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A Case Study on How Saudi Arabia has Handled COVID-19, and How the Kingdom has Permanently Changed

Saudi Arabia COVID-19 Overview

Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically transformed the shape of the world. While every country has handled the virus in its own way, Saudi Arabia has remained an exemplary example that proves public safety and human rights can transcend even in the darkest of times.

For example, Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to enforce measurements to contain the spread of COVID-19. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, they suspended all international flights into the country for two weeks and banned foreign worshippers from entering Mecca or Medina to perform Umrah pilgrimage.

This was a stark difference compared to other countries in the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. As a result of these regulations, Saudi Arabia has managed to remain in better shape than many of its neighbouring countries, including Iran and Turkey.

Not only does Saudi Arabia have a lower infection and death rate, but the Kingdom itself has taken swift measures over the past year to ensure that the spread of the virus remains controlled. The country’s response to COVID-19 is strongly tied to the three pillars of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program, aiming to make Saudi Arabia the central hub, heart, and powerhouse of the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia’s History with Pandemics

As with many other parts of the world, Saudi Arabia has a long-winded history with epidemic and pandemic outbreaks. Between the locust plagues of the 18th and 19th centuries to the treacherous spread of the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s, the country has seen its fair share of detrimental problems that have threatened the safety and health of its citizens.

Many of these infectious diseases were believed to be spread by pilgrims, who assembled in Medina and Mecca after travelling from different villages, ports, and cities around the world. With such large populations and gatherers, containing the spread of diseases back then was almost impossible.

In addition to these historical outbreaks, Saudi Arabia has also dealt with the dangerous influx of more current health issues, including the spread of MERS-CoV and H1N1. These outbreaks had a detrimental impact on society, killing hundreds of citizens and launching the entire country into a state of panic.

While Saudi Arabia is still reeling from these unfortunate events, it managed to put several measurements in place that allowed it to be better prepared to handle the COVID-19 crisis. In 2012, the Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control was established to help to prevent and control any future possible health epidemics that could arise.

The existing Minister of Health was also replaced in 2014 by the newly appointed Adel Fakeih, a former mayor and engineer who restored a new sense of faith and stability across the country. Many hospitals, health centres, and holy places also developed different strategies specifically for emergency situations. 

Due to these drastic changes and improvements after the previous national health outbreaks, Saudi Arabia has been better equipped to handle the COVID-19 crisis.

Saudi Arabia’s COVID Timeline

Saudi Arabia was one of the last countries to report a COVID-19 infection, thanks to their swift actions in terms of social distancing and travel restrictions. Even before the first infection was reported in Saudi Arabia on March 2nd, 2020, the Kingdom knew that specific measurements and restrictions were required if they wanted to prevent a national health hazard in their home country. For example the Saudi Embassy in London suspended all visa processing early March, much sooner than other Embassies in the UK or US.

Just a few days prior, the Kingdom banned potential super spreader events and banned visitors from performing Umrah. Although this was the first time in decades since the pilgrimage was cancelled, the country knew from past experience that bold measures on mass gatherings were the key to safety.

Soon after, other social distancing rules were put into place, including a ban on sporting events and the closure of schools and other educational programs. In addition, non-essential businesses such as retail shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and amusement parks were also instructed to shut down.

Holding social events such as funerals and weddings and taking public transportation was also prohibited to prevent group gatherings. Finally, a nationwide curfew was put in place, preventing civilians from leaving their households between certain hours of the day.

Unfortunately, the infection rate was still on the rise, which caused the Kingdom to take even more drastic measures to prevent the spread. On March 17th, 80,000 mosques across the country were required to suspend their daily and Friday prayers for an indefinite period of time.

Understandably, this decision was met with anger and disbelief by some. Many of these measurements had a strong impact on Saudi daily life since over 80% of people live in high-populated urban areas. The Saudi Vision 2030 program placed a heavy importance on creating a social lifestyle outside the family home. Therefore, suspending religious practices and closing different entertainment and cultural businesses was not a light decision.

However, the Kingdom refused to risk the health and safety of its citizens, even if it meant taking such drastic measures. After it’s past failures with regards to previous pandemics, Saudi Arabia was determined to take a more prepared and practical approach to handle the COVID-19 outbreak.

Measures Taken by the Government of Saudi Arabia in Response to COVID-19

Not only has Saudi Arabia taken strict measures to control the spread of the virus itself, but it has also managed to create beneficial relief packages to help offset any detrimental impact on the economy. The Kingdom announced they would provide almost $61 billion to support the private sector and salaries of Saudi employees, as well as additional tax-related benefits and stimulus packages to keep the economy afloat.

Over $13 billion from that amount was allocated to banks and financing companies to help with delayed payments and loans from the business community. $1.6 million was also given to start-ups and small to medium-sized businesses as a financial relief package to help pay back any outstanding loans. 

On May 10th, the Minister of Finance also temporary increased the VAT from 5% to 15% to help stimulate economic growth. He also extended the tax filing date, waved penalty fees for nonpayments, and expedited refunds for both individuals and businesses.

There have also been numerous employee and work-related measurements that also took effect in 2020. For those who had lost their jobs, the Kingdom agreed to pay 60% of the terminated employee’s wage for three months. If the person was still employed but required to work reduced hours, they could now receive an adjusted salary or take leave from their annual vacation.

To help stimulate future growth in the private sector, the Saudi Human Resource Department Fund also focused on increasing hiring and training procedures for citizens and businesses. Over $1 billion would be distributed between 300,000 businesses to assist with hiring and training. This also included removing fines for hiring foreign workers if the company needed to seek outside the country for employees.

Finally, the Social Development Bank also increased its financial support for low-income families. Over 100,000 households could now receive part of $1.1 billion in special loans and financial aid.

Saudi Arabia and the Impact on Oil Prices

The COVID-19 crisis has had a major impact on the price of Crude Oil, which has negatively affected the travel, IT, and religious business sectors. A decrease in business activity decreased the demand and, therefore, the price of oil, dropping in price by 2/3 in just three months.

The price of oil reached its lowest point on April 21st, 2020, with oil costing only $9.12 per barrel (compared to $62.11  just a few months prior). However, the price per barrel started to increase by March 2020, although it will likely take a while for it to reach the price it was before the pandemic hit.

A study conducted by the University of Bisha and the University of Oum El Bouaghi examined exactly how the pandemic impacted the Saudi Arabia oil economy. They discovered a strong correlation on oil prices not just from the virus itself but also the death rate from influential countries such as the United States.

The death toll in the US was higher than the rest of the world (-.49 compared to -.0024), which had a strong impact on the stock market and economic instability. For this reason, the study suggests that the high death toll in the US was one of the biggest contributing factors to the decreasing oil price produced in Saudi Arabia.

How Saudi Arabia is Moving Forward with its Global Partners

As the world comes to grips with the lifelong impact of COVID-19, Saudi Arabia is one of the global frontrunners when it comes to management and response.

Just two weeks after the first infection was reported in the country, King Salman held a virtual meeting with prime ministers, presidents, and leaders from the G20 summit. Together, they agreed to put over $5 trillion towards the economic impact caused by the pandemic.

Two months later, the Kingdom organized another global donor conference with European leaders to raise more than $7 billion that would be used towards developing a COVID-19 vaccine. Once a potential vaccine was ready for testing in August, Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to recruit volunteers to test the efficacy. They continued to back and test other companies developing different vaccines, including AstraZeneca and Sputnik V.

However, one of the biggest outcomes of the Kingdom’s COVID-19 response has been the formulation of the Riyadh Declaration. Created during the two-day Riyadh Global Digital Health Summit in August 2020, this manifesto lays out the priorities and steps needed to address issues caused by COVID-19.

These fast and responsive actions from the Saudi Arabian government one was of the driving forces behind combatting the virus around the world. 

Conclusion

As a society, we have all been dealing with the impact of COVID-19 for over a year. It should come as no surprise that every single country and almost every person have been somehow affected by this deadly virus.

While Saudi Arabia has not been immune to the fallout caused by the pandemic, they have taken strict and proactive measures to help minimize the impact. Their history with past pandemics has led them to be more successful and better prepared in handling what is likely to be known as some of the most influential years in modern-day history. 

A post-pandemic world is on the horizon, thanks to many of the measurements put in place by the Kingdom. As they work towards the Saudi Arabia Vision 2030, it’s easy to see how their swift and bold decisions have led them to become one of the biggest leaders not just in the Middle East but in the entire world. Saudi Arabia is expected to bounce back quickly in its oil prices as activities increase, its tourism as they open their borders and new online initiatives for their Saudi visa processing. 

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