Cairo: After months of tight restrictions prompted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, life is gradually returning to normal in the Arab Gulf countries, thanks to vigorous mass vaccinations against the highly contagious disease. Curbs on movement and travel have recently been relaxed in most of these countries, home to large communities of migrant workers.
The exception is Oman, which on Tuesday announced the extension of nighttime lockdown until July 31, while it imposed a complete closure during Eid Al Adha holidays
In December, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain initiated massive inoculation for their citizens and foreign residents.
The following is a glimpse into how life is moving back to normalcy in the five countries.
Preparations are in full swing in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, for the annual Haj pilgrimage amid stringent precautions against COVID-19.
Haj limited to domestic pilgrims
Last month, Saudi authorities announced that 60,000 Muslims picked from Saudis and foreign residents will be allowed to perform the upcoming Haj season. Eligible pilgrims must be vaccinated against COVID-19, free of chronic diseases and aged between 18 to 65 years.
Accepted Haj applicants must receive the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Ministry of Haj has said. They can visit the nearest vaccination centre without an appointment, but within 48 hours of receiving the Haj permit.
Saudi authorities this week warned that any illegal attempt to reach the holy sites during Haj is punishable by a fine of SR10,000 that will double on repetition.
In April, Saudi Arabia started allowing only “immunised” people against COVID-19 to perform the Umrah or the lesser pilgrimage and visit the Prophet’s Mosque, with effect from the first of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Last October, Saudi Arabia set into motion a plan for gradual resumption of the Umrah after suspension of around seven months.
High-profile mass vaccinations
On December 17, the kingdom kicked off high-profile mass vaccinations joined by senior state officials including King Salman Bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed. Nearly seven months later, Saudi Arabia, a country of an overall population of 34.8 million has administered 18.6 million doses, the Health Ministry said Monday.
The kingdom has authorised for use the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines.
Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia started vaccinating school students in the 12-18 age group in the lead-up to the new school year where in-person classes will be reintroduced. Health authorities so far have confirmed 494,032 COVID-19 cases and 7,891 related deaths.
For the vaccinated only
Starting from August 1, access to public and private offices, malls, commercial centres, educational institutions and public transport in Saudi Arabia will be limited to the vaccinated people.
“After August 1, unvaccinated people will not be allowed into commercial establishments, shopping centres and malls,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce. “The shopper must have received two doses or at least one dose of the vaccine or be an person immunised recovering from the disease according to the status shown on the health app Tawakkalna,” he added.
Immunisation will also be mandatory for attending any cultural, entertainment and sports event.
Saudi authorities have repeatedly warned that deliberate transmission of COVID-19 is a “crime” that is punishable by jail and hefty fines. Offenders face up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of SR500,000. Repeat offenders face double penalties. Convicted expatriates will be deported from the kingdom and denied re-entry forever.
On May 17, Saudi Arabia fully lifted restrictions on the overseas travel for its citizens after 16 months of suspension due to precautions taken to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
On that day, the kingdom also reopened all its borders, allowing vaccinated foreign residents to travel abroad and return as long as they do not enter certain countries where the virus situation raises concerns.
On May 30, Saudi Arabia allowed travellers coming from the UAE, Germany, US, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, France and Japan, to enter its territory with the application of institutional quarantine procedures if required.
Partial flight ban
However, starting from Sunday (July 4), Saudi Arabia suspended flights with the UAE, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.
All arrivals including citizens and foreigners from these countries are subjected to institutional quarantine. Saudi citizens are banned from direct or indirect travel to these countries without prior permission from authorities. Nonetheless, the restrictions do not apply to foreigners who have visited any of the countries but left them, or any other country on which the kingdom has imposed a travel ban, at least 14 days before arrival in Saudi Arabia. It is not clear how long the ban will be in effect.
Saudis were allowed to travel to certain countries outside the kingdom from May 17, provided they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or recovered after catching the virus. The recipients of only one dose of a vaccine are required to wait 14 days before traveling. Those who have recovered from infection must wait six months after testing negative before flying.
