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The Gulf kingdom currently has 2,795 cases, the highest number in the Middle East apart from Iran, and 41 deaths.
‘Within the next few weeks, studies predict the number of infections will range from a minimum of 10,000 to a maximum of 200,000,’ said minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah, according to state media.
Rabiah, who warned the kingdom faces a ‘critical moment’ in the fight against the virus, said the projection was based on four studies by Saudi and international experts.
The United States is the only country in the world with more than 200,000 confirmed infections at present. Spain and Italy have over 100,000.
Some Saudi cities including the capital Riyadh are under a 24-hour curfew imposed by the interior minister yesterday.
Tabuk, Dammam, Dhahran and Hofuf are also under lockdown, as well as the regions of Jeddah, Taif, Qatif and Khobar.
The Gulf port of Dammam is a major entry point for supplies for the country’s oil industry.
The holy cities of Mecca and Medina have also been sealed off, throwing this year’s hajj pilgrimage into doubt.
Authorities last week urged Muslims to temporarily defer preparations for the annual pilgrimage, but have yet to say whether the hajj will go ahead.
The Arab world’s biggest economy has also closed down cinemas, malls and restaurants and halted flights as it steps up efforts to contain the virus.
King Salman has warned of a ‘more difficult’ fight ahead against the virus, as the country faces the double blow of an economic standstill and crashing oil prices.
Oil prices have plummeted because of the global economic shutdown, and Saudi Arabia and Russia have pumped oil relentlessly in a war for market share.
As in many Middle East countries, Saudi Arabia’s first case was a patient who had recently travelled to Iran, which was one of the early hotspots in the pandemic.
Iran now has more than 60,000 cases, according to official figures, although there has been much scepticism about these.
The Saudi foreign ministry says it plans to fly home any citizens abroad who wish to return during the outbreak.
‘Priority will be given to those in countries most hit by the coronavirus, pregnant women and elders,’ a statement said.
Citizens will be subject to a 14-day quarantine upon their return, the ministry said.