Saudi mulling ban on foreign haj pilgrims amid pandemic
Saudi Arabia is considering barring overseas pilgrims from the annual haj for the second year running as COVID-19 cases rise globally and worries grow about the emergence of new variants.
Such a move would restrict the pilgrimage to Mecca, a once in a lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, to Saudi nationals and residents of the kingdom who were vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 at least months before attending.
While discussions about a possible ban have taken place, there has been no final decision on whether to pursue it.
Before the pandemic enforced social distancing globally, about 2.5 million pilgrims used to visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the weeklong haj, and the lesser, year-round umrah pilgrimage, which altogether earned the kingdom about US$12 billion a year, according to official data.
As part of economic reform plans pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom was hoping to raise the number of umrah and haj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020, and aimed to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030. It aims to earn 50 billion riyals (US$13.32 billion) of revenues from the haj alone by 2030.
Two sources familiar with the matter said authorities have suspended earlier plans to host pilgrims from overseas, and will only allow domestic pilgrims who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 at least six months before the pilgrimage. Restrictions will be applied on the age of participants as well, one of the sources said.
A second source said the plans were initially to allow some numbers of vaccinated pilgrims from abroad, but confusion over types of vaccines, their efficacy and the emergence of new variants has pushed officials to reconsider. The government did not respond to a request for comment.
Saudi Arabia, which stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, barred foreigners from the haj last year due to the pandemic for the first time in the kingdom’s modern history, allowing it only to a limited number of Saudi citizens and residents.