The government of Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday that it was cordoning off an entire region in the country’s east over coronavirus fears. The Qatif region, home to the country’s Shiite minority and seen as a hotbed of unrest, has recorded 11 cases of the novel COVID-19 virus.
“Given that all 11 recorded positive cases of the new coronavirus are from Qatif… it has been decided… to temporarily suspend entry and exit from Qatif,” the Interior Ministry in Riyadh said in a statement to the official Saudi Press Agency.
As of Sunday, there were 234 confirmed cases of the virus in Saudi Arabia, many believed to have been brought into the country from hard-hit neighbor Iran, with many pilgrims having recently returned from the Shiite-majority nation.
Qatif has been home to sporadic unrest since 2011, when protestors demanded more freedoms from the Saudi royal family in the midst of the Arab Spring.
Protestors once again took to the streets in response to the lockdown, accusing the Sunni-dominated government in Riyadh of discrimination.
Saudi Arabia has already closed off holy sites in Mecca and Medina in response to the outbreak. It is unclear yet if the coronavirus epidemic will affect the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a holy journey for Muslims and a major source of revenue for the kingdom.
The Formula 1 Grand Prix scheduled to take place in the county from March 20-22 will be held without spectators, the government has said.
A slump in oil prices due to the virus is hitting the Saudi economy hard, particularly in light of major economic reforms sought by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
es/mm (AP, AFP),