Knock-on effects of Covid-19 on Public Transportation in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Hasan Tayyeb

By Dr. Hasan Tayyeb

Professor of Transportation, UQU

The whole world right now is grappling with unanticipated and disastrous repercussions from the catastrophic Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that invaded the lives of people across nations rendering everyone in panic and fear.

The aftermath of this apocalypse unfolded on people, businesses and mainly on the transportation systems around the world. With majority of the countries and their states going on lockdown and directives regarding social-distancing and self-isolation being introduced, the transportation systems have been highly impacted.

With an aim to restrain and contain the transmission of Covid-19, the Middle East as a whole has implemented several preventive and precautionary measures. Saudi Arabia has also gone the distance to prevent the spread of this deadly virus in a time of crisis and change. The Interior Ministry has warned bus and taxi operators to obey suspension orders, else suffer penalties.

Buses belonging to government agencies or public or private health facilities, and commercial establishments transporting their employees, or those that are used for health, humanitarian or security purposes have been granted immunity against the travel ban.

A "novel" challenge being experienced by the aviation industry around the world and KSA included is the insufficiency in parking spaces for the passenger jets. As airlines were driven to ground their fleet and go under lockdown due to the pandemic, taxiways, maintenance hangars and runways at the airports are being converted to enormous aircraft parking space.

Flights related to socially-concerned and imperative issues such as medical evacuation aircraft and private aviation are the only ones admissible, on the condition that they are covered by the necessary permits issued by the Civil Aviation Authority.

While international/ commercial passenger flights have been halted, ad infinitum. The Saudi Arabian airlines have announced several updates on retrenchment of services, debarring the arrival of any passengers from the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Italy, and South Korea to any of the KSA's airports, or passengers who had visited those countries in the previous 14 days before arrival in KSA.

As the number of positive cases in the Kingdom showed an upward trend, Saudi Arabia levied flight and travel bans on 31 countries as well as the European Union.

Furthermore, the Kingdom's metro services have also been suspended particularly, the Riyadh-Dammam line through Abqaiq and Hofuf, the Riyadh-Jouf line through the Majmaa, Al-Qassim and Hail, and the Haramain Express, the only commercial transport trains that are operational consist of the freight train between King Abdulaziz Port in Dammam and the Dry Port in Riyadh, and the mining train of the Saudi Railways Company "Saar".

The crisis has forced authorities to block entry and exit to several cities, inclusive of Makkah and Madinah. The authorities declared that the official forbiddance does not cover basic necessity sectors such as health services and basic commodities such as food, energy, water and communications, etc., air freight and necessary security transfers.

KSA hosts the two of the holiest sites of Islam, offering hospitality and a spiritual haven to millions of Muslim visitors from around the globe throughout the year for Umrah and an escalation during the Islamic month of Dhu Al-Hijjah.

Nearly 7 million people partake in the holy expedition to Makkah annually to perform the Umrah. Saudi Arabia’s verdict on banning citizens and foreign residents from performing the Umrah, pro-tem has fueled panic and suspicions among Muslims that the ban on the ritual will continue for longer than originally imagined and may have lasting footprints on the yearly Haj pilgrimage.

Amidst this dangerous crisis, the Kingdom has suspended Umrah pilgrimage until further instructions, although it is uncertain how long the constraints on Umrah will remain, but the KSA has initiated new restrictions to gear up its ports and take the requisite measures against the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Muhammad Saleh Bin Taher Benten insisted that Muslims show no haste or hurry in relation to Haj until things turn around and the pandemic fizzles out, with the well-being of pilgrims and safe-keeping of citizens on the front-page.

Building on this, authorities are planning on surveying the estimated number of people who will be visiting Makkah for the Haj pilgrimage, in an attempt to minimize the amount of people permitted, hence maintaining safe distance between people be it in Masjid Al-Haram or when commuting on public transportation to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus in the unfortunate event of someone carrying it even as an asymptomatic carrier.

The General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) is working painstakingly in its endeavor to suppress the virus at Saudi airports has stepped up sanitizing and sterilizing of flight terminals and general facilities as part of counteractive steps schemed in cooperation with the Ministry of Health to fight the virus.

GACA has been coordinating 24-hour cleaning operations at the country’s international and domestic airports using ultra-modern, environment-safe and sustainable machinery and material. By decontaminating and washing down doors, floors, barriers, walls, check-in counters, passenger bridges, waiting chairs, passport control areas, security inspection machines, luggage conveyor belts and transport vehicles, and most importantly toilets, they hope to protect all travelers and tourists against this virus.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is much obliged to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad in Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, and the Saudi government for all the blood and sweat that goes into the smooth functioning of the Kingdom and implementing all necessary steps to ensure preparedness to face the challenge and threat posed by the escalating pandemic of COVID-19.