Saudi Arabia on Wednesday suspended the year-round “umrah” pilgrimage over fears of the new coronavirus spreading to Islam’s holiest cities, an unprecedented move that raises fresh uncertainty over the annual hajj.
The kingdom halted the pilgrimage for its own citizens and residents, on top of restrictions announced last week on foreign pilgrims as it declared a second coronavirus infection in a Saudi man who returned from Iran.
The kingdom said the suspension was provisional, but with the umrah drawing millions of people annually, the decision has a huge potential impact.
The Gulf state has decided “to suspend umrah temporarily for citizens and residents in the kingdom”, the interior ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
They were also barred from “visits to the Prophet’s mosque in Medina”, according to a foreign ministry tweet.
Saudi authorities, alarmed over the spread of coronavirus across the Middle East, last week suspended visas for the umrah and barred citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council from entering Mecca and Medina.
Saudi Arabia on Wednesday confirmed its second coronavirus case — a citizen who returned from COVID-19 hotspot Iran.
This second confirmed case had accompanied a Saudi man who was declared positive on Monday. Both of them re-entered the kingdom through Bahrain and sought to hide their Iran visit from border authorities, according to the health ministry.
The umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe annually.
The decision to suspend the umrah comes ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramadan starting in late April, which is a favoured period for pilgrimage.
The holy sites, which draw millions of pilgrims every year, are a key revenue earner for Saudi Arabia.
De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan seeks to decouple the kingdom’s economy — the world’s top crude exporter — from oil dependency and shunt it towards other sources of revenue, including religious tourism.
The government hopes to welcome 30 million pilgrims to the kingdom annually by 2030.
“This is a big precautionary step that will certainly have economic consequences,” Karen Young, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told AFP.
“This is already shaping up to be a very difficult year as oil prices drop and Saudi has fewer fiscal levers. It would be a huge setback if the limited progress of its economic reforms are erased.”
Around two-thirds of the 18.3 million umrah participants in 2018 were citizens and residents of the kingdom, according to government statistics.
It is unclear how the coronavirus will affect the hajj, due to start in late July.
Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world in 2019 to take part in the hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The event is a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites, making attendees vulnerable to contagion.
Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of Mecca and Medina — Islam’s two holiest sites — is seen as the kingdom’s most powerful source of political legitimacy.
But a series of deadly disasters over the years has prompted criticism of the Sunni kingdom’s management of the hajj.