May 20, 2015, 11:52 AM
Arabia on Wednesday (March 4th) suspended the year-round umrah pilgrimage over
fears that coronavirus could spread to Islam’s holiest cities.
The umrah - which, unlike the hajj, can be undertaken at any time of year - draws millions of Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia every year.
But the Gulf state has today decided to ‘suspend umrah temporarily for citizens and residents in the kingdom’, official media said.
Visitors are also barred from ‘visits to the Prophet’s mosque in Medina’, the foreign ministry said.
Saudi Arabia on Monday confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus after one its citizens who had returned from virus hotspot Iran tested positive.
Iran has refused to shut down the holy city of Qom at the centre of the outbreak - whereas Saudi authorities have now taken firmer action.
Visas for the umrah had been suspended last week amid growing fears over the spread of the virus in the Middle East.
The ban’s effect will be especially large at this time of year, because Ramadan starts in April and the holy month is considered a favourable period for the umrah.
Citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council have also been banned from entering Mecca and Medina.
The holy sites, which draw millions of pilgrims every year, are a key revenue earner for Saudi Arabia.
Around a third of the 18.3 million umrah participants in 2018 were visitors from abroad, according to government statistics.
It is unclear how the coronavirus will affect the hajj, due to start in late July.
Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world in 2019 to take part in hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The event is a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites, making it vulnerable to contagion.
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.
But a series of deadly disasters over the years has prompted criticism of the Sunni kingdom’s management of the hajj.
In September 2015, a stampede killed up to 2,300 worshippers in the worst disaster ever to strike the pilgrimage.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan seeks to decouple the kingdom’s economy - the world’s top crude exporter - from oil dependency towards other sources of revenue, including religious tourism.
The government had hoped to welcome 30 million pilgrims to the kingdom annually by 2030.