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Saudi Arabia locks down Qatif region, suspends schools over coronavirus

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia imposed a temporary lockdown on Sunday on the eastern oil-producing province of Qatif, home to all 11 people in the kingdom who have tested positive for the coronavirus, and suspended all schools and universities nationwide.

FILE PHOTO – General view of Kaaba at the Grand Mosque which is almost empty of worshippers, after Saudi authority suspended umrah (Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) amid the fear of coronavirus outbreak, at Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Ganoo Essa

The interior ministry announced the lockdown in Qatif, which has a large Shi’ite Muslim population, after the four latest cases were confirmed in Saudi Arabia. It is not expected to have any impact on Saudi oil production, two industry sources said.

But the decision could stir resentment in Qatif, which has been a flashpoint between the Sunni-dominated Saudi government and minority Shi’ites who have complained of discrimination and marginalisation, charges the government denies.

Saudi authorities have previously said those infected have either been to Iran or had contact with people who visited the Islamic Republic, home to Shi’ite holy sites.

The restrictions in Qatif could also increase tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh denounced Tehran on Thursday for granting Saudi citizens entry during the coronavirus outbreak.

Saudi Arabia has banned travel to Iran, which has reported 194 coronavirus deaths, and said legal action would be taken against any Saudi national traveling there.

The interior ministry said it had suspended movement into and out of Qatif while ensuring returning residents could reach their homes and that commercial supplies to the province continue.

“Work at all public and private institutions is halted as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the disease, with the exception of vital facilities that provide security services and necessary provisions,” a ministry statement said.

Cement blocks were placed on the main road to Qatif, one resident said. Other residents reported a rush on grocery shops in Qatif after the lockdown began.

The health ministry said the newly diagnosed people, three of whom are women, had contact with a person with the virus who was reported to have returned from Iran via the United Arab Emirates but did not disclose his visit to the authorities.

The Saudi government restricted land crossings with the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain to commercial trucks only on Sunday and said passenger arrivals would be limited to three Saudi airports.

Riyadh also said it was suspending all public and private schools and universities across the country from Monday until further notice, state media said, adding that distance learning measures would be implemented.

Other Gulf states recorded new infections on Sunday. Kuwait reported two more cases, raising its total to 64, and its central bank announced a 10 million dinar ($32.79 million) fund to support state efforts to fight the virus.

Qatar recorded three more infections, bringing the total there infected to 15.

Bahrain said its Formula One Grand Prix would go ahead this month without spectators, a blow to its tourism sector, and it has now confirmed 85 cases of the virus.

In Oman, all events at the Royal Opera House in the capital Muscat, scheduled for March and April, have been canceled as well as tours of the site, state news agency ONA reported.

Reporting by Alaa Swilam, Aziz El Yaakhoubi, Alexander Cornwell; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Louise Heavens, Jane Merriman and Timothy Heritage

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