The deserted streets in the Saudi holy city of Makkah on April 8, 2020, during a a curfew to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Image Credit: AFP

As the largest economy and the most populous entity in the GCC, Saudi Arabia has taken the biggest hit of them all from the coronavirus pandemic and the dramatic fall of oil prices on the world market.

Notwithstanding these events, the Saudi government was not prepared to lay down and let things be, something that could not have been imagined a couple of decades ago. Instead, the government got aggressive and began addressing the pandemic head-on.

Almost immediately as the virus began taking hold in several countries, the government announced a total shutdown of the two holy shrines in Makkah and Madinah, shrines frequented by Muslims from across the globe and throughout the year as they come to the country to perform their religious rituals. There were some objections raised at the time by elements of the religious sects, but the calls were ignored for the safety of all. In retrospect, kudos for such a brave decision which has undoubtedly minimised the spread of the contagious virus across nations.

Locals including doctors, businessmen, teachers, and others have lent a hand either through donations or time or expertise to help the less fortunate...we are indeed fortunate to be blessed with such heroes.

- Tariq A. Al Maeena, Saudi commentator

As the country’s own death toll due to COVID-19 began to appear, the government launched a series of curfews, beginning with cities most affected by the virus. Lockdowns were enforced in the province of Qatif where the majority of the initial cases were reported. Most of their residents were returning from Iran where the pandemic at the time was in full swing. Soon, the capital city of Riyadh, Makkah and Dammam were included, followed a little while later by the rest of the country. The curfew was being strictly enforced and violators stood the risk of heavy fines and imprisonment.

Malls, cinemas and other venues of social entertainment where crowd gathering was inevitable were quickly closed and residents urged to exercise caution in going out. Public service announcements and media blitzes kept people aware of the latest in the war against the pandemic.

Allaying fears of businessmen

Along with tightening of the curfew hours, the government announced a series of multibillion riyals worth of financial assistance programmes to help out the private sector hard-hit by the effects of the virus and the changing of the business environment. Pledging funds in such numbers, the government has allayed the fears of many businessmen that they could go under.

In spite of the current trying circumstances, confidence throughout the citizenry has been high and their opinion on the way the government has handled the current crisis is at an all-time high with almost all expressing admiration that the stringent government moves were primarily for the people’s protection.

The government has also doubled the efforts to help those beyond our borders. Yemen and Palestine have been given increased aid in these hard times, aid that undoubtedly went a long way to ease the suffering of the people.

But it is not only the government that has done it all. The people in the country have stepped up in their efforts to combat a global menace. Universities across the land have been investing time and money to isolate the virus, while hospitals have been treating COVID-19 cases at no charge in accordance with the instructions of King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz himself.

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Locals including doctors, businessmen, teachers, and others have lent a hand either through donations or time or expertise to help the less fortunate. Daily, one hears of cases of people, Saudis and residents alike, rising to the rescue of others stuck in dire situations due to the current conditions. For that, we are indeed fortunate to be blessed with such heroes.

Beyond our borders, Saudis have been no less active. As many as 650 doctors on scholarships in Germany have been working with their German colleagues to combat coronavirus and provide medical care to COVID-19 patients at German hospitals and clinic. Dr. Hanan Balkhy, the Saudi assistant director-general for antimicrobial resistance at WHO headquarters in Geneva has foregone time with family back in her country to be leading the round-the-clock research into the pandemic.

A recent survey by global communications agency APCO Worldwide has shown that the clear majority — 81 per cent — is confident that Saudi Arabia will recover more quickly than other countries in the region. APCO Worldwide Managing Director for Saudi Arabia, noted, “It is hugely encouraging to see an underlying confidence among Saudi citizens in the measures that the Government has taken to combat the virus and protect the economy through its decisive actions and the introduction of the stimulus package. They also recognise the leadership role Saudi Arabia can play at the global level through chairing the G20 and through restoring regional economic growth and prosperity in a post coronavirus world.” Yes indeed, the Saudis are cautious today but optimistic for tomorrow.

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena