Saudi Arabia suspends entry to holy sites for umrah pilgrims


Riyadh: Saudi Arabia has suspended visas for visits to Islam’s holiest sites for the umrah pilgrimage, an unprecedented move triggered by Covid-19 fears that raises questions over the haj, which starts in July.

The kingdom, which hosts millions of pilgrims every year in the cities of Mecca and Medina, also suspended visas for tourists from countries with reported infections as fears of a pandemic deepen.Saudi Arabia, which so far has reported no cases of the virus but has expressed alarm over its spread in neighbouring countries, said the suspensions were temporary.

It provided no time frame for when they would be lifted.

“The kingdom’s government has decided to take the following precautions: suspending entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visit to the Prophet’s mosque temporarily,” the foreign ministry said in a statement yesterday.

“Suspending entry into the kingdom with tourist visas for those coming from countries, in which the spread of the new coronavirus (Covid-19) is a danger.”

Gulf countries have already declared a raft of measures, including flight suspensions and school closures, to curb the spread of the disease from people returning from pilgrimages to Iran.The umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts tens of thousands of devout Muslims from all over the globe each month.

There was no clarity over how the move would affect the annual haj pilgrimage due to start in late July.

Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world to take part in last year’s haj – one of the five pillars of Islam.

The haj and the umrah centre on the western city of Mecca and its surrounding hills and valleys.

The haj represents a key rite of passage for Muslims and a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites.

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.

The pilgrimage is a crucial source of revenue for the government.

De facto ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan seeks to shift the economy of Saudi Arabia – the world’s top crude exporter – away from oil dependency towards other sources of revenue, including religious tourism.— AFP

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