Saudi Arabia’s bold, swift response to COVID-19 is a lesson to western countries, and means that there are - so far - minimal cases and only one death in the country. Compare this with neighbouring Iran, where deaths are well into four figures, or Turkey, where some health professionals speculate that 60% of the country is now COVID-positive.
Unlike some of its western allies, Saudi Arabia has taken the deadly coronavirus outbreak seriously from the very outset. The refusal to do the same in some governments in the West may have grave consequences for the public’s trust in their leaders, and even the protection of human rights.
Before the Kingdom had even recorded a single case of coronavirus, it banned foreign worshippers from performing pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca, which no doubt halted the advance of the deadly disease. Compare this with, for example, neighbouring Iran which publicly claimed that God will protect their country and encouraged spiritual practices which allowed the spread of the disease in holy sites.
While some governments have been paralysed by the confusion, fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, Riyadh has taken tough decisions for the greater good - and continues to do so. While many airports in Europe and North America remain open for flights, the Kingdom has gone further and faster by suspending all international flights into the country for two weeks. It is decisive acts like these which give Saudis confidence in their ability to fight this disease.
Further, the everyday reality for Saudis under the pandemic could not be more different to citizens of these western superpowers. Commentators have compared everyday life for Britons to those of refugees, and have warned of an impending humanitarian crisis if the outbreak is not dealt with properly. These concerns are based on rampant price gouging, panic buying and stockpiling, affecting people’s ability to purchase even basic necessities.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia has protected its people’s interests from day one, with citizens and residents finding themselves spoilt for choice in supermarkets, while shoppers in the Western world struggle, and sometimes fight, to secure basic food for their families. This is no accident: it is the result of the Kingdom’s timely and carefully managed response to the situation, including open and transparent communication with its people.
There has been a mass mobilisation of Saudi government, media and civil society to create the kind of overnight awareness, focus and solidarity that is essential during a global pandemic. And it is this mobilisation that is sorely lacking in some Western capitals.
For example, Jeddah-based Arab News, the largest English language newspaper in the region, has modified its logo on Twitter to be partially covered by a facemask. This is not a marketing ploy; it signals to the general public the importance of collective action to fight the disease at all levels of society. The equivalent in the UK would be to have a facemask covering the second “B” in the BBC’s logo, something that perhaps the broadcaster should consider.
Saudi Arabia’s version of the “lockdown” has protected the public while preserving daily life. It has acted quickly to close markets, shopping malls, beauty salons and gatherings in public places, following its suspension of schools in previous weeks. At the same time, supplies and services have been secured, and enforcement has not been heavy-handed, unlike in some parts of mainland Europe.
Contrast the response in Riyadh with that in parts of Europe and North America, where gentle encouragement rather than clear instructions, and mixed messages as opposed to coherent strategies, have undoubtedly cost lives.
There are fewer challenges to a society and a government greater than a global pandemic, and the associated economic downturn. The fact that Saudi has responded so well - despite neighbouring one of the global epicentres of the disease - shows that the Kingdom’s leadership is more fluid and resilient than perhaps some outside observers realise.
Good governance is one of the key aims of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 - the country’s flagship policy for change in the region. It is a region that will be hit harder than most by COVID-19. Iran is burying its people in mass graves. Turkey is locking people up for even posting about it.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is showing that the complex mix of personal freedoms, public safety and public health can be balanced, even at the most difficult of times. And the Kingdom’s definition of human rights includes, above all, the right to human life.
- Mohammed Alsherebi is a Saudi entrepreneur, philanthropist and advisor to global leaders.
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