How Saudi Arabia turned the page on the COVID-19 pandemic

Special How Saudi Arabia turned the page on the COVID-19 pandemic
Saudis celebrate at public events like Jeddah Season after the Kingdom ended COVID-19 restrictions. (Jeddah Season)
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Updated 15 June 2022

How Saudi Arabia turned the page on the COVID-19 pandemic

How Saudi Arabia turned the page on the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Easing of restrictions, including indoor mask mandate, signals victory in long battle against the coronavirus
  • Preparations and decisive actions protected the Kingdom from COVID-19 waves that ravaged other countries

RIYADH, LONDON: What a difference six months makes. On Monday, Saudi Arabia ended its COVID-19 restrictions, including the requirement to wear face masks in closed places. And Saudis are rejoicing.

The announcement by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported, citing an Interior Ministry statement, shows just how far the Kingdom has come in defeating the pandemic since Jan. 12, when it recorded its highest-ever number of new daily COVID-19 cases, including 5,362 new infections and two virus-related deaths.

In practical terms, what the latest announcement means is that Individuals will no longer be required to wear a face mask indoors, except for in the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, in addition to health facilities, public events, airplanes and public transport providers that wish to uphold the preventative measures.

According to the ministry’s statement, proof of vaccination on the Ministry of Health-approved Tawakkalna app is no longer required to enter establishments, events, activities, airplanes and public transport.

“The vaccine posed a constant pain as I was pregnant, and my physicians recommended that I not take the booster shot,” said 33-year-old Rafa Amin, a second-time mother who recently gave birth to a healthy baby boy.




A worker disinfects a street in the southern Saudi city of Jazan. (SPA)

“The risk was high if I took the booster as I had adverse reactions, and the Ministry of Health gave me an exception. To ensure that I was exempt from the dose, I needed to go through a swift yet lengthy process, which was quite a hindrance as I was flying home to the UK at the time.”

She said the relaxing of pandemic restrictions by Saudi authorities has made the journey from one country to the other a lot easier.

Citizens who wish to leave Saudi Arabia will be required to take a third booster dose after eight months instead of three. However, the new regulation does not apply to those aged under 16 or those who have been exempt from being vaccinated by the Health Ministry.




Officials enter an establishment to inspect adherence to pandemic protocols. (SPA)

The SPA report added that the ministry continues to encourage people to take the booster shot to protect themselves from the virus.

Commenting on the decision to lift precautionary measures, Saudi Minister of Health Fahd Al-Jalajel said the Kingdom’s management of the pandemic held lessons for the entire world, the main being that people come first.




Police officers enforce a travel restriction order in Tabuk city, in nothern Saudi Arabia. (SPA)

This was evident from the day King Salman directed the government to provide free treatment for all COVID-19 patients without differentiating between citizens, residents and undocumented foreigners.

Until the emergence of the omicron variant, June 17, 2020, was regarded as the day the number of daily new cases in the Kingdom peaked. While the day’s tally of 4,919 cases seemed daunting then, it proved to be a watershed event in the chronicle of Saudi Arabia’s coronavirus fight.

In a sense, both June 17, 2020, and Jan. 12, 2022, are significant dates for Saudis to look back on when they recall their country’s battle against the microscopic enemy that brought the world to its knees.




During the pandemic, the public in Saudi Arabia had grown acustomed to routine health checks in public spaces. 

It is fair to say that the tide of the battle, which began with the first COVID-19 case on March 2, had turned in favor of the Kingdom after the first of the two dates.

COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019. Months later, and thanks to the wonderful world of travel, the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread rapidly around the world, but Saudi Arabia managed to keep the enemy from its soil for three months, buying precious time to build up its defenses.




Then Saudi Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah getting his booster dose of the coronavirus vaccine. More than 66.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered. (SPA)

“We were luckier than many other countries because our cases started a little bit later,” Dr. Hani Jokhdar, deputy minister for public health, told the Riyadh Global Digital Health Summit in August 2020. “This gave us a small opportunity to develop our systems, watching and observing what was happening in the rest of the world.”




Arab News’ award-winning cover of a September, 2020, edition dedicated to those on the front lines of the fight against the virus. (AN)

Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries in the world to set up laboratories to test for COVID-19, with tests available for anyone with symptoms from March 5, 2020, onward. Over the next five months, more than 5 million would be carried out. By Tuesday this week, over 42.9 million tests had been carried out.

In February, travel to and from infected countries was quickly curtailed, culminating in a ban on all international flights by March 15. Restrictions on internal travel followed shortly after.

And on Feb. 27, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented but necessary step of suspending Umrah visas for foreign pilgrims. The Kingdom would also take the lead in closing mosques.




The Kaaba, inside Makkah’s Grand Mosque, one of the busiest places in Saudi Arabia, is seen cordoned off during a coronavirus lockdown in the holy city. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia’s defenses were finally breached on March 2, thanks to two citizens who had returned home infected from Bahrain, neglecting to mention that their journeys had begun in Iran, a country already in the grip of the disease.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, the last of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states to be hit by the virus, was better prepared than many countries for what was coming.

A slew of smartphone apps — some established, others developed quickly in the face of the new disease — allowed citizens and residents to report symptoms, book virtual appointments and access testing.

Such technology would also play a vital role in the management of Hajj. As the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, from the outset, Saudi Arabia was keenly aware of the consequences for itself, the region and the entire planet if it failed to manage the pilgrimage effectively.




Millions of students in Saudi Arabia had to switch to distance learning as a national lockdown was announced. (SPA)

A decision was taken to limit numbers to an unprecedented but privileged 1,000, selected from nationals and foreigners already in the Kingdom. Careful screening, monitoring and meticulous management ensured that, in a remarkable year, Hajj passed off without a single case of COVID-19. The number of pilgrims reached 58,2021, with no cases detected.

For this year’s Hajj, Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, Saudi minister of Hajj and Umrah, has said that while it is appreciated that there are still many special precautions in place, “the safety of pilgrims and their safe return to their countries remain our priorities.”

Upon opening registration for this year’s Hajj, the ministry stressed priority to those who have not previously performed the rituals. The ministry added that those who are not fully immunized, as per their status on the Tawakkalna application, would be denied a Hajj permit.

Over 390,000 domestic pilgrims have registered, an e-draw has begun, and selected pilgrims will receive text messages on their registered devices.

The Kingdom has raised the capacity of pilgrims for this year’s Hajj season to 1 million, a slow but sure way of reaching a pre-pandemic total of over 2.5 million pilgrims annually.

To be sure, neither Saudi Arabia nor the world is out of the woods yet. But while the global daily tally of COVID-19 cases fluctuates, hitting a record high of 3.84 million on Jan. 21, 2022, and registering a total of 6.33 million deaths as of Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s daily caseload hovers around the somewhat manageable 1,000 mark.




The Kingdom removed almost all COVID-related rules on Monday, signaling a return to normality more than two years after the start of the health crisis. (SPA)

To date, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 780,000 coronavirus cases, including 760,000 recoveries, and less than 10,000 deaths. More than 66.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered to its 34.5 million residents.

But one need only look at how badly many other states have fared — including some of the most powerful and advanced countries in the world — to realize just how much worse these terrible years might have been for the Kingdom were it not for its preparations and timely and decisive actions.

 

The Kingdom vs. COVID-19
How Saudi Arabia acted swiftly and coordinated a global response to fight the coronavirus, preventing a far worse crisis at home and around the world

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Thai citizens share their joy performing Hajj

The second group of Thai pilgrims arrived at Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah on June 11.
The second group of Thai pilgrims arrived at Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah on June 11.
Updated 03 July 2022

Thai citizens share their joy performing Hajj

The second group of Thai pilgrims arrived at Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah on June 11.
  • Arabic teacher Mamu Kayah and businessman Arong Samae praise Saudi and Thai officials for smooth journey

RIYADH: Two Thai pilgrims performing Hajj for the first time have expressed their joy at arriving in Saudi Arabia after not being able to do so because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hajj is the opportunity of a lifetime for me. I could not hold back the tears when I saw the Kaaba for the first time. If I am able to perform Hajj after this time, I intend to perform Umrah every year, God willing. Hajj means everything to me,” Arong Samae told Arab News.

