The global coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life as we know it and poses significant challenges for every government in the world. With over 5 million cases confirmed globally, governments have been forced to adopt disruptive policies aimed at minimizing the outbreak and containing the spread of the virus.
Saudi Arabia’s response to the pandemic has been a “whole-of-government ap-proach,” streamlining joint efforts and engaging multi-sectoral stakeholders to facilitate their active participation in the decision-making process. This helped the government address socioeconomic and livelihood issues ranging across public health, education, food security, agriculture, energy, communications, business, jobs and industry. The army and police have also played an active role during the curfew to protect the country against an unseen enemy.
Saudi Arabia has taken a range of precautionary measures in a comprehensive strategy that combines preparedness, disinfection, and social distancing with detecting, testing, and tracing any potential cases. The Kingdom also expanded international cooperation at an early stage to aid other countries. In its international capacity as the current G20 presiding country, Saudi Arabia has also taken coordinated action in calling upon countries, organizations, and even the private sector to raise $8 billion for the fight against COVID-19. In fact, the Saudi government itself has pledged $500 million for this cause.
It is still early to fully judge the long-term effects of government strategies, and the international community is still debating the most effective response to the pandemic. However, Saudi Arabia’s short- to mid-term strategy can be lauded. The government acted quickly and decisively in ending international flights, banning mass gatherings in all public locations and suspending Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages.
Saudi Arabia has also leveraged its distinct public health infrastructure, which is currently undergoing major reforms. The health care sector was the third largest share of budget expenditure of 2019, having grown by 8 percent in 2018. The health services are usually free of charge to all Saudi citizens and expatriates working in the public sector. As the crisis hit, King Salman bin Abdulaziz announced that all citizens and residents in the Kingdom – including illegal residents – could receive coronavirus-related medical care free of charge.
King Salman also announced that the government will cover 60 percent of the salaries in private sector industries hit hardest by the pandemic in a $2.4 billion econom-ic package, preventing major job loss within the private sector. This has afforded stability to the people of Saudi Arabia, especially in comparison to the millions of people throughout the world who are living in uncertainty as millions of jobs are lost and small businesses go bankrupt. The government has also taken a number of fiscal and economic measures to lessen the impact of the pandemic on both individuals and businesses, to prevent companies from laying off their staff. Recently, the country’s central bank rolled out a $32 billion economic package that included $13.3 billion to help small- and medium-sized businesses stay afloat. The package – approved by the King – is targeted at small and medium enterprises and other parts of the economy that are affected by the crisis. Additionally, the Kingdom has given support to the affected companies in the industrial, commercial and agricultural sectors, providing the option of discounted electricity bills. Collectively, these measures – at this stage – exceeded $18.6 billion.
In a reassuring, strategic, and proactive message, the Saudi Minister of Finance appeared on television and said that, “Saudi Arabia has faced this crisis from a position of strength.” This statement of hope confirmed that the Kingdom is fully committed and up to the task of sustaining public financing, despite the challenges of the current global economy. The measures implemented by the government prove a great ability to make hard decisions in a swift and confident matter.
The government ensured transparency and effective communication from the outset of the crisis, beginning with a public address by King Salman on the Kingdom’s virus response. This communication strategy is essential for engaging wider society and gaining buy-in from all relevant stakeholders, which is paramount to maintaining social distancing policies that are the most effective way to contain spread of the virus. The Kingdom’s strategy of securing popular support has therefore enabled its science-based, technocratic strategy.
Technology and artificial intelligence are playing a significant role in managing and facilitating the process. The government, for example, launched a number of applications in response to the virus, including one to help citizens return from abroad by allowing them to register and providing them with free tickets and five-star accommodation abroad and during the 14-day mandatory quarantine upon arrival in the Kingdom. Another application, Tawakkalna, is essential during the curfew for citi-zens and residents to register for e-permits and to request medical services from home.
The government’s positive approach stems from the major reforms of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan, of which Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is the chief architect and leader. This procedure is an integral part of the overall advancements of government performance and anti-corruption efforts through increased transparency, new rules and policies, enhanced infrastructure, and improved quality of life.
The coronavirus pandemic is far from over and still poses significant challenges that will shape the world for years to come. However, the Saudi Arabian government has shown the world that it can deliver an effective, science-based public health strategy while considering social security as a prime concern. As a result, the Kingdom is well positioned for a strong rebound and continued economic growth after the scourge of the coronavirus is defeated once and for all.
Fadila Al Jaffal is a Saudi commentator on international and Saudi Arabia’s affairs. She holds a Masters of Arts in international affairs, defense studies, from King’s College, London. She tweets @FadilaAljaffal.
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