Saudi Arabia allows Hajj pilgrimage for 60,000 vaccinated residents, bans foreigners

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Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday that it will allow 60,000 residents who have been vaccinated against Covid to perform this year’s hajj, but Muslims from abroad will be banned for the second year in a row.

The Hajj – a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lives – typically brings millions of pilgrims to crowded religious sites and could be a major source of contamination amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This year it would be “open to nationals and residents of the kingdom, limited to 60,000 pilgrims,” ​​the Hajj ministry said, quoted by the official Saudi news agency.

The pilgrimage, which is scheduled for July, is limited to those who have been vaccinated and are between 18 and 65 years old and have no chronic illnesses.

Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part in the Hajj last July, a far cry from the 2.5 million who took part in the five-day annual pilgrimage in 2019 before the pandemic.

“In light of what the whole world is seeing with the coronavirus pandemic… and the emergence of new variants, the relevant authorities have continued to monitor the global health situation,” the health ministry said.

“Given the large crowds performing Hajj, spending long periods of time in multiple and specific places…requires the highest levels of health measures.”

Saudi Arabia said those wishing to perform the hajj must register online, without specifying how many foreign residents would be among the 60,000 pilgrims.

In 2020, foreigners made up 70 percent of the pilgrims, while Saudis made up the rest.

The kingdom later said it had informed other countries of the decision not to admit pilgrims from abroad.

“There was a lot of understanding,” the deputy minister of Hajj, Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat, said at a news conference.

“Arrangements for this were based on the kingdom’s keenness on the pilgrims’ health and the security of their country.”

Vaccination drive

Riyadh is accelerating a nationwide vaccination campaign to revitalize tourism and host sports and entertainment events, pandemic-affected sectors that underpin the “Vision 2030” program to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

It has approved the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines.

In May, only vaccinated or immunized citizens were allowed to travel abroad, after the kingdom lifted a ban on foreign travel put in place at the start of the pandemic.

The kingdom has also said that from August 1, vaccinations will be mandatory to enter government and private institutions, including educational establishments and entertainment venues, and to use public transportation.

In an easing of corona measures last October, Saudi Arabia opened the Grand Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months and partially resumed the year-round umrah pilgrimage.

The limit for umrah pilgrims is 20,000 per day, with a total of 60,000 worshipers allowed to pray daily in the mosque.

Authorities said the umrah — which usually attracts millions of Muslims from around the world — should be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.

The venerated Black Stone in the Kaaba – which is customary but not required to touch during the pilgrimage – remains out of reach.

Loss of income

A scaled-down hajj represents a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, which is already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.

The year-round Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages bring in about $12 billion (10.3 billion euros) per year.

Last year, the foreign press was barred from the Hajj, usually a major global media event.

Saudi Arabia has so far registered more than 460,000 coronavirus infections, including 7,537 deaths.

More than 15 million vaccine doses for the coronavirus have been administered in the country of more than 34 million people.

Hosting the Hajj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the administration of Islam’s holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.

But a series of deadly disasters over the years, including a stampede in 2015 that killed up to 2,300 worshipers, has led to criticism of the kingdom’s management of the pilgrimage.

(AFP)