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May 10, 2021

KSA continues to assess conditions for Haj

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Haj and Umrah on Sunday said that the kingdom's health authorities are "continuing to assess conditions" and will take all measures that ensure the preservation of human health amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

To this end, the ministry announced in a statement the kingdom's intention to hold Haj this year, 1442 AH, "in a manner that ensures preserving the health and safety of pilgrims".

The ministry said that it seeks to ensure that arrangements are held in accordance with all health, security and regulatory controls and standards, "so that pilgrims can perform their rituals easily and in a safe environment".

Therefore, details of the controls and operational plans for this year's Haj will be announced later, in view of an evolving coronavirus situation.

According to the statement, the announcement today emanates from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's "constant keenness to enable visitors of the Grand Holy Mosque and the Prophet's Holy Mosque to perform Haj and Umrah rituals as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia prioritises the health and safety of humankind".

The statement comes in the backdrop of reports that Saudi Arabia is considering barring overseas pilgrims from the annual Haj for the second year running as COVID-19 cases rise globally and worries grow about the emergence of new variants.

The sources citing two sources familiar with the matter, reported on Wednesday that authorities have suspended earlier plans to host pilgrims from overseas, and will only allow domestic pilgrims who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 at least six months before the pilgrimage.

Restrictions will be applied on the age of participants as well, one of the sources said.

A second source said the plans were initially to allow some numbers of vaccinated pilgrims from abroad, but confusion over types of vaccines, their efficacy and the emergence of new variants has pushed officials to reconsider.

A move to bar overseas pilgrims would restrict the pilgrimage to Makkah, a once in a lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it, to Saudi nationals and residents of the kingdom who were vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 at least months prior to attending.

Before the pandemic enforced social distancing globally, some 2.5 million pilgrims used to visit the holiest sites of Islam in Makkah and Madinah for the week-long Hajj, and the lesser, year-round Umrah pilgrimage, which altogether earned the kingdom about $12 billion a year, according to official data.

As part of economic reform plans pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom was hoping to raise the number of Umrah and Haj pilgrims to 15 million and 5 million respectively by 2020, and aimed to double the Umrah number again to 30 million by 2030. It aims to earn 50 billion riyals ($13.32 billion) of revenues from the Hajj alone by 2030.

Foreigners were barred from Haj last year due to the pandemic for the first time in the kingdom's modern history, allowing it only to a limited number of Saudi citizens and residents.

COVID-19 infections are still rising in 35 countries globally. There have been at least 153,508,000 reported infections and 3,351,000 reported deaths caused by the new coronavirus so far.

India leads the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported, accounting for one in every four deaths reported worldwide each day.

Crowds of millions of pilgrims from around the world could be a hotbed for virus transmission, and in the past some worshippers have returned to their countries with respiratory and other diseases.

In February, the government suspended entry to the kingdom from 20 countries, with the exception of diplomats, Saudi citizens, medical practitioners and their families, to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

The ban, which is still in place to date, includes people arriving from the United Arab Emirates, Germany, the United States, Britain, South Africa, France, Egypt, Lebanon, India and Pakistan.