During the New Year’s Eve celebration on December 31, 2020, which attracted thousands of tourists and saw relaxed restrictions on social gatherings emanating from the Burj Khalifah tower in Dubai, fireworks were broadcast allowing up to 30 people per household to congregate. AFP via Getty Images
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – On the surface, Dubai’s party scene feels more alive than ever – bustling restaurants and bars, beaches and hotel pools inhabited by laid-back residents and tourists enjoying the winter sunshine.
However, daily record breaking Covid-19 infections in the Middle East’s commercial and vacation hub have made the chatter of a possible new lockdown inevitable.
“It’s getting really bad. How long did you think you could get away with it?” Farah S., a Dubai attorney, told CNBC.
According to the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Health, the new cases recorded on Monday hit a daily high in the country of 3,591. When the country imposed its strictest lockdown in March and April, which left orders for home and closed borders completely, daily cases were less than a tenth that number.
Just last week the 3.3 million desert emirate – whose economy is heavily reliant on tourism and hospitality – began making changes that believe the government’s message that everything is under control.
On January 21, the authorities ordered all Dubai hospitals to suspend unnecessary operations for a month. Around the same time, a policy was passed suspending all “entertainment” activities in restaurants and bars. The limit for weddings, social events and private celebrations has been reduced from 30 to 10 people. As of January 27, restaurants and cafés will require more space between the tables and fewer people per table.
Customers and equipment in gyms now need to be 3 meters apart, as opposed to the previous 2 meters, although this 2 meter requirement has often not been applied very sensibly.
Dubai fired the head of its health department on Sunday and replaced Humaid al-Qutami, who had held the post since 2018, with a new representative. The authorities did not provide a reason for the replacement and did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
Some Dubai residents have claimed that hospitals are running out of intensive care beds, although this has not been confirmed as hospitals and health officials have not responded to CNBC’s requests for comment.
Over the weekend, the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Health posted a post on its Instagram story entitled “URGENT EMPLOYMENT” offering fixed-term contracts for nurses in intensive care in Dubai, as well as for the Emirates of Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah. This came just days after the order to cease non-essential operations.
According to the Johns Hopkins University, 281,546 cases with 798 deaths have been confirmed in the United Arab Emirates so far. The death rate of 0.3% is well below the global average.
A safe haven for 2020
After the emirate of Dubai, which, in contrast to the more conservative capital Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, pursued a strategy of openness, kept its cases well below 2,000 per day for the entire year 2020, it turned out to be a pandemic success story.
It has been certified as a “Safe Travel” destination by the World Tourism Council and attracts celebrities and influencers. There has been a surge in occupancy at hotels and theme parks, and tourists from all over the world flocked to Dubai for a sense of missing normalcy. The wearing of masks continued to be ubiquitous and testing is widespread.
However, the new and highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus, first identified in the UK, is believed to have sparked the case when thousands of British tourists came in over the holidays to avoid the UK’s tough lockdown. Since December 30th, the daily numbers have more than tripled within a month.
Women’s sunbathers sit on a beach in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on July 24, 2020, while the Burj al-Arab Hotel can be seen behind it. After a painful four-month break in tourism that ended in early July, Dubai is paying off as a safe travel destination with the resources to ward off coronaviruses.
KARIM SAHIB | AFP via Getty Images
The number of cases covers the entire country and does not indicate where the infections are concentrated. But while Dubai welcomed tourists – some required negative PCR test results before boarding and others received tests on arrival – Abu Dhabi is still demanding that anyone flying to the emirate be quarantined for two weeks upon arrival. Participants from Dubai to Abu Dhabi are also required to provide a number of negative PCR test results.
Andy Pearson, a British engineer living in Dubai, blames large numbers of tourists who he believes are not following local security measures.
“The police should do more checks in party areas to make sure people are obeying the rules,” he said. “Tourists don’t care because they can just go home – they ruin it for the rest of us.”
The Dubai Media Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether a lockdown is imminent or what other changes will be made to counter the rise in cases.
Countries erected barriers to case and test problems in the UAE
Another red flag came last Thursday when Denmark announced a five-day suspension of flights from the UAE on suspicion that the Covid tests that travelers were doing before they left Dubai were not reliable.
“We cannot ignore such a suspicion,” said the Danish transport minister, adding that at least one citizen had returned from Dubai with the recently discovered variant in South Africa, out of several others he had tested positive for Covid.
The United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Health pushed back the announcement, claiming that all UAE accredited testing centers operate to international standards and are regularly checked. According to the UAE authorities, talks are ongoing between the two countries.
Earlier this month, the UK and Israel introduced quarantine requirements for travelers from the UAE. The United Arab Emirates had previously been on the United Kingdom’s Safe Travel corridor, removing the need for quarantine times for arrivals.
Nationwide vaccination boost
Developments come as the UAE nationwide vaccination campaign is in full swing and is the second fastest rollout in the world after Israel.
China’s Sinopharm vaccine is available nationwide for free for all ages, while Dubai’s launch of the Pfizer BioNtech vaccine, which began in late December, was announced as late on Saturday. The Dubai authorities attribute the delay to a “global shortage”.
Still, the UAE intends to achieve its goal of vaccinating half of its population by the end of March. Emergency approval was announced last week for the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, for which Phase 3 studies are still ongoing in Abu Dhabi.
Certain industries now mandate weekly polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for unvaccinated employees. Some residents believe that this is a pressure campaign to promote vaccination. For many who live in Dubai, this step – and other restrictions – is welcome.
“I think they should be banned for two weeks,” said Sara El Dallal, an education advisor based in Dubai. “Restrictions have been in place since last week, and yet the numbers haven’t gone down.” She noted that state schools have been keeping their classes online since early January.
Melissa Webb, a Dubai-based yoga teacher, infected herself with the virus after returning from a family visit to the UK over Christmas. However, upon arrival in Dubai, she tested negative, only to test positive three days later when attempting to enter Abu Dhabi. She told her story as a warning story.
“Of course I’ve been happy about normality for six months, but I’ve been feeling very nervous again since Christmas,” she said. “But I recognize the need for the economy to remain open, otherwise we won’t be able to live here much longer anyway.”