Date: Thu, 27 Feb 2020 09:14:05 +0100 (MET)
By Anuj Chopra and Haitham El-Tabei

Riyadh, Feb 27, 2020 (AFP) - Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended visas for visits to Islam's holiest sites for the "umrah" pilgrimage, an unprecedented move triggered by coronavirus fears that raises questions over the annual hajj.   The kingdom, which hosts millions of pilgrims every year in the cities of Mecca and Medina, also suspended visas for tourists from countries with reported infections as fears of a pandemic deepen.

Saudi Arabia, which so far has reported no cases of the virus but has expressed alarm over its spread in neighbouring countries, said the suspensions were temporary. It provided no timeframe for when they will be lifted.   "The kingdom's government has decided to take the following precautions: suspending entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visit to the Prophet's mosque temporarily," the foreign ministry said in a statement.   "Suspending entry into the kingdom with tourist visas for those coming from countries, in which the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) is a danger."

The move comes as Gulf countries implement a raft of measures, including flight suspensions and school closures, to curb the spread of the disease from people returning from pilgrimages to Iran.  Even as the number of fresh coronavirus cases declines at the epicentre of the disease in China, there has been a sudden increase across the Middle East.

Since its outbreak, the United Arab Emirates has reported 13 coronavirus cases, Kuwait has recorded 43, Bahrain has 33 and Oman is at four cases.   Iran has emerged as a major hotspot in the region, with 19 fatalities from 139 infections -- the highest death toll outside China, where COVID-19 originated.   While no cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia, one citizen is reported to be infected in Kuwait along with four Saudi women in Bahrain -- all of whom had returned from Iran.

- 'Unprecedented' move -
The umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of devout Muslims from all over the globe each year.    There was no clarity over how the move would affect the annual hajj pilgrimage due to start in late July.   Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world to take part in last year's hajj -- one of the five pillars of Islam.

The event is a key rite of passage for Muslims and a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites.   "This move by Saudi Arabia is unprecedented," Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based risk consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, told AFP.   "The concern for Saudi authorities would be Ramadan, which starts at the end of April, and hajj afterwards, should the coronavirus become a pandemic."

The holy fasting month of Ramadan is considered a favourable period by Muslim pilgrims to perform the Umrah.   Saudi Arabia's custodianship of Mecca and Medina -- Islam's two holiest sites -- is seen as the kingdom's most powerful source of political legitimacy.     But a series of deadly disasters over the years has prompted criticism of the Sunni kingdom's management of the pilgrimage.

In September 2015, a stampede killed up to 2,300 worshippers -- including hundreds of Iranians -- in the worst disaster ever to strike the pilgrimage.   The pilgrimage forms a crucial source of revenue for the government, which hopes to welcome 30 million pilgrims annually to the kingdom by 2030.   De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform plan seeks to shift the economy of Saudi Arabia -- the world's top crude exporter -- away from oil dependency towards other sources of revenue, including religious tourism.
Date: 1 Dec 2019
Source: Saudi MOH (14 Nov 2019 to 1 Dec 2019) [edited]
<https://www.moh.gov.sa/en/CCC/events/national/Pages/2019.aspx>

In the period since the last update (13 Nov 2019, MERS-CoV (69): Saudi Arabia (RI, AS, MK) http://promedmail.org/post/20191113.6776647), there have been a total of 3 newly confirmed cases of MERS-CoV infection reported by Saudi Arabia and 11 newly reported outcomes (2 deaths and 9 recoveries).
Date: Mon, 28 Oct 2019 12:42:34 +0100 (MET)

Riyadh, Oct 28, 2019 (AFP) - Seven people have been killed and 11 injured in floods after heavy rain lashed northeastern parts of Saudi Arabia, Al-Ekhbariya state television reported Monday.   Rescue services in the northeastern city of Hafer al-Batin, about 100 kilometres southwest of Kuwait, said that 16 people were forced to evacuate their homes.   Seven affected by the rain were provided with shelter, it added.  Schools in Hafer al-Batin suspended classes on Monday due to the weather.   In January, 12 people were killed in floods in Saudi Arabia.  Ten died in the northwestern city of Tabuk, one in the Islamic holy city of Medina and another in a northern border area.
Date: Sun, 6 Oct 2019 12:04:37 +0200 (METDST)

Riyadh, Oct 6, 2019 (AFP) - Saudi Arabia announced Sunday it would allow unmarried foreign couples to rent hotel rooms together as the ultraconservative kingdom begins offering up tourist visas for the first time.   The tourism authority said in a statement published on Twitter that Saudi women travelling alone would also be able to check into a hotel by presenting valid ID.

In the past, couples wanting to stay in a hotel had to prove they were married.    "This is no longer required for tourists," the statement said.   Saudi Arabia announced on September 27 it was opening its doors to holidaymakers with the goal of diversifying its oil-dependent economy.   The kingdom had previously only issued visas to Muslim pilgrims, foreign workers, and recently to spectators at sporting or cultural events.

Kickstarting tourism is one of the centrepieces of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform programme to prepare the biggest Arab economy for a post-oil era.   Citizens from 49 countries are now eligible for online e-visas or visas on arrival, including the United States, Australia and several European nations.   On September 28, Saudi authorities warned that tourists who violated "public decency", including with immodest clothing and public displays of affection, would be subject to fines.
Date: Sun, 29 Sep 2019 17:39:45 +0200 (METDST)

Riyadh, Sept 29, 2019 (AFP) - Five people were injured in a fire that broke out at a new high-speed train station in Saudi Arabia's western city of Jeddah on Sunday, state television reported, with huge palls of smoke seen rising into the air.    The station serves the main Haramain High Speed Rail system. The route opened to the public in October last year, transporting passengers between Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites.

"Five people who sustained minor injuries because of the fire were transported to hospital," Al-Ekhbariya state television reported.   The General Directorate of Saudi Civil Defence said in an earlier tweet that it was working to extinguish the fire.   A video uploaded on Twitter by the Mecca provincial government showed plumes of grey smoke rising from what looked like the inside of the complex.   An AFP correspondent said security forces closed the main road linking Mecca and Jeddah and cordoned off the site.   The blaze erupted at 12:35 pm local time (0935 GMT), according to the Haramain High Speed Rail's Twitter account.

The railway runs 450 kilometres (280 miles) via the Red Sea port of Jeddah, transporting passengers at speeds of up to 300 kilometres per hour.   Saudi King Salman inaugurated the railway in September 2018. Officials described it as the biggest transportation project in the region.   In 2011, the kingdom signed a deal for a Spanish consortium to build the rail track, supply 35 high-speed trains and handle a 12-year maintenance contract.   Saudi is boosting its infrastructure spending and expanding its railways -- including a $22.5 billion metro system under construction in the capital Riyadh -- as it seeks to diversify its oil-dependent economy.
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