Saudi coronavirus cases pass 500; Emirates cancels most passenger flights

By Alaa Swilam and Alexander Cornwell
General view shows the empty garden of the King Fahd Library, following the outbreak of coronavirus disease, in Riyadh

By Alaa Swilam and Alexander Cornwell

DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia reported a jump of almost a quarter in coronavirus cases on Sunday while the United Arab Emirates pumped more money into its economy as its state-owned carrier Emirates said it would halt almost all passenger flights.

Saudi Arabia recorded 119 new cases of the virus for a total of 511, the highest in the Gulf Arab region, the Health Ministry said.

The tally of cases in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council now stands at more than 1,700. Bahrain reported a second death on Sunday, a citizen evacuated from Iran, taking the GCC's total to four.

Abdelali said 72 of the new cases were Turkish nationals under quarantine in the holy city of Mecca after interacting with an infected compatriot.

"We are starting to see more cases linked to interactions ... We advise everyone to stay home," he told a news conference, adding that more than 4,000 people were under quarantine.

The region has expanded measures to combat the spread of the disease. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have taken some of the most drastic steps including halting international flights, suspending work at most institutions and closing public venues.

Gulf governments have announced stimulus packages to shield their energy-producing economies, which have also been hit by a collapse in oil prices.

The emir of Kuwait, which has imposed a partial nationwide curfew, said the government must to spare no expense or effort to fight the virus.

"This is a decisive battle against a fierce enemy. It is everyone's battle," Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah said in a rare televised speech, warning against public gatherings.


DUBAI VULNERABLE

The UAE, the region's tourism and business hub, approved an additional 16 billion dirhams ($4.36 billion) on Sunday for a total stimulus package of 126 billion dirhams, according to a tweet from its vice president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

The vital tourism and hospitality sector in Dubai, the region's most diversified economy, has been hit hard by the disruption to global travel.

Emirates, one of the world’s biggest airlines, said it would suspend passenger operations -- with the exception of repatriation flights to some 13 countries -- by Wednesday. Cargo operations continue.

"We find ourselves in a situation where we cannot viably operate passenger services until countries reopen their borders," Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum said.

The Dubai World Cup, one of the world's richest horse races, has been cancelled.

Other Gulf states expanded precautionary measures.

Oman banned public gatherings and shut currency exchange shops. Bahrain ordered all stores except those supplying essential goods to shut. In Kuwait, some supermarkets were allowing only 50 shoppers at a time.

Qatar, whose 481 reported coronavirus cases are mostly among migrant workers, began erecting checkpoints to enforce a ban on public gatherings.


(Reporting by Alaa Swilam, Maher Chmaytelli, Alexander Cornwell, Stephen Kalin and Lisa Barrington; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Catherine Evans and Kevin Liffey)