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Saudi cordons off Qatif region in bid to contain coronavirus spread

Saudi Arabia, March 9, 2020

Saudi authorities have cordoned off the eastern Qatif region, a stronghold of the kingdom's Shiite minority, in a bid to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus, the interior ministry said Sunday.

'Given that all 11 recorded positive cases of the new coronavirus are from Qatif... it has been decided... to temporarily suspend entry and exit from Qatif,' the ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Saudi Arabia has expressed alarm over the spread of the disease across the Gulf region, which has confirmed more than 230 coronavirus cases - most of them people returning from religious pilgrimages to Shiite-majority Iran.

The lockdown on Qatif comes after the kingdom suspended the 'umrah' year-round pilgrimage over fears of the disease spreading to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The unprecedented suspension of the umrah has raised uncertainty over the annual hajj pilgrimage, scheduled for the end of July.

The pilgrimages, a major source of revenue, could also be a source of contagion and the move mirrors a precautionary approach across the Gulf to cancel mass gatherings - from concerts to sporting events.

Bahrain's Formula 1 Grand Prix scheduled for March 20-22 will be held without spectators, the organisers said on Sunday in the latest sporting event to be affected by measures to contain the disease.

Saudi Arabia is also grappling with a coronavirus-led slump in oil prices just as the kingdom was seeking to raise funds to finance Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious economic transformation plan.