COVID-19 (U.S. Department of State)

Government Reactions and Commentary

[Update] The government has announced a wave of flight cancellations, although airlines have been left to fill in the details for many cases:

First, several MENA destinations along with South Korea and Italy:

Then several European destinations, including Germany and France as well as Turkey – cutting off 3 major routes out of the Kingdom to European and North American destinations.

At this point I changed my flight home to immediately depart straight from the Kingdom – it would be another day (March 10) before Saudi authorities granted Emirates “special dispensation” to allow some non-Saudi individuals to leave for barred destinations via Dubai. This special dispensation was only mentioned in UAE-based media, however – no mention of it on the Kingdom’s major government Twitter accounts.

The suddenness of these announcements brought some gentle “suggestions” from one of Okaz’s “tribunes,” Khalid al-Suleiman – somebody who certainly agrees with the government’s COVID-19 policies in general:

I was hoping that the decision would grant a deadline for citizens and residents to enter or leave the mentioned countries before closing travel outlets with the Gulf states, or at least instruct citizens to do what they have to do. Not every traveler is able to bear living expenses for an unknown period, which on a short business trip or a short vacation with the family!

Khalid Al-Suleiman, Okaz, 3.10.2020

Government accounts have also reminded visitors of the financial penalties of providing incorrect health information.

[End update]

China’s authoritarian regime, and the harsh controls it has imposed on Wuhan and elsewhere in assuring that the virus is addressed, has generated some praise in Saudi media (though little discussion of the secrecy that preceded and allowed the virus to spread in the first place).

Modern China established its own political system, and moved its society from backwardness, poverty, disease and ignorance to competition for the top in all fields of science and technology. It put forward an important slogan from the beginning calling for “discipline” in everything, and slacking on this point is never be tolerated, let alone outright breach or transgression of this ideology. Modern China has also devised its own punishment for cutting off corruption in anything – execution – especially when the country is going through emergency and crisis situations. 

Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 3.11.2020

Regarding the outbreak of Covid19 in Iran, and the appearance of cases within the Kingdom and Bahrain of Saudis who had traveled to Iran, the Saudi government announced an amnesty for any citizens who had visited Iran. Over 100 coming forward. On March 7, the Ministry of Health thanked on Twitter those who had already come forward: “We thank those who have taken the initiative to declare that they were in Iran.”

Abdulrahman al-Rashed likewise emphasized this point of tolerance in an op-ed for Al-Sharq al-Awsat:

Governments have to cooperate because there is no other option, whatever their opposition. That is why the Saudi government has called on the Iranian authorities to inform them of who entered their lands or left their Saudi citizens. Iran does not stamp the passports of Saudi visitors, because going to Iran is forbidden while political ties are cut. But it is not the desire of Saudi Arabia to punish [these citizens]… The government in Riyadh even announced that it is giving up holding people accountable if they immediately declare that they were in Iran, or are still there, because violating travel laws is a violation less than a “crime.”

Abdelrahman Al Rashed, Aawsat, 3.8.2020

Further emphasizing the point, and taking a shot at both the Iranian regime and the U.S. health care system, a writer in Al-Riyadh contrasted the compassion of the Saudi government with deaths in Iran amid confusion and U.S. citizens racking up huge bills trying to determine whether they were afflicted with Corona (Emad Al Abbad, 3.9.2020).

Others have been less charitable towards Iran, blaming the country for spreading the outbreak around the region:

Iran hid the disease until it spread. Then it spread the disease outside its borders by remaining silent about those who visited Iran from countries that prohibit its visit, such as the Kingdom. It has has been proven that all cases in registered in the Kingdom so far are related to Iran.

Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 3.8.2020

Hadi al-Yami of the Shura Council has the most comprehensive take:

As if Iran was not satisfied with all the subversive roles it plays in the region, from exporting terrorism, stirring strife, and fanning conflicts, to stoking sectarianism and generally encouraging chaos – it complements these sinister acts with a new role by spreading the deadly Corona disease. It began to appear in a number of Gulf countries through travelers who were recently in Iran.

Its role in spreading the disease is manifested in its deliberate failure to stamp the passports of Gulf nationals who entered its territory, which led to the absence of information that could have reduced losses reducing damages. This arouses suspicions and places many question marks around the intent of not stamping the passports for those entering.

Hadi al-Yami, Al-Watan, 3.11.2020

And again, from Khalid Suleiman, coming alongside other articles on how poorly Iran had handled the crisis and how well the Kingdom’s leaders had addressed the risks:

Conclusion: A citizen returning from Iran might in turn be a victim of the disease, but traveling to Iran is a crime against the homeland and returning from it with Corona is a greater crime against society!

Khalid Al Suleiman, Okaz, 3.9.2020

Others were even more openly critical of those Saudis who had traveled to Iran, all but accusing them of disloyalty.

96 Saudis, with their families, are now stuck in Iran, begging and calling for their return after the Corona outbreak. They announced this after Saudi Arabia’s decision to hold accountable those who did not disclose their presence in Iran.

In good times, they go to Iran and pay a fifth of their money (to Iran).

