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Ever since it emerged late last year the Coronavirus has affected the world in so many ways. Highly visible are the impacts in health and employment. Less obvious – unless you are a person of faith – are the impacts on worship. Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples (other places of worship are available) were closed in the UK for months, and as the lockdown has eased they have opened to their faithful in reduced numbers so that social distancing can be observed. What has happened in Saudi Arabia?

In early March the two holiest mosques in all of Islam were closed summarily for “deep cleaning” to be carried out. The Prophet’s Mosques at Makkah and Madinah (Mecca and Medina) remained closed for a few days, reopened to welcome pilgrims for a week or so and then along with the whole country were shut down with almost no notice as a national curfew was imposed. The cities and mosques in Makkah and Madinah are a huge part of the Saudi culture and economy. Millions of pilgrims flock to the mosques every year to perform Umrah, which is a tailored visit to the holiest sites with performance of religious devotions, and the visitors typically stay in the kingdom for 2 weeks or so. Umrah season lasts for most of the year until the preparations start 3 months or so before the annual Hajj. The Hajj this year starts at the end of July, so the Umrah closed season has overlapped much of the Covid closedown period. Therefore the tourism impact has not been quite as severe as it has been on other countries such as Spain or Greece. However the actual leisure tourism has stopped dead, but as this is a fledgling industry in KSA the impact isn’t as great as it might have been in future years.

But what of the Hajj itself? As previously reported this is the normally largest migration of homo sapiens to a single point on the planet (apparently the biggest movement of people is the Chinese new year, but they just go back to their own homes all over China) when about 2.5 million Muslims converge on the valley of Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddasser to the east of the Prophet’s Mosque in Makkah. I have had the privilege of attending 3 Hajjes to play a small part in the supervision of the operation of the Hajj railway. This railway operates for only 1 week in the year and I have seen the camps for the pilgrims at Mina. Here there are tents spread out across the vally as far as the eye can see and people are crammed into them in multiples of 50. But with social distancing requirements in place mass crowds of people are patently not possible. So the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah declared last month that the Hajj would be restricted to 1,000 people, and these would be eligible persons who were already in the Kingdom. In fairness, they would try and invite a representation of the different countries who normally send pilgrims to attend the Hajj. So the Hajj is going ahead with 1/2500ths of its normal attendance. This reduction in scale is equivalent to reducing the population of Scotland to that of the town of Biggar.

There is no need for the railway to operate this year so I will not be there, the pilgrims will be able to travel around all the holy sites using buses. But the supporting infrastructure for the Hajj requires an army of people to make sure it goes smoothly and safely. These include security, crowd control, pilgrim guides, medical and hospital staff, cleaners, slaughterhouse workers, stone recyclers, hotel and camp staff, canteen and food preparation workers, bus drivers, stores and logistics people etc, etc. So there is every likelihood that the pilgrims will be greatly outnumbered by support staff.  

Here’s what our friends at Arab News have to report: “The city of Makkah is opening its arms again to welcome pilgrims for the annual Hajj — although only a handful compared with previous years. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s event is limited to about 1,000 pilgrims, all from inside Saudi Arabia, about 700 of whom are expatriates.

Abdullah Al-Kathiri, an Emirati and a recovered COVID-19 patient, postponed his pilgrimage last year because it coincided with his wedding plans. “I’ve heard from many who’ve performed the pilgrimage in past years that it was always a smooth process, even with the massive numbers,” he said. “So you could imagine how it would be with the limited number of pilgrims this year. Surely it will be a great experience.”

Khadija, a Bulgarian expatriate, was overcome with tears when she heard she would be performing Hajj this year. “I didn’t expect they’d accept,” she said. “I’m sure this year’s Hajj will be an exceptional one in all respects.”

Dr. Haifa Yousef Hamdoon, a Tunisian physician in Qassim, is another who did not expect to be accepted because of the low numbers this year. “When I received confirmation of my request, I was overjoyed and couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Mu’taz Mohamed, a Sudanese pilgrim who also lives in Qassim region, praised the preventive and precautionary health measures taken in order to ensure his safety and that of other pilgrims, to enable them to perform the rituals safely.

After completing their arrival procedures, the pilgrims were taken to their accommodation in Makkah, supervised by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. They will stay there for four days before beginning their pilgrimage on July 30.”

Meanwhile broadcasts have been sent out to non-attenders to stay clear of the holy sites in Makkah. This message arrived on my mobile phone “Anyone who violates instructions prohibiting entry to the holy sites (Mina, Muzdalifah, Arafat) without a permit starting from 28/11/1441 until the end of the twelfth day of Thule-Hijah will be punished with a financial fine of SR10,000, in the event of a repeat offense, the penalty will be doubled”. We have been warned!

For those lucky Hajjis getting to attend this year’s Hajj, and achieve one of the “five pillars of Islam”, I wish them well.



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