Uncertainty abounds for Saudi, Gulf students in UK

A woman at a closed shop near Piccadilliy Circus in central London on Tuesday. Britain has imposed its most draconian peacetime restrictions due to the spread of the coronavirus on businesses and social gatherings. (AP)
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Updated 25 March 2020

Uncertainty abounds for Saudi, Gulf students in UK

  • The weight of uncertainty is a common theme for many of those still in the UK

LONDON: The outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the UK is forcing Saudi and other Gulf students to make tough decisions about their health, education and family.
London faces the most serious outbreak of coronavirus in the UK, and the city is in lockdown as of Tuesday.
Amid this unparalleled disruption to daily life, many students from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have found themselves navigating a once-in-a-generation crisis as best they can, from a foreign and often unfamiliar country.
Jana Mughrabi, 18, a first-year Saudi student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), told Arab News that she had been in the city for just six months before the outbreak.
With her flights home canceled and London in lockdown, she now faces a long period of isolation in her “tiny” student dorm — a situation she is already finding hard.
“It’s making me sad, very sad,” she said, adding that the distance between her and her family is even worse.
With both parents working in hospitals in Riyadh, Mughrabi said she “worries about them constantly; they’re at high risk — if anything were to happen to them, I couldn’t be with them.”
She added: “The uncertainty of the situation has had a major impact on my mental health. Everything is uncertain, I can’t plan anything, and right now there’s nothing to look forward to.”
The weight of uncertainty is a common theme for many of those still in the UK. Saudi student Lulu Al-Sugair, 21, a second-year student at SOAS, told Arab News that for her too, the unpredictability of the situation has been the most difficult part.
Al-Sugair and her parents, she said, had initially thought that staying in London would be her safest option.
But as they watched the situation in the UK deteriorate, she said she lost faith in the country’s National Health Service, forcing her to make a last-minute decision to return to Bahrain, where her family is based. She left the UK just days before the nationwide lockdown was announced.
“I’ve dodged a bullet, for sure,” she said. “I think I’ve been very lucky that I managed to get out early.”
Now back in Bahrain, Al-Sugair said she is facing a whole new set of anxieties. Studying for exams online and completing coursework under the weight of a pandemic, she says, “has been an incredibly stressful experience.”
Some who remain in the UK have left London to protect themselves. Kuwaiti Yousef Abu Ghazaleh, a 22-year-old final-year student at Royal Holloway University, told Arab News that he left his shared student accommodation in central London due to fears of catching the virus, calling it the “safer choice.”
Abu Ghazaleh, who is now staying with friends in Manchester, said having this support system has made a “huge difference.”
Many of his friends have already returned to Kuwait, choosing to put their faith in that country’s health care system over that of the UK, he said. But with his sister still in London, Abu Ghazaleh said he “couldn’t go with them and leave her alone.”
With the lockdown now in place, he and his sister are confronted with a much longer period of isolation in the UK, with very little indication of when it will end. “Despite the uncertainty, I’m trying to make the best of the situation,” he said.
With his fears for his health and that of his family, he added that it is a “very emotional time” for him.
With his time at university over so abruptly, he is left with very little sense of closure at the end of such a formative phase in his life.


Kingdom’s embassies offer crucial lifeline for Saudis stranded abroad due to pandemic

Saudi Ambassador to Indonesia Essam bin Abed Al-Thaqafi reassuring Saudis about their safe return to the Kingdom. Saudi missions around the world continue to provide advice and accommodation for stranded citizens. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 31 March 2020

Kingdom’s embassies offer crucial lifeline for Saudis stranded abroad due to pandemic

  • Saudis stranded abroad by coronavirus tell Arab News how they cope

RIYADH: Hundreds of Saudi citizens stranded abroad due to the coronavirus travel bans are living in the lap of luxury at the expense of the Kingdom.
Since the first case of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was reported in Saudi Arabia, the government has been taking all necessary measures to protect its people through the closure of schools and offices to the halting of international and domestic flights.
And Saudi embassies around the world have been working day and night to organize the safe return of citizens, posting flight deadlines and important contact numbers on Twitter.
However, not all Saudis studying, working or on vacation in other countries have been able to make it home.
As the world battles with the pandemic, the Saudi government has been trying to ensure the well-being and health of its citizens stranded abroad, urging Saudi nationals to abide by the rules and regulations of the countries of their residence.
The Kingdom has expanded a ban on international flights for two weeks to help authorities fight the virus effectively within the country.
A number of Saudi families, tourists, businesspeople and students have found themselves stuck in the US capital, Washington, DC with no idea of when the next evacuation flights will take place.
However, the Saudi Embassy has provided luxury hotel accommodation for stranded Saudi nations including full-board meals and free laundry services.
Ayman Nassief and his family were on a two-week holiday in Orlando, Florida when the travel ban came in.
“When they closed Disney World in Orlando, we sensed something, and decided to go back to Washington to take the first flight to Saudi Arabia,” said Nasseif, an architect from Jeddah who had traveled to the US with his wife Safinaz Salamah, a pediatrician, and their daughter Hatoon, a freelance graphic designer.
“I knew that the flight had been canceled before I arrived in DC, so I called the embassy on their dedicated hotline. The embassy immediately made arrangements for our stay at the Hilton McLean hotel.”
The Saudi Ministry of Health made it mandatory for people entering the Kingdom after March 11 to go into 14-day quarantine and Nasseif said his family’s places of work had been very cooperative and understanding over their situation.



