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Saudi Arabia locks down Qatif region, suspends schools over coronavirus

Interior ministry announces lockdown in Qatif, which has major Shia Muslim population
Mohammed Alabed Alali, Saudi health ministry spokesman, briefs reporters about coronavirus in capital Riyadh on Sunday (AFP)

Saudi Arabia imposed a temporary lockdown on Sunday on the eastern oil-producing province of Qatif and suspended all schools and universities nationwide.

"Given that all 11 recorded positive cases of the new coronavirus are from Qatif... it has been decided... to temporarily suspend entry and exit from Qatif," the interior ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency and cited by AFP.

The interior ministry announced the lockdown in Qatif, which has a large Shia Muslim population, after the four latest cases were confirmed in Saudi Arabia. It is not expected to have any impact on Saudi oil production, two industry sources told Reuters.

Still, the decision could stir resentment in Qatif, which has been a flashpoint between the Sunni-dominated Saudi government and minority Shias who have complained of discrimination and marginalisation, charges the government denies.

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Iran is home to key shrines and pilgrimage sites for Shias, who make up between 10 and 15 percent of the kingdom's population of 32 million.

Saudi authorities have previously said those infected have either been to Iran or had contact with people who visited the Islamic Republic, home to Shia holy sites.

The restrictions in Qatif could also increase tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh denounced Tehran on Thursday for granting Saudi citizens entry during the coronavirus outbreak.

Saudi Arabia has banned travel to Iran, which has reported 194 coronavirus deaths, and said legal action would be taken against any Saudi national travelling there.

The interior ministry said it had suspended movement into and out of Qatif while ensuring returning residents could reach their homes and that commercial supplies to the province continue.

"Work at all public and private institutions is halted as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the disease, with the exception of vital facilities that provide security services and necessary provisions," a ministry statement said.

Cement blocks were placed on the main road to Qatif, one resident said. Other residents reported a rush on grocery shops in Qatif after the lockdown began.

The health ministry said the newly diagnosed people, three of whom are women, had contact with a person with the virus who was reported to have returned from Iran via the United Arab Emirates but did not disclose his visit to the authorities.

Riyadh also said it was suspending all public and private schools and universities across the country from Monday until further notice, state media reported, adding that distance learning measures would be implemented.

Additionally, it will suspend all educational and Koranic activities at mosques from Monday, state television reported.