Saudi Arabia Closes Hajj To Foreigners For First Time In Modern History
Saudi Arabia has closed the annual hajj pilgrimage to foreign travellers for the first time in modern history, to try to halt the spread of COVID-19.
Consequently, more than a million Muslims hoping to perform the once-in-a-lifetime trip will now have to wait until next year after the kingdom said 2020’s event would be “very limited”.
The vast pilgrimage to Mecca is considered one of the biggest gatherings of humanity on the planet and attracted two-and-a-half million pilgrims in 2019, with 1.8 million of them foreigners.
This year only Saudis and limited numbers of other nationalities already living in the kingdom will be able to attend in July, the official Saudi Press Agency reported, citing the government ministry that oversees the pilgrimage.
Performing the rite of pilgrimage is an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims once in their life and many spend years saving and preparing.
Yet the numbers, the close proximity of the pilgrims and the fact that many are old and vulnerable have seen health officials scale back this year as the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic. The pilgrimage has been a noted hotbed of transmission of diseases in the past and many come back with a ‘hajj cough’ picked up from fellow visitors.
Elderly and sick pilgrims were in 2013 urged not to attend because of the risk from the potentially deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) caused by another coronavirus that emerged in 2012.
This year’s precautions are unprecedented since the founding of the modern kingdom 90 years ago, but over the centuries, the pilgrimage has been disrupted by disease and war. For much of the 19th century cholera was a persistent threat and there were repeated outbreaks killing thousands.
The cut backs will further hit an economy already shaken by the pandemic and oil market turmoil. Religious tourism brought in more than £16bn ($20 billion) in 2018. Authorities had been making a push to expand the sector as part of plans by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s to diversify the kingdom away from oil.
The decision is also likely to prompt further questions about the kingdom’s custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites.
A series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has led to criticism of the kingdom’s management of the hajj.
Mohamad Azmi Abdul Hamid, from charity the Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organizations, told AFP that said Muslim nations should have been allowed to take a “collective decision”, rather then it being left to Riyadh.
“Its high time [the holy cities of Mecca and Medina] are managed by an international board represented by Muslim countries,” he said.