Saudi Arabia will allow 60,000 residents, vaccinated against Covid-19, to perform Hajj this year, as the kingdom bars Muslims from abroad from entering the country for the annual ritual for a second straight year.
The Hajj—a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lives—typically packs millions of pilgrims into the holiest sites of Islam. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, only up to 10,000 pilgrims took part in the Hajj in July last year, a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated in 2019.
This year’s pilgrimage, scheduled to be held in July, would be limited to those who have been vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, the Hajj ministry said.
The Hajj would be “open for nationals and residents of the kingdom, limited to 60,000 pilgrims”, the ministry added.
“In light of what the whole world is witnessing with the coronavirus pandemic... and the emergence of new variants, the relevant authorities have continued to monitor the global health situation,” said the health ministry in a separate statement.
“Considering the large crowds that perform Hajj, spending long periods of time in multiple and specific places... requires the highest levels of health precautions,” the statement added, according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).
Saudi Arabia said those wishing to perform Hajj would have to apply online, without specifying how many foreign residents would be among the 60,000 pilgrims. In 2020, foreigners were 70% of the pilgrims, while Saudis made up the rest.
The kingdom said that it had informed other countries of the decision not to allow pilgrims from abroad. “There was great understanding,” Deputy Hajj Minister Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat, told a news conference.
Riyadh is accelerating a nationwide vaccination drive as it moves to revive tourism and host sports and entertainment events that are a bedrock of the “Vision 2030” programme to diversify its oil-reliant economy.
The kingdom has also said that from August 1, vaccinations would be mandatory to enter government and private establishments, including education institutions and entertainment venues, as well as to use public transport.
In a relaxation of coronavirus curbs last October, Saudi Arabia opened the Grand Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months and partially resumed the Umrah pilgrimage but the revered Ḥajar al-Aswad in the Kaaba remains out of reach.
The limit on Umrah pilgrims is 20,000 a day, with a total of 60,000 worshippers allowed to perform daily prayers in the mosque. Authorities said the Umrah would be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.