In the past few weeks, Kuwait has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, related deaths and ICU patients. According to statistics issued by the Ministry of Health, by the end of June, there has been a 37 per cent increase in COVID-19 patients being admitted to the hospital compared to the beginning of the month. As for ICU patients, occupancy increased by 47 per cent.
Last Wednesday, Kuwait recorded 1,969 new cases in 24 hours, the highest number of COVID-19 cases in a single day since the pandemic began back in March 2020.
A day earlier, health authorities announced they had recorded 18 virus related deaths in the past 24 hours, the highest number of deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Since Kuwait, a country of 4.8 million people, began its COVID-19 vaccination campaign on December 24, around 2.3 million doses have been administered, the Health Ministry announced this week.
The vaccine is currently being administered to citizens and residents above the age of 16.
In an effort to vaccinate children before schools resume in person in September, the ministry announced earlier this month that the vaccination committee has approved giving the COVID-19 vaccine to children between the ages of 12 and 15.
So far, Kuwait has authorised the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Curbs on unvaccinated people
Kuwait has recently put in place several restrictions for people who are unvaccinated. As of June 27, unvaccinated individuals cannot enter restaurants, cafes, saloons, gyms and malls larger than 6,000 square metres. Only those who have received one or both doses are allowed in.
The Kuwait Municipality stated that any businesses found allowing unvaccinated individuals to enter will be fined 5,000 Kuwaiti dinars.
Inspectors have been positioned at the entry of all commercial facilities to check each person’s vaccination status via the Immune application or the Kuwait Mobile ID app. To ensure things are running smoothly, security forces have been stationed at large shopping malls.
In addition, since May only people who received one or both doses of the vaccines can attend the cinema.
Since February 7, non-Kuwaitis have been barred from travelling to Kuwait. The seven-month-old decision is set to be lifted starting August 1. Residents, who have received both doses of the Pfizer, Oxford or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and have a valid residency permit can enter the country.
As for Kuwaitis, since May 22 only those who received one or both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine can travel. Two weeks ago, the government amended the decision and stated that as of August 1 only Kuwaitis who received both doses can travel outside the country.
Exempt from the decision are children under the eligible age, diplomats, pregnant women and those who are unable to take the vaccine due to health conditions.
Land and sea borders
Kuwait reopened its land and sea borders to its citizens, first-degree relatives and domestic workers starting on June 30. In order to cross the borders, they must have received at least one dose of one of the authorised vaccines.
From August 1, the land and sea borders will be open to all as long as the individual has received two doses of the one the vaccine authorised by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health.
A ban on entry for visitors arriving from 14 countries, issued last month due to the COVID-19 variant cases, continues in Oman. Oman on Tuesday announced the extension of nighttime lockdown until July 31, while it imposed a complete closure during Eid Al Adha holidays
Entry to Oman from countries such as Sudan, Brazil, Nigeria, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam stands banned.
Entry is also not permitted for those transiting through the above mentioned countries, if it is within the 14 days preceding the date of arrival requested for the Sultanate. Currently, only designated flights of Oman Air, Salam Air, Air India and Air India Express are carrying certain categories of allowable passengers on flights to Oman from some of the banned countries.
Flights to these countries are operated on a need basis to ferry citizens who wish to return to their home countries, provided all conditions mandated by the home-country are fulfilled by those travellers.
The one-week institutional quarantine continues for expatriates arriving in Oman, while Omanis have to undergo a compulsory home quarantine. The quarantine rule is applicable for everyone including those who have taken COVID-19 vaccinations. On arrival in Oman, the passengers have to undergo a mandatory PCR test, which will have to be followed up by another one at the end of the quarantine period before being released from the mandatory quarantine.
Temporary visa halt
While renewal of employment visa and the dependent resident visa continues uninterrupted, issuance of new visas are stopped temporarily including visit visas and new employment visas.
