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

A commuter looks through a water-stained window wearing a mask and gloves to help guard against the Coronavirus, on a public bus in downtown Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. Iran's health ministry raised Sunday the death toll from the new virus to 8 people in the country, amid concerns that clusters there, as well as in Italy and South Korea, could signal a serious new stage in its global spread. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Worldwide, there are over 110,000 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus with more than 3,800 deaths attributed to it.

The new virus has caused major economic disruptions, including in global aviation, which has helped slow demand for oil. An OPEC meeting with Russia last week failed to see countries agree to a production cut. In response, Saudi Arabia has warned it will increase its production and slash its own prices to claw back market share.

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That sent oil prices into a free fall, losing some 25 per cent of their value. Mideast stock markets followed suit.

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The Tadawul fell over 7 per cent, with investors particularly selling their stock in Saudi Aramco, formally known as the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. The stock closed at 27 riyals a share ($7.19), giving the company a valuation of $1.4 trillion. The company had reached $2 trillion in early days of trading in December.

READ MORE: Workers in China cautiously return to the office as new cases of coronavirus fall

The oil company offered only a sliver of its value, 1.7 per cent, on the exchange to help fund Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s redevelopment plans for the kingdom. The rest remains state owned.

Qatar’s stock market fell over 9 per cent. The Dubai Financial Market and the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange dropped by over 8 per cent. Egypt’s stock market benchmark index, the EGX 30, fell over 7.5 per cent. Oman’s Muscat Securities Market and the Bahrain Bourse each saw over a 5 per cent loss. The Tehran Stock Exchange in Iran fell 2.7 per cent.

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Meanwhile, authorities in Egypt’s southern tourist hub of Luxor announced the city would close to tourists Monday until medical experts could examine all hotel guests and cruise ship passengers in the area. Two cruise ships on the Nile River have been quarantined there in recent days, after 45 people on board one of the ships tested positive for the coronavirus. There were no immediate details on the second ship.

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