Oman lifts Skype ban amid Covid-19

18 March 2020
Legalisation aims to support businesses as GCC states ramp up virus containment measures

Countries in the Gulf have unveiled new measures, including the legalisation of Skype and other voice over internet protocol (VoIP) apps in Oman, to retain socioeconomic balance as the Covid-19 illness, caused by a new coronavirus, spreads across the GCC. 

In Oman, where 33 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed, three recoveries were announced on 17 March.

Land allotment grants in wilayats across the country have been postponed, with Oman suspending all sports-related activities as well as permits for exhibitions, conferences and seminars until the end of June 2020.

The sultanate’s Telecommunications Authority (TRA) has also legalised Skype, Zoom and Google Meet to allow businesses to work remotely.

"Due to the exceptional circumstances resulting from the spread of the coronavirus, it has been decided to allow the use of some internet communication applications such as Skype, VoiP, Google Meet and the Zoom app," the TRA reportedly said.

"Organisations can use these applications during this exceptional period."

Private sector shutdown

After shuttering non-vital government offices last week, Saudi Arabia has now ordered a shutdown of private sector establishments to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. 

Saudi Arabia’s health ministry reported 38 new cases of Covid-19 on 17 March, taking its national tally of confirmed patients to 171, with six recoveries. 

Private sector companies have been closed for 15 days upon orders by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development. 

Remote work is required for all industries except companies in vital and sensitive sectors, such as electricity, water and communications. 

Ministry orders state that private companies must reduce their in-office workforce to the lowest number of essential staff. 

No more than 40 per cent of a company’s total staff may gather in the workplace at the same time. 

At offices and staff accommodation with more than 50 workers, entrances must be fitted with space for temperature to be taken and symptoms checked.

Health facilities and nurseries provided by employers must close, and pregnant women and new mothers, people suffering from respiratory diseases, those with immune-system problems or chronic conditions, cancer patients and employees over the age of 55 are to be given 14 days compulsory paid leave, which cannot be deducted from their annual entitlement.

Pharmacies, supermarkets and their suppliers are excluded from the latest health measures, and private sector suppliers of government agencies must notify their clients before suspending workplace attendance.  

The Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia has established a special taskforce to ensure continuity of services for existing and prospective investors through teleworking systems. 

Saudi Arabia, which assumed presidency of the G20 on 1 December, will convene a virtual summit next week to address the coronavirus pandemic.

Bahrain stimulus

Bahrain has announced a BHD4.3bn ($11.4bn) stimulus package to mitigate the business impact of Covid-19. 

The kingdom has recorded 242 confirmed cases of the illness, of which 88 patients have recovered and 153 are active cases.  

Manama said its “unprecedented package of policy measures”, ordered by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, was worth 29.6 per cent of the country’s annual GDP.

The eight-point package includes a draft law to pay private sector salaries from the unemployment fund for three months from April 2020. 

Plans also include doubling the national Liquidity Support Fund to BD200m, and increasing  the Central Bank of Bahrain’s loan facilities to BD3.7bn to allow debt instalments to be deferred and extra credit to be extended.

Bahrain will also pay utility bills to the federal Electricity and Water Authority on behalf of individuals and businesses for three months from April. 

The utility payments by Bahrain will match costs incurred during the three-month period in 2019, and the country will also restructure governmental administrative finances to offset the additional cost.

Individuals and businesses will be exempted from paying municipal fees for three months from April, and industrial land rental fees will be waived for businesses during the period. 

Tourism levies will be written off for three months from April. 

Programmes by Bahrain’s Tamkeen, the semi-autonomous government agency dedicated to providing business loans and assistance, will be redirected to support “adversely affected companies”.

Debts issued by Tamkeen will also be restructured. 

Manama’s financial support comes after Bahrain became the first GCC country to note a Covid-19 fatality earlier this week.

Around the GCC

Kuwait, which has taken some of the most significant measures to contain the spread of Covid-19, denied on 17 March that it had decided to implement a nationwide shutdown.

Government spokesman Tareq Al-Mezrem said a decision would depend on the “compliance of citizens and residents with the guidelines of health authorities”. 

International passenger flights have been grounded in Kuwait and a public holiday has been declared in the country on 12-29 March. 

Kuwait’s measures to maintain socioeconomic stability include a crackdown on the spreading of rumours. Information Minister Mohammad al-Jabri said on 17 March that 23 social media accounts had been reported to the Public Prosecution for posting misinformation.

Seven new cases of the coronavirus were declared in Kuwait on 17 March, taking the country’s total number of Covid-19 patients to 130. Of these, 12 individuals have recovered from the virus. 

New cases were also announced in the UAE and Oman on 17 March. 

The UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention announced 15 new cases of Covid-19, bringing its total tally of infections to 113.

In the past week, social venues have been closed in the UAE to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, and the Central Bank has extended financial support for small and medium-sized enterprises in the country. 

Private sector entities such as Abu Dhabi’s Aldar, Dubai Holding and Meraas, have also announced financial support initiatives for their business partners.  

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