Emergency use licence was granted in Oman for Sputnik and Sinovac vaccines two weeks ago. The vaccines already in use in Oman were Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca. The latter is widely provided by private clinics for residents of all age groups at RO 11 per shot, with an additional service charge not exceeding RO 3.
Pfizer is only available as part of corporate arrangement and given to the staff of private organisations. Sputnik is given free of charge at private hospitals for health care workers on showing their credentials. Among embassies, the Chinese embassy has facilitated vaccination for its citizens residing in Oman with Sinovac. Free walk-in vaccination is available for Omanis at the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre and other government assigned centres. From July 4, Omanis above 18 are also eligible for walk-in jabs.
Heavy penalty for offenders
Family gatherings and non-compliance with preventive measures were quoted as the main reasons for the spread of COVID-19 in Oman. Gatherings of any kind remain banned and anyone found violating this by inviting or attending such gatherings will be slapped a heavy fine.
The one who invites people for gatherings will be fined up to RO 1500 with the attendees getting a fine of RO 100 each. Additionally, any other non-compliance by institutions are also meted out with penalties including temporary closure along with fines.
Expensive PCR tests
A PCR test at RO 15 is the going rate currently among most of the clinics in Oman, with some offering the test at RO 12. The fee is still considered by many in Oman as steep.
In the past month, Bahrain, a country of around 1.7 million people, has reported a significant drop in COVID-19 infections, prompting authorities to ease virus-related restrictions. The National Taskforce for Combatting COVID-19 this month cited a “gradual decrease” of around 88 per cent in the cases over the period from May 23 to June 30.
Alert signal system goes into effect
The taskforce also announced introducing an alert light signal mechanism showing the level of virus spread on the basis of which economic sectors in the country will be opened or closed. The four-level mechanism, comprising the colours of green, yellow, orange and red, is based on the average percentage of infection cases registered from the total tests, as well as the occupancy ICU rates.
Who has access to what?
Starting June 2, Bahrain has allowed vaccinated and unvaccinated people to access certain sectors, including government offices, educational and training facilities, stores located outside commercial complexes and indoor events with maximum attendance of 30 persons.
However, only vaccinated people, those who have recovered from COVID-19 and children under 12 years accompanied by inoculated or recovered persons are allowed to access restaurants, cafes, commercial complexes, gyms, sports events, spas, barber shops, and cinemas operating at 50 per cent of their usual capacity.
Essential sectors, which remain open to all members of the public, include hypermarkets, supermarkets, grocery stores, fruit and vegetable shops, bakeries, fuel stations, banks, foreign exchange bureaus, health care facilities, pharmacies, and auto repair workshops.
Bahrain so far has registered a total of 266,577 virus cases and 1,363 related fatalities. Penalties for COVID-19 violations in Bahrain include jailing for up to three months and a maximum fine of BD10,000.
On December 16, the kingdom launched mass vaccinations against COVID-19, authorising the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Sinopharm and Johnson and Johnson vaccines. Until June 30, a total of 2.1 million doses, including booster shots, have been administered.
Bahrain continues to ban entry of travellers coming from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Vietnam placed on a red list. Exempted from the ban are Bahraini citizens, holders of valid residence visas in the kingdom, GCC citizens who do not need visas, military personnel and air crews.
Bahraini nationals as well as visa and residency permit holders are required to present a negative coronavirus-detecting test certificate with a QR code conducted within 48 hours of their departure. They also have to undergo two PCR tests (costing BD 24 for both), conducted on arrival and on the 10th day of their stay. Passengers aged five years and below are exempt from mandatory testing requirements.
Arrivals in Bahrain from countries that are not on the red list must undergo the PCR test 72 hours before departure. Moreover, all passengers from all countries must undergo the PCR test again upon arrival in Bahrain and on the 10th day after arrival.
Travellers, who have received a single dose of a vaccine against COVID-19 or are not vaccinated must present a negative test certificate with a QR code for a PCR test conducted within 48 hours of their departure. They must also undergo two PCR tests on arrival and on the 10th day of their stay. The have also to go into 10-day precautionary quarantines in their own homes or at a quarantine facility licensed by the Bahraini National Health Regulatory Authority.
