March 18, 2020 / 11:48 AM / 16 days ago

UPDATE 2-UAE bars entry to visitors, Saudi Arabia limits private sector work

* UAE to halt visas on entry as of March 19

* Saudi Arabia suspends work in most of private sector for 15 days

* Iran death toll climbs to 1,135

* International bonds issued by Gulf borrowers dive

* Oman central bank announces stimulus package (Recasts with UAE to suspend visa on arrival, new cases in Kuwait and Iran, Oman stimulus measures, previous CAIRO)

By Stephen Kalin and Alexander Cornwell

DUBAI/RIYADH, March 18 (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates said on Wednesday it would bar entry to foreigners apart from diplomats and residents, while Saudi Arabia included most of its private sector in a work suspension to battle the spread of the coronavirus in the Gulf region.

Kuwait recorded 12 more cases on Wednesday, including six Kuwaitis, an American resident and a Spanish resident who had all been to Britain. This took the total number of infections in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to more than 1,100.

The UAE, a major air transit centre and the region's tourism and business hub, said it would suspend the issuance of visas on arrival from Thursday until further notice. It had already barred people not qualifying for visas on arrival.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have already been under virtual lockdown after temporarily suspending all international flights last week and closing most public venues.

Qatar, which has the highest number of cases in the Arab Gulf region at 442, and Oman have banned entry of foreigners. Muscat has prevented citizens from travelling abroad.

The moves are the latest in a series of exceptional measures by Gulf states to combat the outbreak, including cancelling the Umrah pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia and closing mosques, malls and restaurants across the region.

WORK CLOSURES

Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy, on Wednesday suspended work in most of the private sector for 15 days and directed businesses to implement work-from-home policies.

The human resource ministry directed businesses to close main offices, reduce staff levels at secondary locations and limit staff contact and monitor them for symptoms of infection.

It outlined exceptions for companies providing vital food and health services as well as utility services for government agencies. Pregnant women, workers over 55 and those with severe pre-existing conditions must be given 14 days additional leave.

Earlier this week, the government suspended work for public sector employees beyond health and security and halted its regular cabinet meetings, while the central bank implemented work-from-home measures for banks.

International bonds issued by Gulf borrowers, including the Saudi government and its oil giant Aramco, fell sharply on Wednesday, extending steep losses.

Oman's central bank became the latest to offer stimulus packages to shield the region's hydrocarbon-dependent economies, saying on Wednesday it would provide some 8 billion rials ($20.8 billion) in extra liquidity to banks.

BAHRAIN EVACUATES CITIZENS

Many of the cases in the region are linked to travel to Iran, where the death toll from coronavirus has hit 1,135 and the number of infections 17,361 so far.

Bahrain, which this week recorded the GCC's first death from the disease, will evacuate more citizens from the Iranian city of Mashhad with a second repatriation flight scheduled for Thursday, a Bahraini official told Reuters.

He said the flight, using an Omani aircraft, had been delayed for a week while quarantine facilities were being prepared in Bahrain, where a main isolation centre has been set up on a barren island linked to the mainland by causeway.

Gulf airlines have suspended dozens of routes as the coronavirus outbreak disrupts global travel. The UAE still allows entry of foreign diplomats and residents and foreign visitors can still enter Bahrain. Qatar and Oman continue to permit transit flights.

Qatar Airways laid off about 200 Filipino staff in Qatar this week, Philippine Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello told Reuters. Dubai-based Emirates said it has asked pilots to take unpaid leave. (Reporting by Hesham Abdul Khalek, Stephen Kalin, Alexander Cornwell, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Parisa Hafezi, Lisa Barrington, Yousef Saba, Maher Chmaytelli, Davide Barbuscia; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Michael Perry and Philippa Fletcher)

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