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Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia imposes travel restrictions as death toll rises in Iran

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Saudi Arabia closed off air and sea travel to nine countries affected by the new coronavirus Monday as Mideast stock markets tumbled over fears about the widening outbreak’s effect on the global economy.

The state oil giant Saudi Aramco led the financial losses, dropping by 10 per cent on Riyadh’s Tadawul stock exchange and forcing a halt to Aramco’s trading.

In the Mideast, there have been over 7,600 confirmed cases, with the vast majority in hard-hit Iran. The country’s health ministry said the new coronavirus has killed another 43 people, pushing death toll to 237 amid 7,161 confirmed cases. Experts worry Iran may be underreporting its cases.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Death toll rises to 145 in Iran as officials work to contain virus

The drop came as global oil prices suffered their worst losses since the start of the 1991 Gulf War. Other Mideast markets fell as well as the new coronavirus has affected global energy prices and OPEC failed to make a production cut deal with Russia last week.

Earlier Monday, coronavirus concerns led Saudi Arabia to cut off air and sea travel with Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Italy, Kuwait, Lebanon, South Korea, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. The kingdom had earlier closed off its land borders as well.

“Out of concern to protect the health of citizens and residents and ensure their safety, the kingdom’s government decided to temporarily suspend the travel,” it said in a statement attributed to an unnamed Interior Ministry official.

Abu Dhabi’s long-haul carrier Etihad, which operated 12 flights daily to Saudi Arabia, said three flights had been airborne at the time of the announcement. When those planes landed in Dammam, Jiddah and Riyadh, only Saudi citizens could disembark, with others having to return to Abu Dhabi, the airline said.

Saudi Arabia already shut down access to the holiest sites in Islam over concerns about the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes. The virus usually leaves people with only mild to moderate symptoms, but because it’s new, experts can’t say for sure how far it will ultimately spread and how much damage it will do, both in terms of health and the global economy.

The tiny, energy-rich neighbouring country of Qatar meanwhile has cut off travel to 15 nations including Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria and Thailand. That’s affected its long-haul carrier Qatar Airways, which has already been hurting from a yearslong boycott by four Arab nations including Saudi Arabia over a political dispute.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Oil prices, stocks plunge as anxiety over COVID-19 outbreak mounts

Qatar separately announced via its state-run news agency it would shut down schools and universities beginning Tuesday until further notice.

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