Saudi Arabia has proven its mettle as one of the few most resilient countries in reining in coronavirus. It has also emerged as a role model for the entire world by drawing up a foolproof roadmap in crisis management during the pandemic period. The recent annual speech of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, while inaugurating the activities of the second year of the eighth session of the Shoura Council, shed light on the epitome of the Kingdom’s unique success story in its ruthless battle against the pandemic.
In his speech, the Monarch highlighted the accolades that the International Monetary Fund heaped on Saudi Arabia for its victorious experiment in tackling COVID-19. The IMF noted that the Kingdom bagged first rank globally in three international indices in terms of the government’s response to coronavirus; Saudi entrepreneurs’ response to the pandemic; as well as in its superiority in the “Food Standards” Index in 2020 when the pandemic upended the human lives across the globe. Food security was ensured with well-stocked food stores all around the Kingdom at a time when reports of hoarding were making headlines in many other nations. The King highlighted that his government attached paramount importance to human being in the Kingdom’s policies while it has drawn up the battle lines against the pandemic.
Saudi Arabia's successful experiment in managing coronavirus marked its exceptional agility in responding to public health emergencies. The saga of Saudi success in its fight against coronavirus was not an accidental one. Rather, it was the outcome of the concerted, well-coordinated and relentless efforts made by the entire government machinery, in cooperation with the private agencies. The Kingdom has also ensured that the well-being of expatriates and pilgrims is a primary pillar of its healthcare strategy. The cornerstone of achieving success was the level of harmony and coordination among all parts of the system and its components in crisis management, which was praised by the World Health Organization and many international specialists and experts.
The battle against COVID-19 was the best example of how a nation and its people were victorious in converting grave challenges into golden opportunities. Despite the serious challenge of oil price volatility alongside the pandemic one, the Kingdom had taken concerted efforts to overcome the crises from all fronts. The country responded to the pandemic head-on, scoring across all four phases of the preparedness and response framework –prevent, detect, contain and treat.
Ever since the reports came about the emergence of the virus in Wuhan, King Salman issued a royal decree to create a high level specialized committee. Reporting to Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, the committee, consisting of 24 government agenciesand headed by minister of health, was established immediately to follow up on the developments pertaining to coronavirus. This multi-sectoral committee, underpinned by the leadership’s hands-on guidance, continued to meet daily to take all required steps and precautions necessary to confront the pandemic and stem its spread with evaluation of the situation.
It was amazing to see that the Kingdom imposed on 27 February 2020 temporary suspension of Umrah pilgrimage from two dozen countries where the pandemic had spread even before recording a single case of coronavirus in the Kingdom. This was long before many nations even started considering lockdown and prior to WHO’s declaration of coronavirus as pandemic. This is significant when considering the fact that the Kingdom shouldered a huge responsibility of ensuring safety of not only its citizens but also expatriates who represent more than 100 nationals, apart from hosting Hajj and Umrah pilgrims from all over the world as it hosts Islam’s two holiest shrines in Makkah and Madinah.
Responding to the crisis with a clear plan of action, Saudi Arabia implemented extensive measures, with Ministry of Health taking the lead on managing the response to the pandemic through reliance on its robust healthcare system, featuring an advanced digital healthcare structure. For the Kingdom, the crisis has had the impact of a double-edged weapon as manifested in the contraction of the Saudi economy by one percent in the first quarter of 2020, mainly because of the pandemic lockdown, apart from a plunge in oil prices. According to the estimates of the General Authority for Statistics during the early period of the crisis, the negative growth originated mainly from the contraction in the oil sector accounted for 4.6 percent, though the non-oil sector recorded a positive growth rate of 1.6 percent.
In the midst of these grim realities, the Saudi leadership never faltered but faced them boldly and decisively, thanks to the foresights and bold initiatives of the visionary leadership. Sensing the risks and the challenges posed by the virus at a very early stage, King Salman announced: “We are living through a difficult phase of the world’s history. However, we are completely certain that this phase will end and pass, despite its harsh and bitter difficulties.”
This statement was followed by a raft of multipronged measures and initiatives to contain the pandemic and ease its impact on the Kingdom’s economy and life of people. In March 2020, complete lockdowns were imposed on major cities, while smaller cities were subjected to part-time curfews. Prayers were suspended in mosques. On March 23, the King announced a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew for 21 days and this period extended in some cities. On March 30, King Salman announced that coronavirus treatment must be available free of charge for both Saudis and expatriates as well as for those who are overstaying in the Kingdom.
In April, the King announced SR120 billion financial stimulus packages to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. These included SR70 billion to support the private sector and SR50 billion to support the banking sector, in addition of an initiative to meet 60 percent of salaries of Saudis working in the private sector for a few months. The government also made automatic renewal of residency permit and exit and reentry visas of expatriates stranded abroad free of charge and this continued until the end of November 2021.
Saudi Arabia, in its capacity as the chair of G20 for 2020, had also played its global role in easing the impact of the pandemic. The King chaired in March 2020 an extraordinary virtual summit of the G20 in response to global concerns, and the summit decided to mitigate the damaging effects on the global economy, with injecting over $5 trillion. During the summit, Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million toward fighting the virus.
The success of the approach is highlighted by the Kingdom’s returning to normalcy in just 73 days. In the second half of June 2020, the Kingdom lifted nationwide curfew as well as ban on domestic flights. Subsequently, commercial activities and public life have returned to normal, with reopening of mosques, malls, restaurants and recreational facilities.
According to a research report published in June, Saudi Arabia emerged the topper among 200 countries in the world in terms of the regional resilience with regard to COVID-19. The Kingdom ranked 17th among the safest countries in the world for coronavirus, said the report issued by Deep Knowledge Group, a Hong Kong-based consortium of companies. Kingdom ranked seventh in the level of emergency preparedness, 14th in quarantine efficiency, 17th in health safety and effectiveness of prevention and care, 19th in the monitoring and detection of cases and 20th in the level of government efficiency in risk management and healthcare readiness.
The launching of the Saudi Summer campaign by the Saudi Ministry of Tourism in June has become a real breathing for the tourism sector, which was the worst-hit sector by the pandemic. The title of the campaign “Tanaffus” (breathing) symbolized the Kingdom’s fast recovery from the unprecedented pandemic situation that amplified the fragilities of the world, with infecting the respiratory system of not only individuals but also the entire world.
The gradual resumption of Umrah pilgrimage first for domestic pilgrims in October 2020 and then for foreign pilgrims in November was a major headway in easing international travel restrictions. The King noted in his Shoura Council address that there are over 17.5 million beneficiaries of the Eatmarna and Tawakkalna applications that enabled them to obtain permits to perform Umrah and prayer at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and Al-Rawda Sharif at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and that is strictly in compliance with all the precautionary measures and preventive protocols to stem the spread of coronavirus.
Though international travel restrictions were lifted on 17 May 2021, the travel ban on some countries continued due to the coronavirus situation prevailing there. As of Dec. 1, 2021, Saudi Arabia lifted the travel ban imposed on almost all the countries, but it resorted to re-impose suspension of flights from more than a dozen countries within a couple of days following the outbreak of the new coronavirus variant of Omicron.
Though the number of coronavirus cases dropped to less than 50 in mid-December, there has been a huge spike in infections crossing the daily cases to over 800 on Friday. This surge in cases has prompted the authorities to re-impose coronavirus precautionary measures and preventive protocols across the Kingdom from last Thursday.
The people of Saudi Arabia are confident and optimistic that the wise leadership would be successful in overcoming this challenge too within a short span of time in the New Year.