Three weeks ago, a UK media outlet explained that the London Borough of Dubai was the only one not to be under lockdown as the rest of Britain sought to curb the spread of Covid-19. Similarly tight restrictions were announced in the rest of Europe and North America.
But since Dubai, one of the seven emirates constituting the United Arab Emirates (UAE), eased restrictions in July and started to receive tourists, rules were being relaxed there. Many wealthy Westerners flocked to the emirate to escape lockdowns at home and also to obtain a quick vaccination avoiding a long wait in their own country.
The media started publishing stories about celebrities enjoying an almost normal life in Dubai while their fellow citizens stayed at home. Many of YouTube and Instagram influencers flouted travel restrictions by claiming they were travelling for work.
Media coverage turned serious, however, as the UK took the UAE out of the travel corridor list, and Denmark stopped flights from Dubai citing inaccurate Covid tests taken there. Dubai’s famous carrier Emirates Airlines also stopped its long-haul flights between the UK and Australia due to the British lockdown. Danish influencers were stuck there trying to return home after the new travel policy. The Danish Foreign Ministry has denied 20 requests from citizens stuck in Dubai, according to Danish newspaper Sjaellandske Nyheder.
This week, Sami Al-Reyami, the editor-in- chief of the Emarat Al Youm newspaper, wrote an op-ed in response: “It is a new campaign targeting Dubai, not the first of its kind, and it certainly will not be the last. Whenever this city, which dazzled the world, achieves a new success, the arrows turn to it, and the media war against it rages, from the Western media, specifically the British media.” He drew an analogy with the coverage of Dubai during the global financial crisis of 2008. “Today, history repeats itself. It is not Dubai that caused the spread of the coronavirus, for everybody knows that the new mutated and rapidly spreading strain was identified in Britain, then spread to many countries, very quickly, to the point that many countries had added Britain to their travel ban.”
Dubai, which used to attract more than 16 million tourists a year, was visited by under two million in 2020. Some reports said that more than double this figure flocked to the emirate in the festive season of Christmas and New Year. The emirate relies heavily on revenue from tourism and retail shopping, as it has no oil like Abu Dhabi.
Though the UAE is leading in Covid tests and has started rolling out vaccination early, the number of cases started rising. Though the spread of the virus remains far slower than in the US or UK, it is becoming faster than in some neighbouring Gulf countries. The daily average of infections has more the doubled to reach over 3000, compared to less than 1000 before. Even though the country now has more than 280 thousand confirmed cases, the number of deaths is under 800 which means a mortality rate of 0.3 per cent, that is significantly below the global average.
In the last couple of weeks the UAE had to tighten rules and introduce restrictions, not because of the global media coverage but as it started to feel the real strain of cases and rising hospitalisation. On 21 January, authorities directed all Dubai hospitals to suspend non-essential surgeries for a month. Around the same time, a directive went out suspending all “entertainment activities” in restaurants and bars. The cap on weddings, social events and private parties has been cut to 10 people from 30. Restaurants and cafes, as of 27 January, will require increased space between tables and fewer people per table.
Not only Dubai or UAE but the rest of the Gulf countries too have lost tourism opportunities during the year of the pandemic. Some cruise companies cancelled visits to Oman. Though the sultanate was strict in applying protective measures, the new Covid-19 surge led to re-imposition of restrictions eased earlier, interfering with reforms the new Sultan of Oman is streamlining in the country.
Saudi Arabia was planning to enhance tourism beyond the religious tourism of Hajj to Mecca and Medina. The last season was lost, and many desert attractions recently developed costing billions of dollars were almost empty this winter. The kingdom set a goal before the pandemic to attract 100 million tourists in its endeavour to diversify the economy and reduce dependence on oil and gas. These plans have been dealt a hard hit already.
The kingdom had to postpone lifting the travel ban and vaccination is slowing due to the delay of delivery of the shipments the country contracted. There were hopes that the lost year of 2020 would lead to better circumstances this year so that the reform programme could be resumed. Those hopes are dashed for now.
The situation is not so different in the rest of Gulf countries. All are losing the benefits of the best season in the region, not only for tourism but for residents to enjoy outings that are almost impossible in the sizzling heat of summer.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly