Earlier last month, the New York Times had reported that the coronavirus had invaded Saudi Arabia's inner sanctum and that as many as 150 members of the kingdom's royal family are infected with the dreaded disease.
The report citing a "high alert" copy released by the elite hospital that treated members of the Al Saud clan, claimed that Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is the governor of Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh, was in the intensive care for coronavirus, and doctors at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital were preparing 500 beds for an "expected influx" of other royal family members.
Saudi royal, ex-intelligence chief dismisses report
Now, almost a month after the report, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who is also a member of the Saudi royal family and the son of the late King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has played down the claims made in the report, saying that the outbreak was more widespread than acknowledged.
Less than 20 royal members have contracted the disease
The former diplomat, who has also been Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the US in the past, dismissed the claim that 150 members of the royal family had contracted the virus and accused the paper of spreading misinformation, saying the actual number was less than 20.
"The truth is that only less than 20 members of the al-Saud family have been infected, and the hospital has not been allocated for them. The hospital treats all citizens and residents," Prince Turki bin Faisal told the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
The NY Times report had also claimed that Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has secluded himself in an island palace near the port of Jeddah on the Red Sea, though there is no confirmed report on the 84-year-old king's whereabouts. M
Meanwhile, his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is said to have retreated with several of his ministers to a remote site on the same coast where he has promised to build the futuristic city of NEOM.
Report claims 70 percent of Mecca residents may be infected
Another new report claims the actual spread of coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, especially the holy city of Mecca, could be significantly higher than official estimates.
According to a report by the Middle East Eye citing three senior Saudi medical officials, recent random testing conducted in the holy city of Mecca, suggests that nearly 70 percent of the city's more than two million residents could be carrying the virus, though the claims are not confirmed by Saudi Arabia's health ministry.
"The actual spread of the disease could be three to four times higher than the declared one," an anonymous source told the Middle East Eye. The report claims that COVID-19 patients who were initially being treated at public hospitals in the city are now being instructed to be treated in private hospitals due to public hospitals being "overwhelmed" with cases. It also suggests that since Mecca is under the strictest lockdown in the kingdom, it is widely believed that the holy city is is the "epicentre of the outbreak in Saudi Arabia."
Curfew and restrictions in Mecca
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia had imposed a 24-hour curfew on the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina since April 2 in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. However, the curfew was relaxed on April 26, in view of the start of the holy month of Ramadan, but some restrictions remain.
Saudi Arabia has suspended the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca which happens all round the year and the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to begin in late July, which sees more than 2 million Muslims from around the world travel to Mecca is also widely expected to be cancelled or curtailed, in view of the pandemic.
Coronavirus in Saudi Arabia
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases and deaths of late. The kingdom has been recording upwards of 1,000 cases of infection per day since April 18 and it has only gotten worse over the last week.
The Saudi health ministry has reported a record 1,362 cases of COVID-19 infection on Saturday, May 2, bringing the total number of cases in the kingdom to 25,459 and the death toll so far stands at 176. These are the highest numbers in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes other Gulf states namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE.