Saudi Arabia is seeing a second wave of coronavirus infections after initially curbing the spread of COVID-19 through strict measures, including barring thousands of Muslim pilgrims from around the world visiting the holy city of Mecca.
Saudi authorities started easing lockdown measures at the end of May, after the number of new infections recorded daily dropped by half to around 1,500. They reduced curfew times, allowed congregational prayers in mosques and domestic flights to resume, and businesses to reopen.
But since June 1, the number of new COVID-19 cases confirmed every day has more than doubled again. The Ministry of Health reported 4,919 new cases on Wednesday alone — the highest single-day tally recorded in the kingdom since the beginning of the pandemic.
The number of deaths blamed on the disease has climbed over 1,090, with more than 141,000 people having tested positive overall. Saudi Arabia now has more than 80% of the COVID-19 cases confirmed across all Persian Gulf nations, and by far the highest recorded in any Arab country.
With cases rising, officials re-imposed a lockdown in the city of Jeddah on June 6, with a curfew and ban on all non-essential work and activities coming back into effect. Authorities have said they could do the same in the capital of Riyadh, where 40-45% of the nation's COVID-19 cases have been reported.
On Monday, Health Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Abd al-Ali said the surge in infections was largely due to the lack of adherence to precautionary measures and guidelines.
In spite of lockdowns, social distancing guidelines were likely flouted significantly during the holy month of Ramadan, which ended on May 24. Many people are believed to have ignored the government's directives, holding fast-breaking "iftar" meals with friends and family.
Most of the domestic outbreaks, however, appear to originate in the huge communities of migrant workers, for whom self-isolation is simply not feasible.
According to the latest census carried out by the Saudi General Authority for Statistics (GaStat), there are more than 7,400,000 foreign workers living in Saudi Arabia, the majority from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka and other South Asian countries. Most live in overcrowded, shared accommodation — ideal conditions for the virus to spread.
The Bangladeshi ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Golam Moshi, recently told reporters that about "13,700 Bangladeshis have been infected in Saudi Arabia." More than 220 of them died of the virus, he said.
Saudi authorities have yet to decide whether they will allow this year's annual hajj pilgrimage to go ahead, but it appears highly unlikely.
The ritual, scheduled this year for the end of July, is the most important event on the Muslim calendar. It typically draws more than 2.5 million Muslims from across the globe to the holy city of Mecca. Cancelling it would be a first in the kingdom's modern history.
The Saudi government authority in charge of planning pilgrimages has already urged Muslim countries to postpone making plans for their citizens to attend this year's hajj. Four countries — Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei — have cancelled their participation this year. Other countries have said they'll make a final decision in the coming days.