When facing adversity: Please help me, Saudi Arabia…

“Your country then your country then your country”

Though most columns on the domestic reactions to Corona were filled with praise for the Saudi government – particularly the difficult decision to suspend Umrah visas and even Umrah itself for a time – a few raised questions about the Kingdom’s overall preparedness to analyze and address public health crises like the virus. In a column entitled “Corona is here, what are we waiting for?,” Watan writer Abla Murshid wondered about all of Saudi Arabia’s investments in education and scientific research:

Education has taken up a significant share of our national budget, from which universities, postgraduate studies, research centers, and internal and external scholarships have taken up a large share. The question: Where is the intellectual and practical return of this?! Where are the national initiatives that justify the size of this generous spending?! Where are our noteworthy outputs from different specializations?! What is our position among the scientifically productive countries?!

Abla Morshid, Watan, 3.5.2020

Rumors and CoNcerns

Satire could go too far, however – in a widely reported incident, Noura al-Moteiri (a Jordanian freelance writer for Al-Bayan in the UAE and Okaz in Saudi Arabia) was roundly ridiculed for a Twitter post seemingly alleging that Qatar was behind the crisis:

I think the appearance and spread of the Corona Virus is clearly from Qata… And that Doha paid billions to grow this dreaded virus in China, with the aim of striking in the year 2020 – which was intended to start achieving the vision of Saudi Arabia 2030 and Dubai Expo 2020, and end of the Ottoman caliphate, and achieve the Riyadh Agreement and return peace to the Middle East.

Even Al-Arabiya raked her over the coals, as any number of government press offices and newspaper spokespersons distanced themselves from her. Al-Riyadh‘s editorial board made sure to remind people that the Public Prosecutor would be following up on any spreading of “fake news” regarding the crisis:

The Public Prosecution took necessary measures to prevent rumors about the spread of the disease, which are no less dangerous than the disease itself. Promoting the rumor is considered a crime punishable by the authorities with five years imprisonment and a fine of three million riyals. This is a measure to prevent… the spread panic among individuals in society, which could lead to unbearable consequences.

Editorial, Al-Riyadh, 3.4.2020

[Update] Rumors are clearly circulating regardless, however, as an op-ed on the importance of a transparent response to the crisis makes clear:

The state’s precautionary measures… have unfortunately been accompanied by rumors circulating throughout social media, whether spread in good faith or otherwise. So, for example, WhatsApp has become a hotbed of rumors, interpretations, interpretations and advice given by persons who want to stir up controversy. People circulate rumors ignorantly, without reflecting on the truth of what they read or see, and then send it on to dozens.

Abeer Al-Ali, Al-Watan, 3.11.2020

Another writer in Al-Watan stepped in to defend at least one health official from some of the malicious rumors beginning to circulate – albeit suggesting a conspiracy behind rumors in general.

This man who was hit with this fake news – the health director of Asir and Najran – has been honored [in the past]… by the Minister of Health.

When we look at the matter carefully, we know that there is someone who hates our country and plots against it, and exploits events and facts, to direct it to serve their own, opposing goals, but has not succeeded.

Saud al-Shehri, Al-Watan, 3.9.2020

In all, complaints about social media rumors have been commonplace. ‘Perhaps the most dangerous of confronting Corona and the war against it is the war of rumors that revolves around it…’ – Abd al-Muhsen al-Dawud, Al-Riyadh, 3.11.2020

Update: Patriotic Tweeters

You may have wondered what the patriotic-Twitter crowd has been up to amid all this. Patriots on both sides of the Salwa border crossing have been trading rhetorical potshots for some time now over which country has been handling the crisis better.

For example, with regards to the recent spike in the # of recorded cases in Qatar:

“Qatar is the Arab country spreading the Corona disease the most! This is a natural outcome of humiliation #الدوحة For the Persians and the Turks, the Doha regime could not take any action against those coming from #ايران or #تركيا This allowed the spread of the disease in Qatar !!

Qatari tweeters unsurprisingly responded in kind

“The secret is in the transparency of the Qatari government. Because it respects its citizens and residents on its land by announcing the real numbers first-hand, while the citizen in your country is a marginal factor. We understand the insignificance and humiliation of citizens in your system! Your government and rulers are controlled by the fingers of MBZ and those like him”

Qatar was certainly a popular target of criticism amid the Corona virus, but Turkey came in for criticism as well.

The terror is in countries that have poor health systems and that deceives their citizens and do not reveal the truth to them – as your country [Turkey]…

Tomorrow you will learn from the precautionary measures taken by Saudi Arabia and you will do the same, as did your follower in the Gulf [Qatar]. They scoffed first, then learned, then performed the same as the Saudi procedures

Plenty of folks asserting that Saudi Arabia was treating its own citizens better than many “first world” countries:

“To know the difference between a state that puts the health of its citizens before all else like Saudi Arabia, and one that sees the economic interest greater than its citizens, like Germany…”

The COVID-19 crisis re-rnanked the countries of the first and third world on a new basis… Countries from the third world advanced on countries of the first world in terms of their precautionary and health measures, and in caring for their citizens!

Other individuals pushed the idea that the virus resulted from attempts to develop a bioweapon – in this case siding with anti-US conspiracy theories.

“Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman accuses America of Corona. This reinforces the idea of biological warfare, especially knowing that America announced that it had reached a vaccine that eliminated the Corona virus.

Everyone who spoke of biological warfare was attacked and ridiculed, considering it a form of exaggeration and belief in the conspiracy.”

Regarding the government’s reaction, there was some concern over whether employees furloughed from the private sector would receive adequate compensation:

“Will the General Organization for Social Insurance (GOSI) pay the salaries of employees in the private sector, especially in medium and small enterprises, which have suspended work to minimize the gatherings of employees and customers, during the period of suspension of work?

There are some private sector organizations that have already stopped working, so who will protect the salaries?”

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