Saudi Arabia gears up for downsized Haj

MECCA: Saudi Arabia on Wednesday (Jul 29) begins hosting the annual Haj pilgrimage, dramatically down-scaled due to the coronavirus pandemic that has barred millions of international pilgrims for the first time in modern history.

Up to 10,000 people residing in the kingdom will participate in the Muslim ritual, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million that attended last year, after what many saw as an opaque selection process that left a wave of applicants rejected.

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The foreign press are barred from this year's Haj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to the holy city of Mecca and puts in place strict health restrictions to prevent a virus outbreak during the five-day pilgrimage – a key pillar of Islam.

READ: COVID-19: Haj plans for Singapore pilgrims deferred to protect their health and safety, says MUIS

Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 260,000 cases of the coronavirus, while the number of declared global infections exceeded 16 million on Sunday.

Mask-clad pilgrims began trickling into Mecca over the weekend and were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine, authorities said.

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They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilised pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims, according to a Haj ministry programme document.

Up to 10,000 people residing in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to attend this year's Haj, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million worshippers who joined the annual pilgrimage in 2019. (Photo: AFP)

Pilgrims are required to be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Mecca and will also have to quarantine after the pilgrimage.

The ministry said it has set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims, who will be required to observe social distancing.

"GOLDEN TICKET"

Saudi authorities initially said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted for Haj but local media reports say as many as 10,000 will be allowed.

The Haj ministry has fielded a deluge of anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants.

But Haj Minister Mohammad Benten insisted the process was transparent, telling the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television that "health determinants" formed the basis of selection.

READ: Malaysia bars citizens from Haj pilgrimage over COVID-19 fears

The ministry said non-Saudi residents of the kingdom from around 160 countries competed in the online selection process.

It said foreign residents would make up 70 per cent of all selected pilgrims.

But it did not explain how many applied, and some disappointed pilgrims have complained that the government-run lottery was not clearly outlined and say no reason was given for their rejection.

Among the chosen few is Nasser, a Riyadh-based Nigerian expatriate, euphoric at winning what he called the "golden ticket" to Haj.

"This feeling cannot be described," he told AFP before his arrival in Mecca.

The ministry has said the Saudi pilgrims were selected from a pool of health practitioners and military personnel who have recovered from COVID-19.

To be among the chosen ones adds an aura of religious prestige to this year's pilgrimage, applicants say.

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca in August 2019. (Photo: AFP/Abdel Ghani BASHIR)

Despite the pandemic, many pilgrims consider it safer to participate in this year's ritual without the usual colossal crowds cramming into tiny religious sites, which make it a logistical nightmare and a health hazard.

Even in a regular year, the Haj leaves pilgrims exposed to a host of viral illnesses.

"SUBSTANTIAL COST"

The government scaled back the pilgrimage as it could be a major source of contagion, but the move will deepen the kingdom's economic slump, analysts say.

It comes as Saudi Arabia faces a sharp downturn in oil prices due to a collapse in global demand driven by national lockdowns, which triggered austerity measures including the tripling of a value added tax and cuts to cRead More – Source