DUBAI – Bahrain's Formula One race this month will be run without spectators over fears about the new coronavirus, the island kingdom announced Sunday, as Mideast stock markets fell sharply amid plummeting demand for crude oil and OPEC's inability to agree on a production cut.
The decision by Bahrain is just the latest disruption felt by the Mideast over the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes. The wider Mideast now has over 6,980 confirmed cases of the virus. The majority are in hard-hit Iran, where the reported death toll jumped by 25% Sunday to 194 out of 6,566 confirmed cases.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad's announcement on the F1 was carried by the state-run Bahrain News Agency. The crown prince said the decision was “to preserve the safety of citizens, residents and racing fans.” The race is scheduled for March 22.
"As an F1 host nation, balancing the welfare of supporters and race goers is a tremendous responsibility," the Bahrain International Circuit said in a statement. “Given the continued spread of COVID-19 globally, convening a major sporting event, which is open to the public and allows thousands of international travellers and local fans to interact in close proximity would not be the right thing to do at the present time.”
Bahrain, an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, has so far reported 79 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus. The kingdom has drastically cut air travel and urged residents who recently traveled from Iran to present themselves for testing, warning that those who don't could face prosecution.
The decision to run the race with participants only was an extraordinary decision for Bahrain and F1. It cancelled its 2011 F1 race over Arab Spring protests there, but held the race in 2012 with fans in attendance.
The decision came as Australia is still set to hold its F1 Grand Prix on March 13 with spectators. F1 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In Saudi Arabia, authorities quarantined Qatif in its Eastern Province, saying that was the origin of all the kingdom’s 11 confirmed cases of the new virus. The state-run Saudi Press Agency said residents would be allowed to return to their homes while all nonessential government offices, shops and schools would be closed.
Qatif is a predominantly Shiite area of the Sunni-ruled kingdom that has seen unrest in the past. Authorities did not say how long the quarantine would last.
Meanwhile Sunday, stock markets across the Mideast suffered sharp drops.
Hardest-hit was Boursa Kuwait, which saw shares fall more than 10%. The losses triggered an automatic shutdown of the Kuwaiti stock market, its second in recent days.
The Dubai Financial Market closed down 7.87%. The Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange fell 5.37%.
Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul stock exchange dropped 8.32%, with its marquee Saudi Aramco stock falling below its initial public offering price for the first time. The state-run Saudi Arabian Oil Co. offered a sliver of its value to investors on the market in December.
The Egyptian stock market's benchmark index, the EGX 30, closed down just over 4%.
OPEC and key ally Russia failed to agree on a cut to oil production Friday. That saw crude oil prices, the bedrock commodity of the Mideast, drop. Benchmark Brent crude sold Sunday for around $45 a barrel, down some 11% from the year prior.
The demand for oil has dropped as air travel has been affected by the outbreak of the virus.
Iran Air, the Islamic Republic’s flag carrier, meanwhile announced it would stop all its flights into Europe amid the outbreak, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported Sunday. Iran Air said it was in negotiations to resume its European flights, ISNA said. It did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, with the approach of Iran's Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, officials kept up pressure on people not to travel and to stay home. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave Iran's new casualty figures Sunday, reiterated that people should not even attend funerals.
Already, authorities threatened the public that they could use “force” to stop people from leaving major cities. Provinces on the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf also have urged people not to travel there for the upcoming holiday.
“I urge people to be careful and avoid unnecessary commuting and traveling," President Hassan Rouhani said, according to state television.
In Iran's southwestern city of Ahvaz, seven people died from drinking toxic methanol alcohol out of the false belief it could cure the coronavirus, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. It quoted deputy prosecutor Ali Beiranvand as saying 48 others had been hospitalized, with some going blind.
Associated Press writers Malak Harb and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed. ___
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