An empty street in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, April 3 2020. Picture: AFP
An empty street in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, April 3 2020. Picture: AFP

Riyadh  — Saudi Arabia imposed a 24-hour lockdown on residents in all of its major cities on Monday and ordered non-essential businesses to shut until further notice in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The curfew will apply in the capital of Riyadh as well as the cities of Jeddah, Dammam, Dhahran, Tabuk, Hofuf, Taif, Al Qatif and Khobar, the interior ministry said in a statement published on the official Saudi Press Agency. All commercial enterprises other than pharmacies, medical centres, groceries and a handful of other essential services must close, the ministry said.

Depending on how long the lockdown lasts, the measure is likely to have a major impact on the economy of the world’s largest crude exporter, which is already facing down a double crisis from the global pandemic and the collapse in oil prices.

IHS Markit’s Purchasing Managers’ Index for Saudi Arabia — an indicator of the health of the non-oil economy — hit a survey-record low in March, showing the fastest downturn in business conditions in more than a decade.

The government had already imposed a full lockdown on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, while other major cities had been subject to either a 3pm or 7pm curfew in recent weeks. Under the latest restrictions, residents will only be allowed to leave their homes from the hours of 6am to 3pm to procure supplies or medical care within their neighbourhoods, the interior ministry said. Some categories of workers including medical staff, security personnel and media are exempt from the restrictions.

Saudi Arabia, a nation of about 34-million people, has reported more than 2,600 cases of the novel coronavirus and 38 deaths so far, a relatively low rate of infection compared to neighbouring countries.