Eerie silence descends on Saudi Arabia as coronavirus fear mounts

Women wear protective face masks as they walk in Qatif, Saudi Arabia Mar. 10, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 13 March 2020

Eerie silence descends on Saudi Arabia as coronavirus fear mounts

  • Many shopkeepers at malls in the Kingdom are experiencing a sharp slump in sales
  • The Kingdom has not classified the virus threat as “high” yet, but strict measures are being put in place to minimize the chances of spread

JEDDAH: Growing fears over coronavirus have left normally busy public spaces in Saudi Arabia all but empty as people respond to increased safety measures and self-isolation efforts. 
In unprecedented scenes, airport halls, schools, malls, sports venues, cafes and restaurants, as well as mosques, are largely deserted and eerily quiet. 
The Kingdom has not classified the virus threat as “high” yet, but strict measures are being put in place to minimize the chances of spread, including temporary closure of schools, universities, and entertainment and sports events. 
At King Abdul Aziz International Airport, one of the world’s busiest hubs, the departure and arrival halls are less busy amid declining traveler numbers worldwide.
Flight arrivals are checked for fever, cold and cough symptoms as medical staff along with airport staff keep a sharp eye out for anybody who could be carrying the virus. 
Many shopkeepers at malls in the Kingdom are experiencing a sharp slump in sales.
Ahmed Shawqi, a salesman at the Red Sea mall, told Arab News that most stores had already seen a negative impact because of the virus. “It makes sense. Consumers who are worried about what appears to be a global epidemic will avoid gathering in public spaces with large crowds,” he said.
However, supermarket manager Adel Al-Ahmadi said: “Around 80 percent of our customers are still coming. It is business as usual for us. We haven’t experienced any slump in sales.”

FASTFACTS

  • The Kingdom has not classified the virus threat as ‘high’ yet, but strict measures are being put in place to minimize the chances of spread, including temporary closure of schools, universities, and entertainment and sports events.
  • Saudi authorieis banned cafes and restaurants from serving sisha.

Sami Abu Ali, who mans the reception at a mall in Al-Rwais district, said that consumers will certainly change their habits if the situation gets worse. “Avoiding public spaces with large crowds is normal these days, and we have definitely noticed our visitor numbers are lower than usual,” he said.
Inside the malls, sales assistants more accustomed to offering advice on expensive handbags instead were helping customers with surgical masks.
Sporting fixtures and venues have also been hit by virus fears. The Saudi Basketball Federation began its playoffs on Saturday in Jeddah behind closed doors, with no spectators watching the action.
Games were played on television, with the sound of cheering fans missing from the coverage.
On Monday, Saudi authorities banned cafes and restaurants from serving shisha. While many cafe owners welcomed the ban on health grounds, some still seen to be offering shisha.
Ali Al-Shihri, owner of a shish cafe in Al-Rawdah district in Jeddah, said: “We are open, but the number of customers is very low since the coronavirus issue started.
“As you can see, the cafe is empty and has been for the past three days.”
Prayers at mosques normally attract crowds of worshippers, but this week there has been a significant decline in numbers at mosques across major cities.
Ahmed Abu Al-Hassan, a regular worshiper at Bin Hanbal Mosque in Al-Rawda district, said: “Any worshipper who feels symptoms such as fever, cold, coughing or sneezing, should pray at home and not attend the mosque. He should not pray in congregation, not even for Friday prayers.”
Many people said that they plan to avoid public areas, and skip events, weddings or graduations. Amid growing fear over the virus, people’s behavior and the way they communicate with each other are changing. Greeting by kissing and shaking hands is no longer acceptable to many.
The health ministry has said that government entities are doing everything possible to limit the risk of spread. The community has responded well, working to keep people safe and risk free, it said.


Saudi TikTok users weigh in on potential app ban

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Updated 12 July 2020

Saudi TikTok users weigh in on potential app ban

  • Due to pandemic, interest in the app skyrocketed as many users watch videos and try to recreate them while in quarantine

RIYADH: Chinese video platform TikTok is under fire once again, as rumors of the app being a tool used by the Chinese government to spy on users resurface online.

TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is a video-sharing site similar to the now-defunct Vine, where users share short clips of themselves which can be altered using AI technology.
Lip-syncing along with a track, using filters, and adding special effects give users the chance to create short clips that can be shared and downloaded in several social media platforms.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, interest in the app skyrocketed as many users downloaded TikTok to watch videos and try to recreate them while in quarantine. The app has also gained significant popularity in the Middle East with influencers such as Saudi model Roz, UAE-based content creators Khalid and Salama, and Saudi top TikToker iimeeto, who recently celebrated reaching four million followers on the platform.
Rania Mohammed, a fourth year medical student at Dar AlUloom University in Riyadh, said that TikTok was “the only thing keeping her sane” as she struggled with the pressures of school and quarantine.
“As a med school student, my attention span and free time are both severely limited,” she told Arab News. “Taking a 15 minute break to watch silly TikToks has helped me keep motivated. The specific brand of humor on that app is the fastest way to make me laugh.”
Mai Alhumood, a government employee, said that she downloaded the app while she was bored and became “quickly addicted” to the platform’s fun short videos.
“People are so creative on TikTok, and the challenges that keep going viral are so interesting,” she told Arab News.
However, the app has long-suffered from accusations of spying and gathering users’ private information on behalf of the Chinese government, leading to both temporary and permanent bans in countries around the world.
Recently, it was reported that Amazon requested that employees remove the app from their smartphones in an email over “security risks.” The company later retracted its directive.
Saudi cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber believed that concerns over the security of TikTok’s collected data stemmed from the app’s country of origin and its rules and regulations.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Following a provisional ban in April 2019, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned TikTok permanently in June this year, along with 58 other Chinese apps. The ministry claimed that the apps were a ‘threat to the sovereignty and security of the country’ following a Himalayan border clash with Chinese troops in the disputed territory of Ladakh.

• Indonesia temporarily blocked TikTok in July 2018, citing public concern regarding ‘illegal content’ such as pornography and blasphemy. However, the app was unblocked following various changes from TikTok such as the opening of a government liaison office and implementing security mechanisms.

• Recently, the US became the third country to seriously consider banning the app, according to information from President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump also weighed in on a potential TikTok ban. He said that banning the app would be ‘punishing China for its response to the coronavirus.’

“TikTok collects data in a very similar way to US applications,” he told Arab News. “However the main concern is that the US has regulations and compliance that must be met when collecting customer data, such as GDPR data privacy regulation. In the case of TikTok, we don’t know as much about how the data is being used or stored because we don’t know their regulations.”
Following a provisional ban in April 2019, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned TikTok permanently in June this year, along with 58 other Chinese apps. The ministry claimed that the apps were a “threat to the sovereignty and security of the country” following a Himalayan border clash with Chinese troops in the disputed territory of Ladakh.
Indonesia temporarily blocked TikTok in July 2018, citing public concern regarding “illegal content” such as pornography and blasphemy. However, the app was unblocked following various changes from TikTok such as the opening of a government liaison office and implementing security mechanisms.
Recently, the US became the third country to seriously consider banning the app, according to information from President Donald Trump’s administration.
Trump also weighed in on a potential TikTok ban. In an interview with Gray Television, Trump said that banning the app would be “punishing China for its response to the coronavirus.”
“Look, what happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world is disgraceful,” he said.
While Saudi Arabia has yet to announce a ban of any kind of TikTok, local users and followers are trying to practice caution while using the app anyway.
Alhumood considered making videos on the platform, but dismissed the idea and only uses it to follow other people’s videos.
“I have ideas for it, sure, but I’d rather not take the risk. I don’t even have a username or a registered account, and that’s one of the better things about TikTok. I only have the app, but I can still watch all the videos without giving them my private information.”
Mohammed also said that she had no interest in creating videos herself, though she did have a registered account in order to comment on videos and keep track of her favorites.
However Al-Jaber said that, in his opinion, registering an account on TikTok did not necessarily pose more of a risk than using other social media.
“If you use Facebook or Twitter, it’s not much different than using TikTok,” he said.