Pilgrims wear protective face masks to prevent contracting coronavirus, as they arrive at the Grand Mosque in the Holy City of Makkah on Thursday. AFP
Even as the coronavirus seemed to be spreading its malignant influence in new countries outside China, countries in the Middle East were leaving nothing to chance, revving up preparations to tackle the problem on a war footing.
Iraq and Turkey have shut borders with Iran. Bahrain has closed schools and nurseries for two weeks. Iraq banned public gatherings and barred entry by travellers from Kuwait and Bahrain.
Even Saudi Arabia was not taking any chances: in a major move on Thursday it halted travel to the holiest sites in Islam over fears about the viral epidemic just months ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, a move that came as the Mideast has over 220 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus.
The extraordinary decision by Saudi Arabia stops foreigners from reaching the Holy City of Makkah.
The decision also affected travel to Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) mosque in Medina. Authorities also suspended entry to the kingdom to those with tourist visas from nations affected by the new virus.
Iran now has the highest death toll from the virus outside of China, where the outbreak began.
There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Saudi Arabia amid the outbreak.
"Saudi Arabia renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus, and urges its citizens to exercise caution before traveling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement announcing the decision. "We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm.”
Since it emerged in December in central China, the new coronavirus has sickened 82,000 people globally, with more than 2,700 deaths.
While millions attend the Hajj, which is this year set for late July into early August, millions more come during the rest of the year to the holy sites in the kingdom. Those other pilgrimages are referred to as the Umrah. One of the biggest times for the Umrah is the Holy Month of Ramadan, which is set to begin at the end of April.
"It is unprecedented, at least in recent times, but given the worldwide spread of the virus and the global nature of the Umrah, it makes sense from a public health and safety point of view,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. "Especially since the Iranian example illustrates how a religious crossroads can so quickly amplify the spread and reach of the virus.”
The state-run Saudi Press Agency cited Saleh Bin Taher Banten's remarks in stories early on Wednesday, saying that Muslims should "be patient” in making their plans for the Hajj. The pilgrimage was expected to begin in late July this year.
Saudi Arabia will gradually resume the year-round Umrah pilgrimage for Muslims from October 4, the interior ministry said Tuesday, seven months after it was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As per precautionary measures, 500 groups of international pilgrims are dispersed throughout the day, each with 20 pilgrims. The maximum age limit for international pilgrims is set at 50.
First lady Jill Biden tested positive for COVID-19 and was experiencing "mild symptoms,” the White House announced on Tuesday. President Joe Biden continues to test negative after recently recovering from the virus but will wear a mask indoors for 10 days as a precaution.
According to the case papers, the husband assaulted his wife and attempted to kill her, but his two children tried to stop him to defend their mother and one of them reported to the police.
First accident occurred last Friday on Emirates Road over the Dubai Club Bridge Sharjah-bound when a lorry driver suddenly swerved off the lane and lost control.