extreme anger” among thousands of passengers waiting for flights to Saudi Arabia. Reinforcements were called to control the crowd as the news broke, according to security officials.

But as the outbreaks grow, countries across the region and worldwide are stepping up travel restrictions and imposing quarantines to limit further infections.

Iran, which has been the hardest-hit country in the region, has now reported 388 cases and 34 deaths from the virus. On Friday, Iran cancelled Friday prayers in major cities after reported infections more than doubled in a matter of days.

A number of senior Iranian officials have tested positive for the disease, including Dr Mohamad Reza Ghadir, head of coronavirus management in the city of Qom, and, most recently, Masoumeh Ebtekar, who is President Hassan Rouhani’s deputy for women’s affairs and the highest-ranking woman in the government.


A team from the World Health Organisation will travel to Iran over the weekend to assess the situation and distribute diagnostic kits and protective equipment for medical staff.

Kuwait has also seen a rise in infections, with the total number of confirmed cases now at 45, all of them involving people who had been to Iran, a Kuwaiti health minister said on Thursday.

The country's state news agency, Kuna, said that studies at military colleges will be suspended for a fortnight from March 1 due to concerns over the outbreak.

Other Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Oman and the UAE have all reported new cases this week. In the Emirates, the UAE Tour cycling competition has been cancelled and dozens have been quarantined after two team members tested positive for the disease.

Worldwide, the disease has infected more than 83,000 people in almost 60 countries. The total death toll now stands at more than 2,800 and officials have warned of  its "pandemic potential."

Speaking on Thursday, UN health agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: "No country should assume it won’t get cases; that could be a fatal mistake, quite literally. This virus does not respect borders.”

More countries have reported first cases of the disease in the past 24 hours, including Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Lithuania, the Netherlands and New Zealand. However, new cases reported in mainland China, where the disease originated, have started to slow with 327 additional cases reported on Friday, bringing the country’s total to 78,824.


Outside China, South Korea has reported the most cases, with the current tally at 2,337 while in Europe, Italy has been the worst-hit with at least 650 cases, most of them in the northern Lombardy region.

The health crisis is also having a mounting impact on financial markets, with global stocks plunging to their lowest point in four months as fears over the spread of the virus disrupt business.