Muslim pilgrims touch the side of the kaaba during the 'tawaaf' ritual, a mandatory circumambulation around Islam's holiest shrine, at the climax of the annual Hajj pilgrimage at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on August 13, 2019. Photo: AFP/Fethi Belaid

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which controls Islam’s holiest sites, on Thursday announced it would “temporarily suspend” the entry of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina to keep the coronavirus at bay.

As “proactive, preventive measures to prevent the arrival of the coronavirus (Covid-19), entry to the Kingdom for the purpose of Umrah and/or visiting the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina is temporarily suspended,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Umrah is the pilgrimage carried out off-season from Hajj, which draws millions of Muslims from across the world in a condensed, six-day period. The next Hajj will be in late July, early August 2020.

In taking the decision, Saudi authorities were likely motivated by the experience of the Shiite holy city of Qom in Iran, which has emerged as a regional epicenter for the virus.

Saudi Arabia also announced that visas from countries with “confirmed coronavirus outbreaks” would be temporarily suspended, though neither business visas nor key trade partner China were specifically mentioned.

And in the latest blow to the Gulf Cooperation Council, free movement in and out of Saudi Arabia using only a GCC identity card will be halted, save for those wishing to return home.

Iran as pariah

The Islamic Republic of Iran, whose regional engagement has already been stunted by US sanctions and rivalry with Saudi Arabia, now faces an even more claustrophobic predicament – as a coronavirus pariah state.

Iran as of Thursday had the highest number of reported fatalities outside China, where the Covid-19 outbreak started, with Qom emerging as a hub for transmission.

Iran has confirmed seven new deaths from coronavirus over the past 24 hours, the health ministry said Thursday, taking the overall toll to 26, AFP reported.

An additional 106 confirmed infections took the total number of cases so far to 245, ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour told a daily briefing.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif earlier pleaded for Gulf neighbors to rally together and create a common center for disease control.

“Like other viruses – including terrorism – #COVID19 knows no borders,” he tweeted, calling on them to join a proposed Strait of Hormuz consortium.

But Zarif’s call for engagement has been met with shuttered borders and suspended trade, after more than two dozen cases throughout the Gulf were identified as having been contracted in Iran.

The Gulf Arab states, whose Shiite communities are visitors to Iran’s shrines, and whose ports like Dubai serve as key conduits for trade, have all but severed contact.

The United Arab Emirates on Tuesday halted commercial flights and cargo shipments with Iran for an initial duration of one week, state media said.

Bahrain said it was banning travel to Iran “until further notice” after 15 people, among them six Saudi nationals, tested positive for coronavirus after visits to Iran via Dubai and Sharjah.

The Kuwait port authority has meanwhile banned all ships from Iran, after quarantining three new cases of people returning from Iran, AFP reported.

Even Oman, a notable ally of Iran in the Saudi-dominated region, has suspended flights to the Islamic Republic, and said Wednesday it would go a step further and suspend trade entirely.

Not only the Persian Gulf littoral states, but countries with shared land borders to the vast Islamic Republic are taking similar measures.

Turkey, which late last year was eyeing a tripling of its trade volume with Iran from US$9.5 billion to $30 billion, has now sealed its crossings with Iran.

Iraq, situated between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has enacted various border and travel suspensions, but has averted a full ban on movement to and from its powerful neighbor – an indicator of the political dynamics at play in any such move.

New cover-up?

China’s death toll of 2,770 vastly outstrips the 19 reported deaths in Iran and 14 dead in Italy. But while Beijing has flagged more than 80,000 total cases, and Italy 401, Iran has only recorded 139 contractions of the disease, raising fears that there could be far more cases in Iran than acknowledged.

Iran’s deputy minister of health, only 24 hours after sweating profusely at a press conference meant to reassure the public, announced he had contracted the deadly virus.

He struck an upbeat tone, promising Iranians that the virus would be overcome in a matter of weeks.

But attempts at calm are being met with suspicion, with some parliamentarians and regional officials directly challenging the government’s narrative.

A parliamentarian representing the holy city of Qom, a hub for Shiite pilgrimages and studies, earlier this week accused the government of lying about the full extend of the outbreak, claiming there had already been 50 deaths in his city alone.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday his country was “deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country.”

Pompeo, a staunch advocate of the ongoing US maximum pressure campaign against Iran – which has harmed the capabilities of the country’s health sector – called on Tehran to cooperate with international health agencies.

But the Iranian authorities, analyst Henry Rome says, are likely “unwilling to take decisive steps that could unsettle a population already under extreme pressure from US sanctions.”

“This political decision has undermined containment efforts, such as outbreak surveillance, travel restrictions or quarantines,” Rome said in a brief.

Government inaction in Iran, he warns, could set the stage for a broader outbreak and heighten the risk to other Middle Eastern countries.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.