Why can’t Gulf countries contain the coronavirus?

Bahrain, with a population of only 1.4 million, has 110 cases, making it one of the countries with the highest per capita rate of coronavirus.

Emirates Airlines aircrafts are seen at Dubai International Airport, United Arab Emirates May 10, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Emirates Airlines aircrafts are seen at Dubai International Airport, United Arab Emirates May 10, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Gulf states are among the wealthiest per capita in the world, with small populations and large numbers of foreign workers. For years they have boasted of – and bankrolled advertising about – their advances in hi-tech and experiences at creating utopian-like city states.
With burgeoning Western university brands, art galleries, trains, giant indoor malls, aquariums and even oddities like ski resorts, the monarchies would seem well placed to be able to fight a virus. So far, however, the cases have been increasing after an initial hiatus.
The UAE says it found 15 more cases of coronavirus on March 11 and had quarantined those infected. It now has 74 cases. Bahrain, with a population of only 1.4 million, has 110 cases, making it one of the countries with the highest per capita rate of coronavirus. Kuwait has 72 cases, or 16.2 per million. That also makes it high on the list of countries per capita with the virus. Qatar has 24 cases, and after having no cases for many weeks, it now has six new cases since Monday. It only had eight cases last Tuesday.
Larger Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, have taken extreme precautions, shutting down pilgrimages and cordoning off the Qatif region, where several cases were found among the minority Shi’ite population.
It appears that many of the Gulf cases originated in Iran, with people flying in or returning from Iran in mid-February and infecting people in Kuwait and Bahrain. With flights canceled and borders closed, the spread is supposed to slow down. The UAE cases, however, appear to be of a different origin.
The Gulf States stand to lose billions of dollars due to the crisis because they are part of a global airport hub. They are also an arena for various sports and festivals, many of which are being canceled. A Red Sea film festival was postponed, as was a Grand Prix race. An art expo in Dubai was canceled, as was the MotoGP and Doha International Defense Exhibition Conference. Oman has postponed its Petroleum and Energy Show.
Flight hubs in the Gulf are among the most widely used. Doha’s airport has capacity for 50 million passengers a year. Dubai’s airports are among the busiest, with 8,000 weekly international flights and 70 million passengers a year. Bahrain has some 87,000 flight arrivals a year, and the Gulf Cooperation Council region has around 42 operating airlines.
Now the world is closing in for these massive hubs. Dubai Airport shut down smart gates at its Dubai International Airport and Dubai World Central (Al Maktoum) for departing passengers. These gates enabled people to pass through quickly, but they could also allow coronavirus to spread easily for travelers who go unchecked. Thermal screening is in place for all passengers from China, Italy, Syria, Lebanon and Thailand. In addition, flights to Bahrain, Iran and China have been suspended.
Kuwait is cutting down on travelers who were in India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Syria, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has restricted flights to King Khalid Airport in Riyadh and airports in Jeddah and Dammam.
Airline stocks are dropping as air travel is reduced in an unprecedented manner amid the growing crisis. Many national carriers, including from Korea and Israel, expect to incur massive losses. For the Gulf airlines, the same ripple effect will come.
The added question of why the Gulf states continue to have more cases of the virus is also concerning. This is especially true because some countries on the peninsula, such as Yemen, are at war, so health authorities are unable to check for the virus. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are both involved in Yemen, and migrants also move undocumented across some borders.
The existence of hundreds of thousands of often underpaid and abused laborers throughout the Gulf – unchecked by health professionals, relegated to the margins and sometimes treated like slaves – also raises concerns about whether officials know how the virus might affect both domestic and undocumented workers.


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