Saudi Arabia Allow Limited Hajj Pilgrims Amid Covid-19 Fears

Saudi Arabia could drastically limit numbers at the annual haj pilgrimage to prevent a further outbreak of coronavirus after cases in the country topped 100,000, sources familiar with the matter said on Monday.

Some 2.5 million pilgrims visit the holiest sites of Islam in Makkah and Madina for the week-long haj, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. Official data show Hajj and the lesser, year-round Umrah pilgrimage earn the kingdom about $12 billion a year.

Saudi Arabia asked Muslims in March to put Hajj plans on hold and suspended Umrah until further notice.

Two sources familiar with the matter said authorities are now considering allowing “only symbolic numbers” this year, with restrictions including a ban on older pilgrims and additional health checks.

With strict procedures, authorities think it may be possible to allow in up to 20% of each country’s regular quota of pilgrims, another source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Some officials are still pushing for a cancellation of the Hajj, expected to start in late July, the three sources said.

The government media office and a spokesperson for the Hajj and Umrah ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Limiting or cancelling Hajj will further pressure government finances hit by the plunge in oil prices and the pandemic. Analysts predict a severe economic contraction this year.

On Sunday, the kingdom halted international passenger flights and reimposed a curfew in Jeddah, where haj flights land, after a spike in infections in the city.

In 2019, around 19 million pilgrims attended Umrah while Hajj drew 2.6 million. An economic reform plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims to increase Umrah and Hajj capacity to 30 million pilgrims annually and generate 50 billion riyals ($13.32 billion) of revenues by 2030.

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