Only a few thousand number of pilgrims walk around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, last year as priorly decided by Saudi authorities (photos: AP)
For the second year in a row, millions of Muslims around the world will miss out on the fifth pillar of their faith: Hajj, or the Pilgrimage to the Kaaba, which a practising Muslim who is able to is required to visit at least once in a lifetime. The Saudi authorities arrange the number of pilgrims every year and set allocations to each country.
Last week, Saudi Arabia announced the Hajj would be restricted to only 60,000 of those resident in the kingdom, in contrast to 10,000 residents last year. The decision, taken in reponse to the coronavirus pandemic, was widely anticipated, yet many are frustrated with being denied the opportunity. Despite increasing vaccine use and restrictions being lifted, viral mutations and hotspots of infection make such measures necessary.
Saudi Health Minister Tawfik Al-Rabiah has justified the decision: “The decision (was made) to guarantee the safety of Hajj amid uncertainty over the coronavirus… Despite the availability of the vaccine, there is uncertainty over the virus and some countries still record high numbers of Covid cases.
The other challenge is the different variants of the virus, that is why it was decided to restrict Hajj”. The minister also said only those who had received Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines would be allowed to perform Hajj.
Once again no country will not be able to send citizens to Mecca, which means another two million people will not perform the ritual. According to Saudi official figures, in the year before the pandemic more than 2.4 million foreign and domestic pilgrims performed the Hajj. Out of those, 70 per cent, or around 1.75 million, travelled from abroad.
In fact, the coronavirus situation in Saudi Arabia is not so bad with daily infection numbers at just over a thousand and a very low mortality rate. So far, about 462,000 cases of the virus have been reported, along with 7500 deaths. Vaccination is also increasing, as some 15.4 million vaccine doses have been administered in a country of some 30 million people.
Caution on the part of the Saudi authorities reflects their fear of an uncontrollable outbreak during the week-long event next month, where protection measures could prove unsustainable. Hajj season was previously marred by unfortunate incidents that led to loss of life. These were not confined to accidents or fires but also included infectious disease outbreaks.
In the AD 632, pilgrims fought off a malaria outbreak, and in 1821 cholera killed some 20,000 people and another cholera outbreak killed 15,000 in 1865 before it spread worldwide.
More recently, in 2012 Saudi Arabia faced Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another coronavirus (different from Covid-19), and has since intensified its public health measures during the Hajj urging the sick and the elderly not to take part. It also bans pilgrims from countries affected by Ebola.
No doubt limiting the Hajj was no easy decision for a country trying to diversify its economy away from complete reliance on oil. Hajj, and Umrah, are the pillars of “religious tourism”, generating around $12 billion a year. It is not the direct revenue that matters, but the many economic activities associated with the influx of pilgrims. Hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers rely on these times to make a living.
One example of a sector in recession due to restrictions is the jet fuel local market, which traditionally rises during peak summer and religious holidays. As angusmedia.com reported this week, according to latest data from the Joint Organisations Data Initiative (JODI), in Saudi Arabia the domestic consumption of jet fuel, including kerosene, dropped to an average of around 44,000 barrel a day last year from 103,000 b/d in 2019, the lowest annual level since it began keeping records in 2002. Petrol and diesel demand will probably also fail to gain a boost, as road vehicles are normally used to transport pilgrims to the holy sites.
Not only is there loss of revenue from investments, Saudi Arabia also allocated funds to developing the holy sites in Mecca and Medina. In recent years the kingdom invested billions of dollars in expanding the venues and improving services, aiming to raise the number of pilgrims to more than four million a year. Negative economic impact is not confined to the kingdom, but also affects countries sending hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. Apart from regular staff, pilgrim welfare boards in those countries usually engage hundreds of personnel on a contract basis to facilitate the smooth running of the exercise. Travel agencies, airlines, airports and other services in those countries are devastated by the cancellation of their businesses for the second year in a row.
Still, the possibility of loss of human life outweighs any financial or economic losses incurred.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly