Is Dubai’s party over? Record cases in Covid trigger fears of a new lockdown


Fireworks emanated from the Burj Khalifah tower in Dubai during the New Year’s Eve celebration on December 31, 2020, which attracted thousands of tourists and saw relaxed restrictions on social gatherings, allowing up to 30 people per household to gather. 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 sun.

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 depends heavily 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 hospitals in Dubai 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 parties has been reduced from 30 to 10 people. As of January 27, restaurants and caf├ęs 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 office 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 failed to respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.

Over the weekend, the UAE Ministry of Health posted a post on its Instagram story entitled “URGENT EMPLOYMENT” offering fixed-term contracts for intensive care nurses in Dubai, as well as 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 was certified as a “Safe Travel” destination by the World Tourism Council last summer and attracted 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.

It has only been in the past two months that the city has hosted golf and polo tournaments, shopping and film festivals, and concerts to promote its image as safe and welcoming ahead of the long-awaited 2020 World’s Fair, postponed to October 2021 due to the pandemic.

However, the new and highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus, first identified in the UK, is believed to have sparked the recent surge in cases as thousands of UK 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 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 hiatus 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

Andy Pearson, a British engineer living in Dubai, blames large numbers of tourists whom he believes do not meet local safety requirements.

“The police should do more checks on 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 are putting barriers to cases in the UAE and testing concerns

Another red flag came last Thursday when Denmark announced a five-day suspension of flights from the UAE on suspicion that the Covid tests carried out on travelers before they departed 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 variant recently discovered in South Africa, among several others whom he described as positive for Covid.

The United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Health pushed back the announcement, claiming that all accredited testing centers in the United Arab Emirates 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 UK Safe Travel Corridor, which negated the need for quarantine times for arrivals.

The Covid-19 case numbers relate to the entire country and do not indicate where the infections are concentrated. But while Dubai welcomes tourists – some require negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results before boarding and others receive tests on arrival – Abu Dhabi still requires that anyone flying into the emirate be quarantined for ten days on arrival is provided. Participants from Dubai to Abu Dhabi are also required to provide a number of negative PCR test results.

Nationwide vaccination boost

The developments come as the UAE nationwide vaccination campaign is in full swing. This is the second fastest rollout in the world after Israel.

China’s Sinopharm vaccine is available nationwide for free to all residents aged 16 and over, while Dubai’s launch of 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 wants 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 PCR testing for unvaccinated employees. Some local residents believe that a pressure campaign to promote vaccination is being carried out. 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, she tested negative upon arrival in Dubai, only to test positive three days later when attempting to enter Abu Dhabi. She told her story as a warning story.

“Of course I was happy about six months of normalcy, but since Christmas I’ve felt very nervous again,” 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.”