Samae from Narathiwat Province, located in the south of Thailand, is a businessman who is undertaking the pilgrimage with his wife this year.

“I seize this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to the government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for its gigantic efforts by which Muslims can visit the city of the Prophet (Madinah) and Makkah once again, and I pray to God Almighty to grant it more prosperity and progress,” said Samae.

The Narathiwat Province native took a plane from southern Thailand to Madinah Airport directly. He arrived in Saudi Arabia on June 11 and left for Makkah on June 17.

“I have never encountered any difficulties; everything is organized and easy. The Thai Hajj Company supplies everything from start to finish, and the Thai government also provides support and facilities at all stages,” Samae said.

“The trip took approximately eight hours by chartered flight, and I did not expect these facilities, because I heard that the pilgrimage journey is tiring and long, starting with car transfers to the capital, then waiting for the flight for two or three days,” he said.

Samae was surprised to see how quick and seamless the process was: “Thank God, everything (was) easy … Less than 12 hours … and I was in Saudi Arabia, I thank God for that,” he said.

“I prayed to God that one day I would arrive in Saudi Arabia. I also thank everyone who serves the pilgrims, whether they are from Thailand or from Saudi Arabia,” he said.

He said that he wanted to perform Hajj two years ago but was unable to because of COVID-19 restrictions. The pandemic had “changed everything” they wanted to do, he said.

Thai native, 58-year-old Mamu Kayah, is performing Hajj with his wife this year. He is a high school Arabic teacher from Yala, a city in the south of the country.

“I am very pleased to have this opportunity, and I thank God day and night for that. And I am absolutely certain that every Muslim who has come to this pure land shares this feeling with me,” Kayah said.

He told Arab News that this was his third time performing Hajj.

“We are very fortunate to have a direct flight from the far south of Thailand, the state of Narathiwat, which is only a hundred kilometers away from my home,” he said.

“The Thai Hajj company and the Thai Hajj mission did their duty well; everything is organized and tidy, especially with the presence of electronic platforms that contribute greatly to facilitating the procedures from the first day until we boarded the plane to Madinah,” he said.

Kayah took a direct eight-hour flight from Narathiwat to Madinah’s Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International Airport. He thanked the Kingdom and Thailand for providing these routes for pilgrims.

“I heard that organizing the chartered plane was not easy, and it can only be done with the tremendous efforts of the two countries, Thailand and Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Kayah and his wife arrived in Madinah on June 12, traveled to Makkah on June 18, and will return to their home country on July 20.

“It can be said that Hajj this year is very special and completely different from my previous experience,” he said.

“For example, from when I got off the plane at Madinah Airport to my arrival at the hotel, the process took only one hour. Every step is fast and tidy, starting with the procedures in the passports, taking the luggage, riding the bus,” Kayah added.

He added that Saudi and Thai employees were available everywhere to assist. “Above all, the reception from the competent Saudi authority was very wonderful; we felt like one of the VIPs,” he said.

It was an emotional experience for him. “Indescribable pleasure, especially for a person of my age. I always cry when I stand in front of the Prophet’s Mosque and the Holy Kaaba, crying for joy, of course, and it is all thanks to God Almighty,” he said.

“The only issue that worries me and everyone is the high prices of everything; in any case, we understand very well that this thing is not in our hands, so that not only the costs of Hajj increased but in everything and all over the world. Other than that, there are no difficulties,” he said.

Thailand has a post-pandemic quota of 5,885 pilgrims, according to the Thai Embassy in Jeddah, with 3,738 having registered to do so. Before the COVID-19 restrictions, Thailand had a quota of 13,000. In 2018 and 2019, a total of 7,851 and 8,462 pilgrims respectively performed Hajj.

As of June 20, 1,120 pilgrims had arrived in Madinah on Thai Airways charter flights. Four flights arrived in the Kingdom from June 10 to 13. The other 2,618 pilgrims will travel on eight flights from June 29 to Jeddah, five of which are through Thai airways and three are with Saudi Airlines.

As the first groups of pilgrims arrived in Makkah and Madinah on Sunday, Basri Tatif, the deputy head of the Thai Pilgrims Affairs, praised the Kingdom for its organization, and said that his fellow citizens will be able to perform their rituals safely with all the measures in place.


