The Saudi authorities have taken a compromise decision on the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, by allowing a limited number of local pilgrims to perform the ritual in the week of the end of July and beginning of August due to restrictions intended to halt the spread of the Covid-19.
It has taken Saudi Arabia weeks to choose between suspending the Hajj this year altogether or allowing it to continue with a reduced number of pilgrims from certain countries. It has now opted neither to suspend the Hajj nor to allow visiting pilgrims.
Earlier in June, it was reported that Saudi Arabia was considering suspending the Hajj altogether this year, restricting it to those in Saudi Arabia itself, or holding it with strict rules and regulations.
Allowing pilgrims from outside the country would have risked a new spike in infections from the coronavirus, while suspending the Hajj altogether would have led to criticisms from hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. The compromise of restricting it to pilgrims from various nationalities already living in Saudi Arabia looked the best choice.
The Hajj has long been a public-health challenge to the Saudi authorities, as more than two million people from countries in all the continents of the globe typically gather in a limited space for several days. This year could have seen major health challenges, as Mecca has already been a focus of the pandemic over recent months.
The holy city has been locked down since March, before the easing of the restrictions some days ago. Millions of Muslims were not able to go to Mecca for the Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage) in the Holy month of Ramadan, which usually brings almost 20 million Muslims to visit Saudi Arabia every year.
Huge investments have been made in recent years, costing billions of dollars, to expand venues and improve the services for pilgrims such that millions more can be hosted by Saudi Arabia each year.
Saudi Arabia is responsible for the pilgrims of the Umrah throughout the year and the Hajj once a year, with millions visiting the kingdom from all over the globe. This “religious tourism” is also a vital source of income, generating almost $12 billion a year or two per cent of Saudi GDP. It gives religious clout to Saudi Arabia as custodian of the two sacred Muslim sites of Mecca and Medina.
A limited Hajj this year, with only a thousand or so pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia attending, would mean a huge loss of national income, estimated by some at $10 billion.
As an oil-producing and exporting country, this might not be a large sum of money for Saudi Arabia in ordinary times. But the Saudi economy is under pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic, like almost all other countries suffering the negative effects of the pandemic on their economies.
As a result, the financial cost of limiting the Hajj will be significant and will add to the Saudi budget deficit. The cost of a limited Hajj will also impact badly on businesses in Mecca and Medina that can struggle outside the Hajj seasons.
While they are usually buzzing at this time of year, the holy cities are now quiet, and as one expatriate worker working there recently told the news agency AP, “we’re not used to seeing Mecca empty. It feels like a dead city. It’s devastating for Mecca.”
He is one of thousands of expatriate workers in Mecca who ordinarily wait for the Hajj season to increase their earnings and remit dollars back to their home countries.
In addition to workers in businesses from hotels and restaurants to transportation and barbers, casual contracts bring many thousand more seasonal workers to Mecca for a couple of months to serve the pilgrims.
None of these casual contracts were available this year, leaving these temporary earners with no income. And the losses have not only been confined to Saudi Arabia alone, since the coronavirus pandemic has also affected countries usually sending hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia.
Apart from regular staff, pilgrim welfare boards in these countries usually engage hundreds of personnel on a contract basis to facilitate the smooth running of the pilgrimage. Travel agencies, airlines, airports and other services in these countries have thus been devastated by the cancellation of their businesses.
It is not only the economic and financial cost of the restriction of the Hajj that matters, since the Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, and it is a once in a lifetime journey that many millions of Muslims worldwide save for throughout their lives.
The selection of applicants for the Hajj from different countries happens every year to meet set quotas, and many of the applicants are older people who may have difficulty travelling if their opportunity to attend the Hajj is postponed. Some may have already paid thousands of dollars to local agencies arranging the Hajj and may not be sure if this can be refunded.
Newspapers reports about limiting the Hajj this year from Indonesia to Nigeria are already full of stories about older men and women mourning the lost chance of performing the ritual this year. The spiritual loss is worse for them than the financial one, and some may fear that the new restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic could deprive them of another chance to make the holy journey.
Social distancing and other precautionary measures intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus could mean fewer pilgrims and more financial costs next year.
However, Muslims around the world will still be able to watch the takbir, the Muslim expression of faith, from the Kaaba in Mecca on the morning of the Eid Al-Adha (the feast of the sacrifice) this year, even if there is only a symbolically small number of pilgrims performing the ritual of the Hajj.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly