Commentary: Facing a two-front COVID-19 assault, Saudi Arabia pulls out the sledgehammer

ABU DHABI: While the COVID-19 outbreak has ravaged through most parts of the globe, Saudi Arabia stands out.

The country is battling the coronavirus on two fronts as the kingdom is not only fighting to contain the pandemic but also facing an intensified economic fallout with the drastic plunge in oil price these past few weeks.



On the first front, while the country has seen zero fatalities, the number of infections has soared in recent days, bringing the total to 238 on Thursday (Mar 19).

These figures put the kingdom ahead of its neighbours, such as Iran, where the number of cases has risen to over 16,000 with about 1,000 deaths.


The chances of the epidemic spiralling out of control should have been higher in the kingdom, which receives roughly several hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe for the umrah year-round pilgrimage to the two holiest cities of Islamic faith, Mecca and Medina.



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But the suspension of visits to these sites since early March may have prevented these mass movements of people from becoming a major source of contagion in the country and globally when pilgrims return home.

Religious leaders from the Council of Senior Scholars, the kingdoms highest religious body, have also worked with religious leaders to suspend mosque activities, including Fridays prayers and the customary five daily prayers, with exceptions for the two holy mosque in Mecca and Medina.

Mosques will, however, continue to issue the ritual call to prayer, and direct people to pray in their homes rather than come to the mosque.

Muslim pilgrims wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, as they pray at Kaaba in the Grand mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Mar 3, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Ganoo Essa)

Observers are watching to see how whether such restrictions remain in place during the annual hajj pilgrimage, scheduled for end-July.

Saudi Arabia has also taken drastic measures in recent weeks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, after authorities ordered the closure of public establishment including malls and restaurants, closed schools and universities, and halted international flights for two weeks.

Travellers arriving in the kingdom are quarantined for 14 days. Failure on the part of residents to disclose travel history and health issues now comes with a fine of up to US$133,000.

Stringent precautions are adhered to where essential services have to remain open. Supermarkets and pharmacies have been ordered to sterilise shopping carts after each use. The Riyadh municipality has announced free distribution of sanitisers across the city to stop the virus spread.

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Even then, the kingdom is taking no chances. On Wednesday, authorities have ordered companies to suspend work in headquarters for 15 days, save for those working in health, food and other essential services.

The oil-rich Qatif region has been placed on lockdown with restrictions on movements in and out of the province, the first of its kind in the Gulf.


But Saudi Arabia is fighting another battle on the economic front and has announced a steep US$13.3 billion cut in the government budget for 2020, amid falling oil prices and weakening growth expectations.

Last week's price war began after Saudi Arabia and other members of the OPEC oil cartel pushed for an output cut to combat the impact of the virus outbreak. (Photo: AFP/Frederic J. BROWN)

Oil demand has taken a beating after China, the worlds largest importer of oil and gas, went into lockdown, with the medium-term outlook bleaker since the coronavirus evolved to become a pandemic.

Attempts by the kingdom to avert a steep drop in prices through an emergency OPEC meeting with Russia failed to reach a consensus, after Russia refused to curb production, fuelling an all-out war for oil market dominance.

Part of Russias calculation may include a potentially fatal blow low oil prices could deal to debt-ridden American shale oil producers, who cannot afford to produce oil as cheaply.

The implosion of that alliance led the kingdom to slash prices by US$4 to US$7 dollars a barrel, with plans to increase production to 10 million barrels a day, leading to the biggest fall in oil prices on Mar 9, the steepest drop since 1991, with the US invasion of Iraq.

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Oil prices, despite rebounds this week, could see further declines in prices to below US$20 a barrel over the next week, but the sharpest drop may come only in April, after a previously agreed OPEC-Russia deal to restrict production expires.

This drastic drop in oil prices will provide some economic relief to oil-importing countries and oil-intensive industries like the aviation sector, but will drain the coffers of oil-exporting countries.

But Saudi Arabia could come out of this price war in better shape to dominate oil markets compared to its competitors. Saudi Aramco, already the most profitable company across the globe with a US$2 trillion market valuation, has just anRead More – Source