Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba (Reuters)
Saudi Arabia wants Muslims to wait until there is more clarity about the coronavirus pandemic before planning to attend the annual haj pilgrimage, the minister for haj and umrah said on state TV on Tuesday.
Some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world usually flock to the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long ritual, which is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim and a major source of income for the kingdom.
The largest annual gathering of Muslims is scheduled to begin in late July, but the coronavirus outbreak has raised questions about whether it can or should go ahead given the risk of spreading the disease further in large gatherings.
Saudi Arabia has already suspended the smaller, year-round umrah pilgrimage until further notice, halted all international passenger flights indefinitely and last week blocked entry and exit to several cities, including Mecca and Medina.
The kingdom has reported 10 deaths among 1,563 cases of coronavirus, which has infected some 800,000 people globally and killed more than 38,000.
Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia and the backbone of plans to expand visitor numbers under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious economic reform agenda.
Cancelling the haj would be unprecedented in modern times, but curbing attendance from high-risk areas has happened before, including in recent years during the Ebola outbreak.