2020 hajj at risk as Saudi Arabia bans foreign pilgrims over coronavirus fears
London, Feb. 27, 2020 (AltAfrica)-Saudi Arabia has taken the unprecedented step of banning foreign pilgrims from entering the country five months before the annual hajj pilgrimages,
So far, the virus has killed nearly 3,000 people and infected more than 82,000, prompting warnings that the world is fast approaching a “tipping point”.
Saudi Arabia announced the ban on Thursday after more than 330 cases were confirmed around the Middle East, most of them in Iran. Authorities in Riyadh said the ban was temporary, but did not say how long it might last. The country has yet to report a case of the virus.
“The kingdom’s government has decided to [suspend] entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visit to the prophet’s mosque temporarily,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.
It said tourist visas would be suspended “for those coming from countries in which the spread of the new coronavirus is a danger” and urged Saudi citizens not to travel to countries where the disease was proliferating.
The umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of devout Muslims from all over the globe each year. There was no clarity over how the move would affect the annual hajj pilgrimage, due to start in late July.
About 2.5 million pilgrims travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world to take part in last year’s hajj – one of the five pillars of Islam. The event is a key rite of passage for Muslims and a huge logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites.
“This move by Saudi Arabia is unprecedented,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, the founder of the London-based risk consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, told Agence France-Presse. “The concern for Saudi authorities would be Ramadan, which starts at the end of April, and hajj afterwards, should the coronavirus become a pandemic.”