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No warm greetings, no mosque prayers: Virus changes Gulf habits

More than 800 cases of COVID-19 recorded so far across six Gulf states

By AFP - Mar 15,2020 - Last updated at Mar 15,2020

DUBAI — No shisha pipe sessions, deserted streets, mosques and shopping malls, drones in the sky broadcasting public health warnings — the new coronavirus has turned life upside down in Gulf societies.

More than 800 cases of the COVID-19 have been recorded so far across the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but so far no deaths.

Most of those infected have been people returning from nearby Iran, where more than 700 people had died in the outbreak by Sunday.

Facing a mounting public health threat, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman have taken drastic measures to combat the pandemic.

"It is as if today is the weekend and not the start of the week," Amal Al Hashem, a Dubai resident of 15 years, told AFP on a largely deserted street on Sunday, the start of the week in the Gulf.

Kuwait has taken the strictest measures in the GCC by largely locking down the country over the weekend, the only nation other than Italy to do so.

Kuwait City's main airport road was empty as all commercial flights to and from the small Gulf nation were suspended.

Drones in the skies were sounding messages in multiple languages urging people to return to their homes.

In Qatar's capital Doha, the usually bustling market in the heart of the tourist centre was eerily quiet, while Riyadh's shopping district also lay barren.

The Gulf countries have shut down cinemas and other entertainment centres — some even closing gyms and spas — as well as halting one of the region's favourite pastimes, smoking shisha in cafes.

 

Awkward greetings 

 

Residents in the Omani capital of Muscat told AFP there had been much "fear and panic" over what many of them have termed "Corona phobia" at a time when a small bottle of disinfectant is in almost everyone's pockets or bags.

They said many people have stopped shaking hands or kissing each other on the cheeks, a common greeting across the Arab world.

In Saudi Arabia, 60-year-old Abu Abdulrahman said he felt awkward about the rapidly changing social norms.

"Do I shake hands and kiss or do I not? I don't know," he said. "I try not to do that, but I get embarrassed. What if the other person puts their hand out first?"

Meanwhile, both the UAE and Qatar have advised their citizens to stop the traditional "nose to nose" greeting, with Abu Dhabi instructing residents that a wave would suffice.

 

'Pray at home' 

 

Measures to combat the spread of the virus have also impacted the way many Muslims in the Gulf worship.

After Saudi Arabia suspended the "umrah" year-round pilgrimage, it advised residents against praying in mosques if they have any symptoms of the virus.

Kuwait took additional steps and banned all mass prayers, an unprecedented move in a country where hundreds of thousands pray side-by-side every day.

"Pray at home, pray at home," an imam preached in a recording that went viral on social media on Saturday.

In the Sunni Muslim-dominated Gulf, there are hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims, many of whom travel to Iran regularly for pilgrimages.

Despite ongoing tensions between some GCC countries and Tehran, there have been no reports of heightened social friction between the different sects.

This comes amid Saudi Arabia's decision to cordon off the mainly Shiite district of Qatif, where the majority of coronavirus cases were reported.

"This is a time for unity locally, regionally and globally," Zainab Abdul Amir, a Bahraini parliamentarian, told AFP. "There is no room for hatred, anger, discrimination or sectarianism."

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