GCC News Roundup: Gulf states begin to slowly ease restrictions, airlines plan reopening (May 1-31)

Empty Doha airportduring repatriation, 2020-04-08. Aeroport de Doha vide durant un rapatriement, 2020-04-08.NO USE FRANCE

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Gulf states begin to open up despite increase in coronavirus cases

The minister of human resources in Saudi Arabia said on May 26 that public sector employees would start returning to work gradually as of May 31, after more than two months of suspension amid strict measures to help curb the novel coronavirus outbreak. The state news agency said on May 27 that Saudi Arabian airlines are preparing to resume some domestic flights from May 31. Tens of thousands of mosques reopened May 31 with worshippers ordered to follow strict guidelines. 

The interior minister of Kuwait said on May 28 that the country would ease its full-time curfew, to be a 12-hour one during night. The Health Ministry of Bahrain said that shops and industrial enterprises would be allowed to open from May 7 while restaurants will stay closed to in-house diners. 

The state news agency of Oman reported that the country would end on May 29 a lockdown of its Muscat governorate – which includes the capital – that has been in place since April 10. It said a state committee had also ordered government entities to ensure at least 50 percent of employees are working from their offices from May 31. 

Malls in the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) capital Abu Dhabi began reopening to a restricted number of customers on May 2. State media said on May 12 that the emirate of Dubai has allowed public parks to reopen and hotel guests to access private beaches. 

Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus cases in the six Gulf Arab states doubled in less than a month to surpass 200,000 on May 27, according to a Reuters’ tally. 

Qatar enforces strict hygiene measures and restricts commercial activity

Qatar’s interior ministry announced on May 14 that wearing masks will be mandatory to go outside starting May 17, and those who do not comply will be fined up to 200,000 riyals ($53,000). Violators could also be jailed up to three years, or either of those punishments, according to a statement on the ministry’s Twitter account. 

The country also tightened restrictions on commercial activities on May 18, ordering all shops to close until the end of the month. Other measures approved by the cabinet include requiring all citizens and residents to install a mobile app designed to track COVID-19 cases starting May 22, state news agency QNA reported.

GCC countries cut oil production, seek to balance market

Oil prices rose on May 12 after OPEC’s de facto leader, Saudi Arabia, said it would increase supply curbs in June, while other members of the oil-producing group said they wanted to extend the deep cuts reached in April for a longer period than originally agreed. The UAE and Kuwait also committed to slashing an extra 180,000 bpd in total, adding to reductions the producers agreed to under a deal between OPEC and its allies. Saudi Arabia’s cabinet has urged OPEC+ countries to further reduce oil production rates to restore balance in global crude markets, state news agency (SPA) reported on May 13. 

Qatar Petroleum cuts spending as crude prices fall

Qatar Petroleum’s prices for April dropped by more than 51 percent for the Qatar Land and Marine crudes, compared to March, the state-news agency QNA reported on May 9, citing the company. The company’s chief executive said on May 21 that it would slash its spending by around 30 percent this year in the face of the sharp drop in oil and gas prices.

Gulf economies struggle, implement economic measures 

Saudi government dollar bonds posted losses on May 4 after the finance minister said Riyadh would have to take painful measures to deal with the impact of the coronavirus and Moody’s downgraded the country’s ratings outlook. A survey showed on May 5 that the country’s non-oil private sector shrank for the second consecutive month in April and its output hit a record low.  The UAE’s non-oil private sector also shrank at a record rate for the second month running in April. 

Saudi Arabia announced May 11 it was tripling taxes on basic goods, raising them to 15 percent, and cutting spending on major projects by around $26 billion. King Salman ordered on the same day the distribution of “Ramadan Aid” worth 1.85 billion riyals ($492.6 million) for social security beneficiaries, the state news agency reported. 

Qatar has extended a program that provides guarantees to local banks by the Qatar development bank, with interest-free loans for a full year instead of 6 months, its state news agency reported on May 19. 

Airlines suffer fallout of pandemic, plan to resume flights 

Qatar Airways will lay off close to 20 percent of its workforce after the coronavirus pandemic decimated travel demand, its chief executive told the BBC on May 13. The airline is in talks with banks for loans worth billions of dollars, three sources familiar with the matter said, as the state-owned airline readies to begin rebuilding its network. 

Emirates said on May 10 it will raise debt and may have to take tougher measures as it faces the most difficult months in its history. Emirates Group is planning to cut about 30,000 jobs to reduce costs, which will bring down its number of employees by about 30 percent from more than 105,000 at the end of March, Bloomberg News reported.

Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways laid off hundreds of employees last month, including cabin crew, according to industry and company sources.

Emirates Airline said in a statement that from May 21 it planned to operate scheduled flight services from Dubai to London Heathrow, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan, Madrid, Chicago, Toronto, Sydney and Melbourne. Qatar Airways said on Twitter on May 26 that it planned to fly a summer schedule to over 80 destinations worldwide.

Watchdog fired by Trump was investigating Saudi arms sale

Congressional Democrats say the State Department watchdog fired by President Donald Trump the week of May 11 was investigating possible impropriety in a massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year, adding new questions to the watchdog’s abrupt dismissal. 

Democrats said May 18 that ousted Inspector General Steve Linick was probing how the State Department pushed through a $7 billion Saudi arms sale over congressional objections.

Saudi-led forces intercept drones headed for Najran  

The Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen said its forces intercepted and downed drones launched by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement towards the Saudi border city of Najran on May 27 in the first such incident since late March.

There was no immediate comment from the Houthi group about the attack, which comes after the expiry of a one-month ceasefire announced by the coalition on April 24, an extension of a two-week truce prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Six Saudis killed in a shooting incident in Asir

A shootout in a southwestern province in Saudi Arabia that local reports said was sparked by a dispute between two families killed six people, a police spokesman said. 

According to the spokesman, Lt. Col. Zayed al-Dabbash, three others were wounded in the violence in Asir province on May 26. The spokesman was quoted by the state-run Saudi Press Agency as saying that the fatalities were all Saudi citizens. He said police seized weapons used in the crime and that prosecutors were investigating.