Saudi Arabia has announced it will hold a “very limited” Hajj this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with people already living in the kingdom allowed to take part in the pilgrimage that begins in late July.
The decision comes in light of the increase in COVID-19 cases around the world, the lack of a vaccine and difficulty maintaining a safe physical distance among large numbers of pilgrims coming from overseas, the statement said.
More than two million people perform the annual pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca every year, including many travelling from abroad.
On Wednesday, there were 4,919 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed, the highest number of cases in a single day since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Ministry of Health.
The Hajj, a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, represents a major potential source of contagion as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.
A watered-down Hajj would represent a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, which is already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.
It could also trigger renewed scrutiny of the Saudi custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites – the kingdom’s most powerful source of political legitimacy.
A series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom’s management of the Hajj.
A full-scale Hajj, which last year drew about 2.5 million pilgrims, was unlikely after authorities advised Muslims in late March to defer preparations due to the fast-spreading disease.
Earlier this month, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, emerged as one of the first countries to withdraw from the pilgrimage after pressing Riyadh for clarity, with a minister calling it a “very bitter and difficult decision”.
Malaysia, Senegal and Singapore followed suit with similar announcements.
Since late February, the kingdom has suspended the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca due to the outbreak.
The kingdom has one of the highest rates of coronavirus infections in the Middle East, with more than 161,000 total confirmed cases and 1,307 deaths.