As the Gulf countries start to ease the restrictions imposed in March to control the spread of the coronavirus, the expectations of some are high, while others are more cautious about exiting from the lockdowns.
Dubai in the UAE has opened up a bit and relaxed the rules on going out of the home, but the numbers of people in the streets and shopping malls are still not large, indicating that the population is still reluctant to risk exposure to the virus.
Those who have been working from home during the lockdown are likely to prefer to do so if they can. The government has allowed workers in official departments to go back to work in their offices, but only about 30 per cent have done so.
Large gatherings and popular events are still not allowed in most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and places of worship remain closed. Saudi Arabia has allowed the reopening of mosques with strict guidelines on social distancing and reduced contacts.
The guidelines include performing ablutions at home and bringing personal prayer mats to mosques. Public copies of the Quran are not accessible in mosques. These are open only at prayer times, and the numbers of people attending are likely to be half or fewer than those attending under normal circumstances.
The gradual easing of the restrictions in Saudi Arabia will continue until 21 June when most of the rules will be lifted or eased towards the new normal. Other Gulf countries might follow in the Saudi footsteps over the coming days and weeks, though the numbers of cases of infections with the virus are still high.
The reopening of mosques in Saudi Arabia has revived speculation about this year’s Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, due to take place in a couple of months’ time.
In March, the Saudi authorities asked the Muslim countries to hold off on arrangements for their citizens to go on the Hajj this year until the situation was clearer. With the time getting closer, people will need to know if there will be the Hajj this year as the arrangements take some time.
Some countries, such as Singapore, have already deferred the Hajj for their Muslim citizens until next year, while others are waiting for a decision by the Saudi authorities. A decision on the Hajj is expected in a few days if it is going to happen this year, and some countries, such as Indonesia, have already contacted the Saudi authorities for clarification.
According to Saudi sources, there are three options: suspending the Hajj altogether this year; restricting the Hajj to those in Saudi Arabia itself; and holding it with strict rules and regulations. It seems the latter is the most plausible option, and some say that the Hajj authorities have already made recommendations to Saudi monarch King Salman.
If the Hajj is to be performed this year, the quotas for the different Muslim countries will be reduced at least by half, and they might be reduced by up to 80 per cent for certain countries. Thus, instead of more than two million pilgrims converging on Mecca for the pilgrimage, fewer than a million could be there this year.
Strict checks on the pilgrims’ health in their countries of origin before starting the Hajj and guarantees of medical facilities in Mecca are likely to be a must. It is not yet clear how the pilgrims will sleep overnight in Mena – one of the pilgrimage rituals – since overcrowding at this stage of the Hajj has long been a problem.
Many Hajj tour operators expect costs to more than double if the pilgrimage takes place this year. The Hajj and the minor pilgrimage the Umra bring in around $10 billion annually to the host country.
Yet, people are prepared to see the Hajj suspended, even though they spent the Eid at the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan mostly at home with no celebrations or traditional gatherings and visits.
Data published by a US tech giant about the GCC countries has showed that the populations of these countries are becoming more cautious, and increased awareness of the dangers of the coronavirus have made them more self-disciplined.
According to figures released by Google in its Community Mobility Report, overall mobility in the Gulf has decreased by an average of -36.9 per cent compared to the baseline in the month up to mid-May this year, with fewer visits to parks, grocery stores and workplaces taking place in the six GCC countries.
It is not only Saudi Arabia and Dubai that have started easing restrictions, however. Oman is allowing business activity to resume and has ended the lockdown within the capital Muscat since 29 May, allowing travel to resume in and out of the city.
Since 31 May, half of Oman’s government employees have returned to work. Starting on 22 May, Bahrain has allowed certain commercial and industrial business activities to reopen. The Kuwaiti government has not extended its full curfew beyond 30 May and has switched instead to a 12-hour partial curfew from 6pm to 6am starting from 31 May as part of a five-phase plan to ease restrictions.
Only Qatar has not shown signs of an imminent easing of restrictions as cases of infection with the coronavirus continue to edge up in the emirate.
Encouraged by global data about countries that have eased restrictions and lifted lockdowns gradually without witnessing a second spike of the virus’ spread, the Gulf countries are slowly making their way towards the new normal.
They are also looking forward to alleviating the negative economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on their economies, which have been exacerbated by dropping global oil prices.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly