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The Middle East at war with coronavirus: Top stories from 12 May

Find out how the Middle East and North Africa are fighting coronavirus [TNA]

Date of publication: 11 May, 2020

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In today's roundup: Iran re-opening mosques, free flights for healthcare workers, Gulf states reaching out to Israel, a new lockdown for Lebanon and big losses for Saudi Aramco.
Here are five stories you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic and how it is affecting the Middle East on 12 May: 

1. Iran to reopen all mosques for Laylat Al-Qadr despite rise in cases

Iran is to temporarily reopen mosques as part of Ramadan celebrations, despite a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in parts of the country.

All mosques will be opened during three nights of the final 10 days of the Muslim holy month, according to the state news outlet Fars.

The move comes as part of traditional celebrations to mark Laylat Al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, when Islamic belief says the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Muslims believe acts of worship done during the night, which occurs during one of the odd-numbered final 10 days of Ramadan, are worth more than 84 years of worship. Shia Muslims, who make up the majority of the Iranian population, traditionally attend mosques on the 19th, 21st and 23rd days of Ramadan for this reason.

The decision to reopen mosques for the occassion was made in consultation with the ministry of health, Mohammed Qomi, the director of the Islamic Development Organization said, but comes despite a rise in Covid-19 case numbers that has triggered a lockdown in the southwestern Khuzestan province.

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2. Qatar Airways gifts 100,000 healthcare workers free flights as 'thank you'

Qatar Airways will gift round-trip tickets to 100,000 frontline health workers worldwide as a 'thank you' for their role in fighting the coronavirus.

The Qatar Airways giveaway opened for online registrations on Thursday, marking International Nurses Day, and will close early next week. Winners will be able to book flights to any destination the airline flies free of charge. 

"Their heroic display of kindness, dedication, and professionalism has saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world," the state-owned flag-carrier's Chief Executive, Akbar Al-Baker, was quoted as saying. 

"Now it is our turn to give something back to those on the healthcare frontline," Baker said.

Medical staff - doctors, medical practitioners, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, lab technicians and clinical researchers - will be selected daily to receive Qatar Airways promotion codes.

The promos can be used by medics to book up to two economy-class roundtrip tickets - one for themselves and one for a companion.

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3. Three Gulf states 'seeking partnership' with Israel over coronavirus outbreak

Three Gulf states have reportedly requested assistance from Israel to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak, according to a report by The Jerusalem Post.

The report comes amid growing concerns regarding normalisation of relations between GCC states and Israel, which is officially boycotted by most Arab states.

Only one of the three countries was identified, with Bahrain reported to have opened channels of communication with Israel to receive information and assistance in fighting the coronavirus.

"Bahrain and another Gulf state reached out to Sheba Medical Centre at Tel Hashomer, expressing interest in the hospital's response to the pandemic, and the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United Nations said publicly that her government would be willing to work with Israel on a vaccine," the report said.

The director of the centre, Yoel Hareven, who declined to name the other two states, said: "We offered them any help they need, even if it's connecting doctors or nurses, or sending teams to them, sharing logistical knowledge."

"Whatever help we can give our neighbours - we will do it happily," Harevan said.

One of the two unnamed countries is "central and different" in the Gulf and is "not one we're used to hearing about", Harevan said, noting that it requested to maintain anonymity because it is not known to have ties with Israel.

"There are a lot of things happening above and below the surface," Hareven revealed.


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4. Lebanon to impose four-day nationwide lockdown following spike in infections

Lebanon will undergo "full" lockdown for four days, the country's cabinet announced on Tuesday, after a rise in coronavirus cases ensued from recently eased measures.

The lockdown is set to go into effect Wednesday night, allowing the Lebanese government to conduct a reassessment until it is lifted on Monday morning.

While full details on what the lockdown entails will be released by the interior ministry on Wednesday, reports said supermarkets will remain open during the next four days.

People will also be allowed out of their homes for "urgent matters", according to the reports.

Local media reported that all public gatherings will be banned, while Lebanon reviews its five phase reopening plan - already in its third stage since the start of this week.

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5. Saudi Aramco posts 25 percent slump in profits after oil price collapse

Energy giant Saudi Aramco on Tuesday posted a 25 percent slump in first-quarter profits and said the coronavirus crisis - which triggered a crash in oil prices - would weigh heavily on demand in the year ahead.

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Aramco was listed on the Saudi stock market in December following a historic $29.4 billion initial public offering - the world's largest - but since then has faced a torrid environment.

Oil prices slumped to their lowest levels in nearly two decades in March, losing almost two-thirds of their value as the coronavirus pandemic sent the world into recession.

Prices plummeted further in April amid a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia as the major producers scrambled to secure market share.

"The Covid-19 crisis is unlike anything the world has experienced in recent history and we are adapting to a highly complex and rapidly changing business environment," CEO Amin Nasser said in a statement.

Aramco said that a steep decline in global demand for energy and prices caused by the pandemic would undermine its full-year results.

"Longer term we remain confident that demand for energy will rebound as global economies recover," Nasser said.

The world's largest listed firm posted a net profit of 62.5 billion riyals ($16.66 billion) in the three months to March, compared to $22.2 billion a year earlier.

Meanwhile, falling oil revenues have prompted the Saudi government to enact a host of austerity measures, including cutting 30 billion riyals ($8 billion) from its flagship modernisation programme, Vision 2030.

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