Jeddah Season receives 6 million visitors

The season created numerous opportunities for partnerships with the private sector. (SPA)
The season created numerous opportunities for partnerships with the private sector. (SPA)
Updated 45 min 9 sec ago

Jeddah Season receives 6 million visitors

The season created numerous opportunities for partnerships with the private sector. (SPA)
  • Jeddah Season began in May and ended on Saturday, July 2

JEDDAH: Jeddah Season set a new attendance record over its 60 days of events this year. Organizers said 6 million people had visited the season — the highest number in its short history.

Jeddah Season began in May and ended on Saturday, July 2. The number of visitors it attracted suggests the Kingdom’s drive to boost its tourism and entertainment sectors is a success.

The season created numerous opportunities for partnerships with the private sector, as well as a wide range of employment opportunities for young Saudi men and women in stores, restaurants, cafés, markets, or other organizational or logistical services.

More than 80 percent of all employees involved in Jeddah Season were Saudis.
 

 


Restoring ecosystem for a green Hajj requires good carbon, says forum chief

Al-Mashair covers 119 square kilometers and encompasses the key Hajj sites of Arafat, Muzdalifah, and Mina. (SPA file photo)
Al-Mashair covers 119 square kilometers and encompasses the key Hajj sites of Arafat, Muzdalifah, and Mina. (SPA file photo)
Updated 03 July 2022

Restoring ecosystem for a green Hajj requires good carbon, says forum chief

Al-Mashair covers 119 square kilometers and encompasses the key Hajj sites of Arafat, Muzdalifah, and Mina. (SPA file photo)
  • “Vegetation will help reclaim its eco-capacity to revive itself and accelerate as soil carbon. This will include flora, animals, and how humans can fundamentally use it,” he told Arab News

JEDDAH: Restoring the ecosystem for a green Hajj requires good carbon, the CEO of the Saudi Green Building Forum has said.  

The SGBF, along with the UN Environment Programme, is studying the Al-Mashair area to restore land and look into its boundaries and carbon capacity.

Al-Mashair covers 119 square kilometers and encompasses the key Hajj sites of Arafat, Muzdalifah, and Mina.

SGBF CEO Faisal Al-Fadhl said that helping the environment restore itself meant increasing good carbon (soil carbon), a natural phenomenon that could be achieved through man-made initiatives.

HIGHLIGHT

The Saudi Green Building Forum, along with the UN Environment Programme, is studying the Al-Mashair area to restore land and look into its boundaries and carbon capacity. It covers 119 square kilometers and encompasses the key Hajj sites of Arafat, Muzdalifah, and Mina.

“Vegetation will help reclaim its eco-capacity to revive itself and accelerate as soil carbon. This will include flora, animals, and how humans can fundamentally use it,” he told Arab News. “Seventy million tons of soil carbon is needed to restore the area through trees.”

Areas between Al-Mashair needed restoration for a rich human experience, he explained, “not just Mina, the mountains around it too.”

Al-Fadhl said good carbon canceled out the bad carbon from heat islands, a term referring to objects, elements, and structures such as cement, buildings, and reflective glass.

“These all generate a lot of heat so we want to reduce that through increasing soil carbon. The study is accredited by the United Nations Environment Programme, and this area requires certain care scientifically, zoologically, and botanically,” said Al-Fadhl.

He said Saudi Arabia was aiming to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2060, an announcement from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last October, and that this move was in line with the Kingdom’s development plans.

Al-Fadhl said the forum had begun projects to provide a green Hajj since it was established and now, with more sustainability awareness, the team was stepping up its action plans.

“It is not only a ritual place from the inside, it is a human experience and we have to restore its nature. It is the biggest international host in the world, so restoring the eco-capacity is a must for the human experience to be unique.”

Al-Fadhl said vegetation cover was very poor in Al-Mashair, with less than half of one percent having greenery or any form of vegetation. But he said that vegetation coverage had increased from 122 square meters to 878 square meters between 2000 and 2010.

“That is an 800 percent increase,” he added.

Al-Fadhl referred to US architect William McDonough’s “A New Language For Carbon” in his explanation to identify three strategies for carbon management and climate change.

The first was carbon positive, converting atmospheric carbon to forms that enhanced soil nutrition or to durable forms such as polymers and solid aggregates, also recycling carbon into nutrients from organic materials, food waste, compostable polymers, and sewers.

The second strategy, carbon neutral, referred to actions that transformed or maintained carbon in durable Earth-bound forms and cycles across generations; or renewable energy such as solar, wind, and hydropower that did not release carbon.

The third strategy, carbon negative, referred to actions that polluted the land, water, and atmosphere with various forms of carbon, for example, releasing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere or plastics into the ocean.

 


Saudi Arabia’s efforts to protect Arabian Leopard documented by Princess Reema Bint Bandar

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to protect Arabian Leopard documented by Princess Reema Bint Bandar
Updated 03 July 2022

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to protect Arabian Leopard documented by Princess Reema Bint Bandar

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to protect Arabian Leopard documented by Princess Reema Bint Bandar
  • Her book ‘The Arabian Leopard’ documents national efforts through the strategy of the Royal Commission for AlUla to preserve the endangered animal
  • The book contains over 100 works of art and photos

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s efforts to protect the Arabian Leopard is one of the most prominent global models, said Princess Reema bint Bandar, the Kingdom’s ambassador to the United States.
Princess Reema’s remarks came in the presence of Prince Khalid bin Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the UK, while launching a new book entitled, “The Arabian Leopard”, Saudi Press Agency reported on Friday.
The book documents national efforts through the strategy of the Royal Commission for AlUla to preserve the Arabian Leopard and protect it from extinction, within the objectives of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.
Assouline Publishing House in London hosted the book launching ceremony, during which the ambassador emphasized the Kingdom’s efforts to protect the leopard and return it to its natural habitats.

 

 

Prepared and written by a number of experts in the fields of environment and nature conservation, the book contains over 100 works of art and photos. It also contains various reports on the history of the Arabian tiger, which has existed for more than 500,000 years in the Arabian Peninsula.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the Arabian Leopard as among the most endangered animals, with only 200 alive today, due to overhunting and other reasons within the animal’s subsistence system.
 


The RCU’s strategy to preserve the animal includes a variety of initiatives, including expanding the breeding program by opening a dedicated center in the Sharaan Nature Reserve, and establishing the Global Fund for the Arabian Leopard, for which the authority has allocated $25 million.
In line with the Saudi Green Initiative, RCU aims to convert 80 percent of AlUla’s area into nature reserves, including wild plants and animals, as initiatives to protect the Arabian leopard have also included the resettlement of wild species such as mountain ibex and gazelles.


Makkah Healthcare Cluster establishes mobile dental clinic to serve pilgrims

Makkah Healthcare Cluster has signed cooperation agreement with a medical firm  specialized in dental services. (Supplied)
Makkah Healthcare Cluster has signed cooperation agreement with a medical firm specialized in dental services. (Supplied)
Updated 02 July 2022

Makkah Healthcare Cluster establishes mobile dental clinic to serve pilgrims

Makkah Healthcare Cluster has signed cooperation agreement with a medical firm  specialized in dental services. (Supplied)
  • The mobile dental clinic includes 32 medical and operational cadres equipped with modern capabilities around the clock for the length of the Hajj season

MAKKAH: Makkah Healthcare Cluster has signed a cooperation agreement with a medical company specializing in providing dental services, to establish a mobile dental clinic stationed at Al-Haram Emergency Hospital area to provide free healthcare to pilgrims during the Hajj.

The mobile dental clinic includes 32 medical and operational cadres equipped with modern capabilities around the clock for the length of the Hajj season.

After the end of the season, Makkah Healthcare Cluster will discuss with the company the feasibility and effectiveness of the mobile clinic and the possibility of expanding the scope of its work and facilitating services to its patients.

The acting CEO of Makkah Healthcare Cluster, Dr. Hatem bin Ahmed Al-Omari, said that Hajj and Umrah rituals represent one of Makkah Healthcare Cluster’s goals by refining health services and safety at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, and enable the cluster to provide quality services to pilgrims by improving cooperation and integration with the private sector, filling gaps in the provision of health services.