2020 Saudi Arabia: A Year of Swinging Fortunes

TARIQ A. AL MAEENA — 2020 is a few days away from going into history and will globally be remembered as the year of the Coronavirus for generations to come. But not everywhere did it begin so ominously, only to change the course of history as it manifested its full form and threat.

For the Saudis, the year began on a very hopeful and buoyant note. It was going to be a bright dawn with Saudi Arabia hosting the G20 meet, a gathering of twenty of the most prominent world leaders along with global organizations who were to arrive in the country late in the year. They were finally going to shred away most if not all of the negative publicity and bad press that seemed to follow them everywhere on the heels of the war in Yemen.

A man wearing a mask to protect from the coronavirus leaves a gift shop decorated for the New Year in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Dec. 25, 2020 (Photo: Gulf News/AP)

Billboards and postings on social media began promoting the event, and by February of 2020, the number of Saudis who did not hear of the G20 could be not more than a handful.

The Saudis were going to go all out, showcasing their position as equal partners and planning to hold the event in grand form, more so than the welcome for the visiting US President Donald Trump on his first visit abroad as President back in May 2017. Indeed, the G20 was expected by many to surpass anything and everything witnessed before.

But it wasn’t long after that news of a deadly virus began creeping up in the headlines, a virus that was still considered lands away as it was initially isolated to China. But as the death toll in China began to mount and cases began appearing everywhere else, the Saudi authorities realized that action needed to be taken.

It began incrementally with a daytime curfew but soon moved into a full-blown lockdown whereby movement of individuals was severely curtailed and limited only to essential workers. To ensure compliance with the directives, the government imposed a SR10000 ($2666) fine on anyone caught violating these rules. Schools, malls, cinemas and other venues of social entertainment where crowd gathering was inevitable were shut down and residents urged to exercise caution in their going about. Public service announcements and media blitzes kept the public aware of the latest in the war against the pandemic.

The holy cities of Makkah and Madinah were shut down to visiting pilgrims. Not much later on, mosques were told to encourage the faithful to avoid congregations and pray at home. Scenes of a deserted courtyard in Makkah’s Grand Mosque was an eerie sight.

By March, all domestic and international flights were suspended. Haj was a few months away and officials of the Haj and Health Ministries were diligently following up the spread of the virus globally before concluding that it was best to cancel Haj visitations for overseas pilgrims for 2020, and restrict the number of residents allowed to perform Haj to no more than 1000 pilgrims, a far cry from the annual 2 million or more pilgrims who took part in this religious ritual. It was not a popular decision for some countries, but it was the best one.

As the numbers of victims began to increase, the generally lax population began to feel the threat and masks, social distancing and hand washes became the norm. Social activity was extremely limited to very small numbers during the few odd hours when the curfew was relaxed.

And while the war on the coronavirus was in full gear, a new war appeared on the horizon that crashed global oil prices to near-zero levels. With prices falling as a result of low demand, the Russians opposed Saudi recommendations to restrict output and began flooding the market, a challenge that was met with Saudis who matched the Russians barrel for barrel.

As everywhere else, the Saudi economy had taken a beating with small businesses closing down and people losing jobs. The government stepped in with incentives to keep them afloat but that too came with a price. The minister of finance had cautioned Saudis that it was going to be a painful era and that came to pass when the VAT was increased from 5% to 15% on some goods.

By the third quarter of the year, efforts by the government to combat the virus began showing results as the daily numbers of victims began steadily dropping. And as the lockdown was relaxed, people began to move about and businesses began to open up, giving impetus to the economy. As a matter of fact, the Saudi economy performed far better than expected and came tops in the region. Saudi Arabia is showing the strongest recovery in the Middle East, with a spike in advance hotel booking, as per the latest report by hotel connectivity expert eRevMax. The stock market reflected consumer confidence with gains on a rise in financial shares.

The November G20 came and went. While local coverage was intense, the remotely held conference lacked the pomp and zing of a real event but was a success nonetheless.

And just as residents of this country were beginning to prepare for the lifting of flight curfews and free movement now that the government had made Covid vaccine available to all and put this awful year to rest, a new threat has crept on the horizon. A strain of the virus that potentially spreads faster and is deadlier. Welcome to 2021.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena