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Saudi Arabia Eases Coronavirus Curfews, Keeps 24-hour Curfew in Mecca 

TOPSHOT - An aerial view shows the Grand Mosque, deserted on the first day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, on April 24, 2020, during the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis.

Saudi Arabia eased curfews on Sunday across the country but kept 24-hour lockdowns in place in the city of Mecca and neighbourhoods previously put in isolation to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, state news agency SPA said.

It also signed a deal with China to conduct 9 million tests for the virus. Saudi has so far recorded 17,522 cases of infection and 139 deaths.

These are the highest numbers in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which together have recorded almost 46,000 cases and 258 deaths.

Outside Mecca and lockdown areas, curfews will be eased between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. (0600-1400 GMT) until May 13. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan began on Friday.

The royal order also allowed some economic and commercial activities to re-start, including wholesale and retail shops and shopping malls, from Wednesday until May 13.

Activities which do not allow for physical distancing, including salons and cinemas, will remain closed. Social gatherings of more than five people are forbidden.

Authorities in the capital Riyadh issued additional advice saying banknotes were not to be used.

Shops that do open should ensure no more than one customer per 10 square metres. Malls must be sterilised every 24 hours and children under 15 are not allowed to enter.

A suspension on international and domestic flights was also extended until further notice, the Interior Ministry said.

Flights have been suspended in Saudi since mid-March, but some Saudi carriers have been operating outbound-only flights so non-nationals can leave the country. They have also been repatriating Saudi citizens stranded abroad by the pandemic.

Saudi signed a contract with China worth 995 million Saudi riyals ($264 million) to conduct 9 million coronavirus tests. The arrangement includes six laboratories to be set up across the country, 500 Chinese staff to be brought in, training for Saudi staff and auditing for eight months.

In Qatar, the government announced its highest daily increase in the number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, 929, bringing its total to 10,287 infections and 10 deaths.

Most of those cases were among expatriate workers who had had contact with other confirmed cases, state news agency QNA said.

It said some of the new cases had been recorded among workers outside of the capital's old industrial zone, which had been isolated in mid-March after it emerged as a hot spot for the virus. Last week Qatar said it would gradually start to lift the lockdown there.

The Gulf region has seen an increasing number of infections among foreign workers living in overcrowded accommodation.