Saudi gears up for downsized Haj

MAKKAH, SAUDI ARABIA (AFP) – Saudi Arabia tomorrow begins hosting the annual Haj pilgrimage, dramatically downscaled due to the coronavirus pandemic that has barred millions of international pilgrims for the first time in modern history.

Up to 10,000 people residing in the kingdom will participate in the Muslim ritual, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million that attended last year.

The foreign press are barred from this year’s Haj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to the holy city of Makkah and puts in place strict health restrictions to prevent a virus outbreak during the five-day pilgrimage – a key pillar of Islam.

Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 260,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, while the number of declared global infections exceeded 16 million on Sunday.

Mask-clad pilgrims began trickling into Makkah over the weekend and were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine, authorities said.

A view of the Kaabah at the centre of the Grand Mosque complex in Makkah. PHOTO: AFP

They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilised pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims, according to a Haj Ministry programme document.

Pilgrims are required to be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Makkah and will also have to quarantine after the pilgrimage.

The ministry said it has set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims, who will be required to observe social distancing.

Saudi authorities initially said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted for Haj but local media reports said as many as 10,000 will be allowed.

The Haj Ministry has fielded a deluge of anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants. But Haj Minister Mohammad Benten insisted the process was transparent, telling the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television that “health determinants” formed the basis of selection.

The ministry said non-Saudi residents of the kingdom from around 160 countries competed in the online selection process. It said foreign residents would make up 70 per cent of all selected pilgrims.

But it did not explain how many applied, and some disappointed pilgrims have complained that the government-run lottery was not clearly outlined and said no reason was given for their rejection.

Among the chosen few is Nasser, a Riyadh-based Nigerian expatriate, euphoric at winning what he called the “golden ticket” to Haj.

“This feeling cannot be described,” he told AFP before his arrival in Makkah.