Safinaz said she was keen to get back to Saudi as soon as possible to help in her role as a pediatrician. “I wish I was there to return some of the favor that the government has bestowed upon me.
“I sit here with my family at the expense of the embassy; it is taking care of our accommodation, food and even paying for our laundry here. Now I really know what it means to be Saudi,” she added.
Nasseif said: “We understand the burden on the government, and we want to go back as soon as possible, but we realize how big the pandemic is. It put us at ease that the government was taking extreme measures to fight the virus, and we stand along with them.”
Another Saudi citizen, Faten Ahmed, became stranded at the Hilton McLean after her flight home was canceled during a visit to Florida to see her brother.
“Although I am missing my family and home, the help I have received here has made it up for me. I have nothing to complain about. I only hope the world passes through this crisis with the minimum of lost lives.”
Ahmed had only been in Miami for 24 hours before she heard the travel ban rumors and drove immediately to Orlando to catch the first available flight to Washington, DC. However, when she got there all flights to Saudi Arabia had been grounded.

Ibtihaj Al-Hanaki who was in the US capital for a brief personal trip was also unable to return due to the pandemic. Her flight was one of the last to land in the city from the Kingdom before things were shut down.
“I didn’t think that things will escalate this fast, when I finished my business here I tried to go back, but unfortunately it was too late,” the mother of two boys, 2 and 5, told Arab News. “I miss them too much, I didn’t plan to leave them for a long period, and they weren’t prepared for that,” she said.
Nevertheless, Al-Hanaki praised the action of her country to take strict precautions during the coronavirus outbreak, which has brought most of the world to a halt.


• Saudi embassies around the world have been working to organize the safe return of citizens, posting flight deadlines and important contact numbers on Twitter.

• Saudi Embassy in Washington has provided approximately 40,000 Saudi students in the US with clear guidance and advisories regarding how to ensure that their studies are not disrupted.

Fahad Nazer, spokesperson at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, told Arab News: “The well-being of Saudi citizens abroad is the top priority of all of the Kingdom’s diplomatic missions around the world.
“The Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan is personally overseeing the embassy’s effort to ensure that Saudis currently unable to return to the Kingdom due to the international travel restrictions, have adequate accommodation until the restrictions are lifted.
“The Kingdom’s embassy in Washington, in addition to its consulates in New York City, Los Angeles and Houston have spared no effort to make sure that the approximately 600 Saudi citizens who were visiting the US and are currently unable to return to the Kingdom have all their needs met,” said Nazer.

A group of Saudis gathered in the lobby of a hotel in Washington, DC.

“The accommodation, provided free of charge, includes transportation from airports to hotels and lodging at hotels, along with complimentary meals. In addition, the Kingdom’s cultural mission in Washington has provided approximately 40,000 Saudi students in the US with clear guidance and advisories regarding how to ensure that their studies are not disrupted, including guidance on distance learning.”
The embassy and consulates in the US have also advised all Saudis to strictly adhere to the public health and safety advisories issued by the states they reside in.
Saudi embassies and consulates around the world continue to closely monitor the spread of the coronavirus and provide advice and accommodation for stranded citizens.
In Indonesia, a video went viral of the Saudi ambassador to the country, Essam bin Abed Al-Thaqafi, reassuring a large crowd in an airport that they would all be cared for. “Our responsibility lies in overseeing that we care for you during this time,” he said.
The Saudi Embassy in Indonesia flew out 800 citizens and those that failed to make the flight have been provided free accommodation.
“There is no doubt that the authorities in the Kingdom are working hard for their return, but after taking all necessary precautions,” the envoy added.
The Saudi Embassy in Egypt helped to evacuate 5,900 Saudis in the space of 72 hours with the Kingdom’s ambassador, Osama Nugali, personally overseeing operations at the airport.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always been at the forefront of caring for its citizens whether in the country or abroad. The instructions we received from the leadership were to help facilitate and to accommodate the needs of our citizens during this crucial time,” he told Arab News.