Saudi Arabia suspends pilgrimage entry visas over coronavirus fears

Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended arrivals of foreigners for the Umrah pilgrimage and tourists from two dozen countries where the new coronavirus has spread as an increasing number of cases heightened fears of a pandemic in the world.

The holy fasting month of Ramadan begins at the end of April, when the visits of Muslim pilgrims accelerate for Umrah. More than 7.5 million people made the small pilgrimage – as opposed to the haj – in the birthplace of Islam in 2019, according to official figures.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not reported any cases of coronavirus, but the other four Arab Gulf States have done so.

The virus has infected around 80,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,800, the majority in China, where the epidemic began late last year.

The number of new infections in China was overtaken by new cases elsewhere for the first time on Wednesday, with Italy and Iran emerging as the epicenters of the flu.

Kuwait and Bahrain recorded more cases on Thursday, all among people who visited Iran, bringing their total to 43 and 33, respectively. Oman has diagnosed four cases and the United Arab Emirates, the main hub for air transit, has reported 13.

The pilgrimage is a big undertaking for Saudi Arabia, which is home to the two holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina, and is the backbone of a plan to develop tourism as part of the ambitious economic reform program of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Some 2 million pilgrims are expected in late July for the week-long hajj, the world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims.

“It all depends on the length of the ban. If it is long, it can have more impact because Ramadan is two months away,” said John Sfakianakis, chief economist at the Gulf Research Center.

The Saudi foreign ministry said the suspensions were temporary, but without delay. Entrance is also suspended for visits to the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

“Protecting pilgrims … and sacred sites from the onset of this disease is very important,” said the Ministry of Health.
Spokesman Mohammed Abdelali said after government officials gathered to discuss preventive measures.

“Saudi Arabia feels a sense of responsibility, which is why we have made these temporary decisions which will be constantly
examined. “

Airport confusion

In Indonesia, Joko Asmoro of the Association of Muslim Hajj and Umrah Organizers told Reuters that 150,000 to 200,000 Indonesian pilgrims could be affected by the suspension in the next month. Malaysia, with 23 recorded cases of coronavirus, has advised its citizens to postpone the visit to the kingdom for the time being.

Saudi Arabia’s core index fell 1.1% on Thursday, weighed by tourism-related companies Jabal Omar
Development, Seera Group and Al Hokair Group.

The country’s top tourism official said this week that 400,000 tourist visas have been issued since their introduction last year for 49 countries as part of efforts to increase non-oil revenues.

The foreign ministry did not specify which states would be affected by the tourism restrictions, but said that health
authorities would determine where the home posed a danger.

In the hours following the announcement, there was confusion at airports abroad with flights to Saudi Arabia regarding who was allowed to travel. In Beirut, passengers without Saudi residences were prevented from boarding.

Emirates and flydubai, based in the United Arab Emirates, citing Saudi directives, said they would no longer carry passengers with tourist visas from China, Japan, Italy, Iran, India, Pakistan and a number of other countries.

It was unclear on what basis these States had been identified and whether they referred to the nationality of travelers or their nationality.
place of departure. Saudi government spokespersons did not respond to requests for comment.

Iran has the highest number of deaths from the virus outside of China, reporting 26 deaths and 245 infections.

Several neighbors of Iran have closed their borders and banned theft due to the epidemic. Bahrain said it had stopped flights to Iraq and Lebanon. The UAE said parents must report if children or close relatives have traveled in the past four weeks to more than one Asian country, Italy or Iran.

Qatar postponed the Doha interfaith dialogue conference scheduled for March 3-4, without giving a reason. Two sources said it was about fears of coronaviruses. The government of Qatar did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reuters)