Passengers from countries with mutual recognition of vaccination certificates are not required to undergo PCR tests upon arrival, if evidence of a recognised vaccine is provided. They are Greece, Hungary and Israel.
Travellers from some countries, including the US and the UK, are exempt from precautionary quarantine upon arrival, provided official vaccination certificates issued by their countries are furnished. However, they must still undergo a PCR test upon arrival and on the 10th day of their stay in Bahrain.
All arrivals in the kingdom must activate the “Beware Bahrain” app and sign an agreement to self-isolate, which requires them to quarantine at their place of residence until their arrival test results are released.
Due to a drop in COVID-19 cases, Qatar in May embarked on implementing a four-phase plan for gradual return to normal life.
Back to normal, Phase 3
The third phase of the plan is due to come into effect on July 9 when 15 vaccinated and five unvaccinated persons are to be allowed indoors at each restaurant. The maximum limit rises to 30 vaccinated and 15 unvaccinated persons per restaurant for outdoor services in that phase. Meanwhile, the maximum attendance in wedding halls in the third phase is set at 80 people, 75 per cent of them must have received the jabs against COVID-19.
As part of the eased curbs, the maximum capacity of public transport, now operating at 30 per cent, will rise to 50 per cent in the third phase.
Starting from July 9, shopping centres will continue to allow the entry of 50 per cent of their normal capacity as is the case in the current second stage of the plan that took effect on June 18, along with allowing the entry of children.
That stage will also see the maximum attendance at outdoor sports events increasing from the current 30 per cent of the venues’ usual capacity to 50 per cent. As for barber shops, their operating capacity will increase from the current 30 per cent to 50 per cent, provided that all their employees and customers must have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Tough penalties for violators
Flouting precautions in place against COVID-19 in Qatar is punishable by up to three years and fines that can reach QAR 200,000.
3.2m doses of vaccination
Qatar, a country of 2.7 million people, initiated mass vaccinations against the virus on December 23. Around 3.2 million doses have since been administered in the country, which so far has recorded a total of 22,667 infection cases and 593 related fatalities.
Qatar has approved the use of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Around 75 per cent of the population’s eligible people have received at least one dose of vaccination, according to the Ministry of Public Health.
All passengers to Qatar, regardless of age, including those previously vaccinated or infected, must undergo a pre-travel COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of arrival in Qatar at the country of origin in an approved medical centre. The PCR test result should be negative before they are allowed to board the plane to Qatar, or enter the country through the land border.
Certain categories of arrivals will be subject to testing at the Qatari ports. They include passengers travelling for less than 72 hours such as government employees on official missions, official visitors and diplomats as well as passengers who lost the PCR-test certificate during travel. Travellers with symptoms will be tested as necessary as judged by the medical team at the ports.
All passengers transiting through Qatar must have the mandatory pre-travel PCR test certificate valid for 72 hours of arrival in the country. In case they require another PCR test for their onward destination, they can have it at the Hamad International Airport for a standard fee of QAR 300 per test, according to the Ministry of Public Health.
Travellers, who undergo home quarantine, must have a negative PCR test result performed on day 6 in order to be released from Isolation. Meanwhile, individuals who go into hotel quarantine, must have a negative PCR test result done prior to discharge from hotel quarantine.
Qatari citizens, foreign residents, and visitors are required to bear the cost of the hotel quarantine for seven days, if the institutional quarantine criteria apply, provided that the booking is made through the “Discover Qatar” website before their travel abroad.
Qataris and foreign residents (including those with prior entry visas), who have completed the vaccination doses, are exempt from quarantine upon return from travel if at least 14 days have passed after receiving the second dose of a two-dose series vaccine, or the single dose in case of a single-dose vaccine.
The vaccines must be recognised by the Qatari Ministry of Public Health along with a negative result of a PCR test done before returning to Qatar. The ministry has already approved the following vaccines: Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Covishield (AstraZeneca), Johnson & Johnson and Sinopharm.