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Gulf countries ease restrictions despite high COVID-19 cases

On May 27, 2020

Gulf countries are moving to ease restrictions put in place to contain COVID-19 virus even though cases are rising. Other countries around the world such as Spain and Italy have done so too, but only after a consistent drop in cases. However, the spread of infections has not slowed down yet in the Gulf.

According to data compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO), GCC states have some of the highest rates of infections (counted as total number of positive cases per 1 million people)  in the world, with Qatar ranking second after San Marino, Bahrain eighth, and Kuwait tenth. These are also states that have comparatively higher testing rates.

Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that from 28 May onwards it will gradually ease restrictions by resuming some economic and commercial activities. By 21 June, all curfews will be lifted and all activities will resume, provided social distancing measures are adhered to. Fines and penalties of up to SR1 million ($266,374) and up to five years in jail will be imposed for violating coronavirus precautionary measures.

Bahrain has implemented the least restrictions across the GCC,  having kept many shops open and never having imposed a curfew. From 27 May onwards, salons and barbershops are allowed to resume service provided that they follow certain guidelines such as wearing masks and gloves, and not providing services which require close contact with the face, like shaving. 

The ease of restrictions on salons will come as a relief for many daily wage earners who have lost their income for several months now. spoke to a Filipina salon worker who echoed the mixed feelings of many others, “we are happy because we will have our salary inshallah, but scared because we don’t know people around us are safe or not…”. According to social workers in Bahrain, salon workers along with hotel staff were among the most affected. 

Dubai also announced that from 27 May it will reopen most businesses including cinemas, retail shops, malls and gyms. This comes after a recent survey by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce which revealed that around 70% of businesses in Dubai expect to close down in the next six months. The Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi has also shared guidelines on the reopening of hotels and other facilities.

The lockdown on Oman's capital city Muscat, which was imposed on 10 April, will end on 29 May. Kuwait's 20-day total lockdown will end on 30 May and be replaced with a partial curfew. Meanwhile, Kuwait's Council of Ministers is planning to gradually ease restrictions and allow businesses to resume work under precautionary measures. A recent business survey revealed that since Kuwait instituted lockdowns in March, 45% of business owners said they have suspended or shut down their businesses, while 26% said that their businesses are on the verge of collapsing. 

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Gulf countries struggle to balance health and economic interests.  With the fall in oil prices and dire economic outlook   Saudi Arabia's outlook was recently downgraded to "negative" by Moody's credit rating agency, while Bahrain and Oman were downgraded to "junk" status for their credit ratings the Gulf countries face immense pressure to ease lockdowns and allow businesses to resume. This is risky especially considering that s COVID-19 cases are still rising and haven’t yet reached reach their peak according to official statistics; the WHO has also warned that countries could face a second wave of coronavirus cases if restrictions are lifted too soon.

In Qatar the UAE and Oman,  construction work continued even during the lockdown. Workers MR spoke to say they are hesitant to go to work on sites where infections persist and are on the rise, but were threatened with termination and eviction from their accommodation.

For migrant workers, the opening of businesses provides much-needed economic relief given that they were excluded from most financial support schemes, but on the other hand, they are most exposed to the risks of reopening. It is essential that workers are provided with PPE, regular testing, and support at all times, and that employers, as well as customers, adhere to the safety regulations as restrictions are lifted.