Saudi Arabia has announced it will hold a “very limited” hajj this year, with pilgrims already in the kingdom allowed to perform the annual ritual as it moves to curb the biggest coronavirus outbreak in the Gulf.
The decision marks the first time in Saudi Arabia’s modern history that Muslims outside the kingdom have been barred from performing the hajj, which last year drew 2.5 million pilgrims.
The move to scale back the five-day event, scheduled for the end of July, is fraught with political and economic peril and comes after several Muslim nations pulled out of the ritual that forms one of the main pillars of Islam.
The kingdom’s hajj ministry said the ritual will be open to various nationalities already in Saudi Arabia, but it did not specify a number.
“It was decided to hold the pilgrimage this year with very limited numbers… with different nationalities in the kingdom,” the official Saudi Press Agency said on Monday, citing the ministry.
“This decision is taken to ensure the hajj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective… and in accordance with the teachings of Islam.”
The hajj – a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime – could be a major source of contagion, as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.
The decision comes as Saudi Arabia grapples to contain a major spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 161,000 cases — the highest in the Gulf — and over 1,300 deaths.
But despite the surge, Saudi Arabia on Sunday moved to end a coronavirus curfew across the kingdom and lift restrictions on businesses, including cinemas and other entertainment venues.
– Sensitive decision –
The announcement to hold a limited hajj will likely disappoint millions of Muslim pilgrims around the world who often invest their life savings and endure long waiting lists to make the trip.
But it will probably appease domestic pilgrims, who feared the ritual would entirely be cancelled for the first time in recent history.
“Saudi Arabia has chosen the safest option that allows it to save face within the Muslim world while making sure they are not seen as compromising on public health,” Umar Karim, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told AFP.