Iqama-holders rush to PIA offices after Saudi restrictions

Six flights over the weekend to ferry 2,200 passengers

Imran Asghar March 13, 2020
A Pakistan International Airline carrier. PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani citizens, holding Saudi Iqamas (residency permits) rushed to the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) offices on Friday after the kingdom ordered them to return to the country in 72 hours, triggering a crisis like situation for the national-flag carrier.

According to some estimates, more than 10,000 Pakistani citizens, holding Saudi Iqama, have been in Pakistan to spend their leave. On the other hand, PIA would operate only six flights by the weekend, which means that the airlines would be unable to ferry all those intending to passengers in time.

The PIA has booked 2,200 passengers on these return flights and it lacked the capacity to book more, said a source. The airline does not have enough aircraft to cater to the number of passengers intending to go back to Saudi Arabia, the PIA spokesman said.

Saudi authorities on Thursday announced a range of measures to contain the threat of coronavirus. These include temporary suspension of travel of citizens and expatriates to a number of countries, including the European Union, Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and some African nations.

"The decision gives a 72-hour period for citizens and those with valid residency of the citizens of those countries to return to the kingdom, before the travel suspension decision becomes effective," the official Saudi Press Agency said on its website.

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"There is a rush of passengers at the PIA head offices and regional offices, which has created a crisis-like situation," the PIA spokesman said. "The six scheduled flights have been fully booked, five of which will fly to Madina and one to Jeddah."

According to the spokesman, the PIA administration was planning to operate a flight from Lahore to Dammam, adding that the airline would need to arrange more aircraft to fly these passengers to the kingdom.

COVID-19, which started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December last, has now spread all over the world. Though the disease had been contained in China, the death toll is mounting elsewhere, with Italy and Iran emerging as hotbeds of the contagion.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has so far reported 17 additional cases, taking the national total to 62. The kingdom, besides extending travel bans to and from the EU and 12 other countries, also closed land crossings with Jordan, allowing only commercial and cargo traffic. The kingdom had already banned travel to some 19 countries, including neighbouring Arab states.

Local authorities had also suspended all social gatherings at wedding halls and hotels, the SPA reported quoting a source in ministry of interior. The Saudi General Authority for Statistics (GaStat) announced on Friday the suspension of the “Saudi Census 2020” project until further notice.

Earlier, the foreign ministry postponed the Saudi-Africa summit and the Arab-African summit which were to be held in the first three months of the year over coronavirus. A meeting of G20 Agriculture ministers scheduled for next week in Saudi Arabia has also been postponed.

On Thursday, Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui told a media briefing in Islamabad that Pakistan had been in touch with Saudi authorities over these measures. “I have also talked to our ambassador to the Kingdom … who is in touch with Saudi authorities to obtain more details.”

The issue Pakistani citizens in Saudi Arabia was also raised in the National Assembly on Friday. Parliamentary Secretary for Aviation Division Jamil Ahmed Khan told the house that a PIA Boeing-777 had been lined up to bring back Pakistanis from Saudi Arabia on March 15.

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