Bahrain's Formula One race this month will be run without spectators over fears about the new coronavirus, the island kingdom announced Sunday, as Mideast stock markets fell sharply amid plummeting demand for crude oil and OPEC's inability to agree on a production cut.
The decision by Bahrain is just the latest disruption felt by the Mideast over the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes. The wider Mideast now has over 6,900 confirmed cases of the virus, the majority in hard-hit Iran.
Iran announced Sunday that 49 people had died there in the last 24 hours alone, raising the death toll in the Islamic Republic to 194 out of 6,566 confirmed cases. That's according to Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave the figures at a news conference.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad's announcement was carried by the state-run Bahrain News Agency. The crown prince said the decision was “to preserve the safety of citizens, residents and racing fans." The race is scheduled for March 22.
"As an F1 host nation, balancing the welfare of supporters and race goers is a tremendous responsibility," Bahrain International Circuit said in a statement. “Given the continued spread of COVID-19 globally, convening a major sporting event, which is open to the public and allows thousands of international travellers and local fans to interact in close proximity would not be the right thing to do at the present time."
Bahrain, an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, has so far reported 79 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus. The kingdom has drastically cut air travel and urged residents who recently traveled from Iran to present themselves for testing, warning that those who don't could face prosecution.
The decision to run the race with participants only was a major decision for Bahrain. It cancelled its 2011 race over Arab Spring protests there, but held the race in 2012 with fans in attendance.
The decision came as Australia is still set to hold its F1 Grand Prix on March 13 with spectators. F1 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile Sunday, stock markets across the Mideast suffered sharp drops.
Hardest-hit was Boursa Kuwait, which saw shares fall more than 10%. The Dubai Financial Market saw stocks drop by 7.5% in a steep selloff. The Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange dropped by over 5%. The losses on Boursa Kuwait forced the stock market to immediately close, the second time in recent days this has happened.
Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul stock exchange fell over 7% as the market opened, with its marquee Saudi Aramco stock falling below its initial public offering price for the first time. The state-run Saudi Arabian Oil Co. offered a sliver of its value to investors on the market in December.
The Egyptian stock market's benchmark index, the EGX 30, fell over 3% as it opened.
OPEC and key ally Russia failed to agree on a cut to oil production Friday. That saw crude oil prices, the bedrock commodity of the Mideast, drop. Benchmark Brent crude sold Sunday for around $45 a barrel, down some 11% from the year prior.
The demand for oil has dropped as air travel has been affected by the outbreak of the virus.
Iran Air, the Islamic Republic’s flag carrier, meanwhile announced it would stop all its flights into Europe amid the outbreak, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported Sunday. Iran Air said it was in negotiations to resume its European flights, ISNA said. It did not elaborate.
Among the recent dead was Fatemeh Rahabar, a 55-year-old newly elected lawmaker who passed away in Tehran, the state-run IRNA news agency reported Saturday. She'd been elected to the next parliament that begins work in May. Earlier this week, Iranian lawmaker Abdolreza Mesri told state television that 23 members in the current parliament had the coronavirus, and urged all lawmakers to avoid the public.
Meanwhile in Egypt, a cruise ship on the Nile River with over 150 tourists and local crew was in quarantine Saturday in the southern city of Luxor, as 45 people on board tested positive for the new coronavirus, authorities said.