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The New Arab Staff

Fears as coronavirus spreads in US embassy in Saudi Arabia, endangering diplomatic staff

Dozens of people could have been infected at the US embassy in Riyadh [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 July, 2020

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A birthday barbecue in the US embassy in Riyadh may have been a source of Covid-19 infection, with dozens of employees taken ill.
Dozens of US embassy employees in Riyadh became sick last month amid fears that a coronavirus outbreak may have endangered the health and lives of diplomats and embassy employees.

More than 20 people were quarantined, with worries that the virus was spreading due to negligence from the Saudi Arabian government after a birthday barbeque became a potential place of origin for Covid-19.

A Sudanese driver for the US diplomats has died.

A report analysing the coronavirus pandemic in the Kingdom circulated in closed channels in Riyadh and Washington compared the situation to that of New York City in March, which at the time had been on the eve of an explosion of cases, The New York Times reported.

The assessment blamed the Saudi government’s response for the potential spike of cases, with hospitals not being supported and care workers becoming ill.

It has been suggested that this spike will happen in July and there may soon be a shortage of hospital beds.

The New York Times reported that some in the embassy took unofficial channels to contact Congress and claimed that neither the State Department, nor the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John P Abizaid, were taking the situation seriously.

They called on the US government to evacuate American Embassy employees and their families.

In an apparently lukewarm response, the State Department announced the “voluntary departure of nonemergency US personnel and family members from the US Mission to Saudi Arabia”.

However, some senior embassy officials think this is not enough, given that they had pushed for the evacuation of some 400 to 500 American employees in Riyadh.

Department officials said that 32 of the 50 embassy employees confirmed or presumed to have Covid-19 had recovered.

Most, the officials added, were not American citizens.

The State Department said in a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday that it “has no higher priority than ensuring the safety of US government personnel and US citizens.”

It said that the voluntary departure “is appropriate given current conditions associated with the pandemic” and that “the pandemic has affected mission staff and our community in Saudi Arabia.”

A former CIA officer, Douglas London, said the US was stepping carefully because placating Saudi Arabia and maintaining the two countries’ close relationship was paramount.

“The Saudis have never been subtle in discouraging US officials from outward actions that might cast the kingdom as appearing weak, incompetent or vulnerable in difficult times,” he said.

Mixed pandemic response

Saudi Arabia has reported approximately 4,000 new cases of coronavirus per day, among the fastest-growing caseloads in the world.

Despite this, the kingdom has ended lockdown measures and shown a mixed response to the pandemic. In June Saudi authorities announced that there would be a “very limited Hajj” this year. There are fears that even a limited Hajj could risk pilgrims’ health.

Read more: Western firms complicit in the human cost of Saudi Arabia's dystopian Neom megacity

The Hajj usually draws upwards of 2.5 million pilgrims even, and Saudi Arabia is attempting to scale it back by only allowing people of various nationalities already residing in the country to participate.

"It was decided to hold the pilgrimage this year with very limited numbers... with different nationalities in the kingdom," the official Saudi Press Agency said, citing the Saudi Arabian Hajj Ministry.

"This decision is taken to ensure the Hajj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective... and in accordance with the teachings of Islam in preserving lives."

There have been over 194,000 recorded coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia and 1,698 deaths.

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