Analysis |

The Great Coronavirus Reset: UAE Eases Restrictions, but Normalcy May Never Return

From airlines to architects and construction companies, businesses in the Arab world are having to reimagine the world with a new emphasis on health anxieties

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The citizens of the United Arab Emirates found out this week that restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus would be eased. From now on the country’s curfew will be in effect from 10 P.M. until 6 A.M., excluding those who need to leave their homes to receive medical care or to buy medicine or food.

Any departure from home requires a special permit, which can be obtained over the internet, and anyone violating the curfew can be fined the equivalent of about $800.

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Flights abroad from the UAE have been permitted since May 21, to nine countries, among them Australia, Britain, France, Germany and Canada. On July 1, service is slated to begin to 12 other countries, but that depends upon where things at the time with regard to the spread of the virus.

Recent passengers tell of their shock at the Dubai airport, which in normal times is crowded and teeming with dozens of flights taking off and landing every hour. Now duty-free shops ‒ an important source of income for the airport ‒ are cordoned off with red tape, as if they were a crime scene. Check-in lines are dozens of meters long, and airplane seats are specially marked to keep passengers at a distance from one other.

No meals are served on board the aircraft; instead, sealed cardboard boxes containing cold sandwiches are handed out. And flight attendants wear masks for the entire flight.

Passengers wear masks as they arrive at Dubai International Airport, January 29, 2020.Credit: Christopher Pike/ Reuters

Saudi Arabia has resumed domestic flights, limiting them to 60 per day to several large cities. Kuwait, which has stricter measures in place, is planning to resume flights closer to the second half of June.

The Kuwaiti government announced a five-stage plan to return to routine this week. Each stage will last for three weeks, and moving to the next stage will depend on the rate of confirmed coronavirus cases. Specific business sectors will resume operations at each stage until the fifth stage, which is projected to come n two months' time, when all businesses may resume operations in full.

There is no disputing the fact that air travel is the economic sector that has sustained the toughest blow. Arab airlines have issued a long list of instructions on the operation of their hundreds of aircraft. Tens of thousands of employees have been laid off or furloughed, and no one knows for how long. Some of the airlines are even considering  declaring bankruptcy.

Some, such as the Emirati and Saudi national carriers, are receiving massive government support so they can survive even after a long lull in operations. Smaller private airlines, however, may disappear.

An empty swimming pool at a hotel in Dubai, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, March 26, 2020.Credit: Satish Kumar Subramani/ Reuters

Saj Ahmad, the chief analyst at StrategicAero Research, a private aviation intelligence and analytics firm, described the coming period as “the great airline reset.” In an interview with the AMEinfo website, which focuses on coverage of Gulf state economies, Ahmad forecast that all the world’s airlines will have to reexamine their operational strategies, from aircraft purchases and interior décor to business plans that will take into consideration future blows similar to that of the coronavirus pandemic. And that's in addition to examining their choice of destinations and what their customer base should be.

Ahmad anticipates a long-range impact not only airlines, but also on aircraft manufacturers already suffering from a dramatic drop in orders and cancellations of orders. “The great reset” will require all sectors and companies with links to air travel, such as hotels and guest services, to adapt themselves to hygiene restrictions and to create different sorts of entertainment and newly designed waiting areas.

They will also need to reorganize vacation activities and create a new set of enticements for tourists based on branding, such as “healthy sites” that ensure not only rest, relaxation and entertainment, but that also win over the confidence of tourists anxious not only about arriving in good shape but returning home without getting sick, he said.

Turkey is one of the first outstanding examples of a country adopting a new strategy for air travel, with a list of detailed instructions to tourism and hotel companies, including details regarding how to serve food, when to disinfect rooms, monitoring by health experts hired from abroad and the issuance of medical wellness stamps of approval to hotels.

A passenger stands on a social distancing sign at Dubai International Airport, as Emirates airlines resumed limited outbound passenger flights, April 27, 2020.Credit: AHMED JADALLAH/ Reuters

The assumption is that even after the coronavirus disappears or ceases to be as widespread, tourists, businesspeople and others using air travel will have a list of new demands regarding medical safety, rather than just the level of service, food quality or entertainment.

The reset is also expected to affect the real estate market. Gulf states, especially the UAE, have launched construction and marketing companies that highlight health. For example, realtors in Dubai are touting the layout of the rooms in a home to create “space permitting more work from home for all of the members of the family”; villages surrounded by yards “for spending time in isolation”; “air conditioning in every room, to make a lengthy stay at home easier”; and “the proximity of health centers.”

These marketing slogans may also change the strategy for new construction, similar to what the air travel sector has had to do, and take the trauma of the coronavirus into consideration.

Jassem el-Sidiki, director general of the Abu Dhabi Financial Group, believes that the coronavirus will determine the interior décor of homes and environments that customers choose to buy or rent. In an article on the Arabian Business website, he predicted  that buyers will seek apartments divided into closed work spaces, in contrast to the open spaces that have characterized modern construction, and touch-free operation of amenities in smart homes.

But there is one prediction that is still sorely lacking in all of this: When will the coronavirus pandemic be over?

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