As Saudi Arabia prepares to host the hajj pilgrimage next week, authorities face the unprecedented challenge of balancing their responsibility as stewards of the Muslim world’s most important religious event with the need to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
The hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for Muslims able to make the journey, is a source of great political and religious prestige for Saudi Arabia, while typically generating billions of dollars in revenue for the kingdom.
Grappling with the second-largest coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East after Iran, Saudi authorities this year have curtailed the five-day event in Mecca to fewer than 10,000 people already present in the country. Usually, more than two million people flock from around the globe in the world’s largest annual Muslim gathering.
Nanie Nordin, a university administrative worker from Malaysia, said she felt blessed to be attending the hajj, which starts on Wednesday. “It’s a big deal if someone gets the chance to be part of the pilgrimage, and to be part of this year’s hajj is even more special,” she said from self-isolation at her on-campus home in Thuwal, a village near Jeddah.
Religious congregations have emerged as among the biggest spreaders of the coronavirus across the world. Mecca until recently was the center of the outbreak in the kingdom, where more than 260,000 people have been sickened by the virus and 2,672 have died.
The restrictions to the pilgrimage are another blow to Saudi Arabia’s economy, which has already been hit by depressed oil prices and coronavirus-related measures, including a ban on international travel, that hurt the kingdom’s nascent tourism and entertainment sectors. The International Monetary Fund expects the kingdom’s economy to contract 6.8% this year.
The impact is acute in Mecca, where the hajj and the year-round umrah pilgrimage—suspended since March due to the pandemic—drive economic activity.
Maher Jamal, the former chairman of Mecca’s chamber of commerce, said the hospitality and housing industries there rely entirely on hajj revenue. “These sectors will now face big income losses and this will impact everyone from the big hotel investor all the way down to the hotel’s bellhop,” he said.
In addition, the government is running the hajj in-house this year, bypassing most private tour operators. “We are going to make zero profit this year,” said a board member of a company that hosts pilgrims from Arab countries.
Besides shrinking the pilgrimage, authorities also have banned worshipers from touching the Kaaba, the black cubic building at the center of Mecca’s Grand Mosque that the faithful usually scramble to reach in elbow-to-elbow processions. Pilgrims are required to carry personal prayer rugs to avoid contamination. They must keep 5 feet apart, wear face masks constantly and have their temperatures checked regularly. For a ritualized stoning of the devil, they will be given sterilized pebbles.
“We are saddened by the limited number this year for the exceptional hajj. But despite the limited number, the challenges and efforts put forth are no less than any other year,” said Amr al-Maddah, chief planning and strategy officer at the Saudi ministry of hajj and umrah, in a radio interview.
More people apply to attend the hajj each year than are able to be accommodated, so every country is assigned a quota and must choose who gets a visa, often prioritizing the elderly, meaning many people wait a lifetime for their chance.
Because of the coronavirus, only those who are aged 20 to 50 and in good health were eligible to apply online this year. Most are foreign residents of Saudi Arabia, with priority given to those who haven’t previously performed the hajj. The rest are Saudi health workers and security personnel who recovered from Covid-19.
Saudi authorities haven’t disclosed the total number of pilgrims to participate other than to say those selected originate from 160 countries.
They were notified by text message earlier this month, then tested for the virus and fitted with an electronic tracing bracelet, according to Mr. Maddah. They entered a seven-day home isolation with another four days at a Mecca hotel. The pilgrims will conduct the hajj in groups of 20 and use a phone app to avoid contact with others. Afterward, they must isolate at home for another week.
To restrict the number of pilgrims, security forces imposed a cordon on the holy sites and said they would fine or jail trespassers.
“We aim to finish this hajj with zero corona cases,” said Mr. Maddah.
The hajj is followed by the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday, when Muslims traditionally pray together at mosques and gather in homes for communal meals. A similar celebration in late May was followed by a spike in coronavirus infections across the Middle East that is only now moderating. Some governments in the region, such as Oman, which is currently suffering the worst outbreak in the Gulf, are restricting public activities during the holiday to prevent a resurgence.
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