The pilgrimage, where millions of people flock to crowded religious sites, may facilitate transmission. The Umrah suspension is currently part of the precautionary measures taken in all Gulf countries, after the cancellation of mass gatherings, from concerts to sporting events.
Nevertheless, the issue poses a potential potential challenge in a troubled region where it risks raising the extremists who see religion in advance of health considerations and religious Muslims who consider the pilgrimage to be an irreversible rite.
Oil prices fell
The Kingdom is already suffering from a significant drop in oil prices, and it is now also risking losing billions of dollars it earns annually from religious tourism revenues with restrictions on visiting Mecca and Medina. 18.3 million people performed Umrah in 2018, according to official figures in the Kingdom.
Riyadh’s crisis management also shed light on the Saudi role as a sponsor of the Holy Places, one of the pillars of its political legitimacy.
“The turmoil caused by the Corona virus has given the kingdom’s regional critics and opponents new ammunition” to raise questions about Saudi control of the holiest Islamic sites, “Yasmin Farouk, a researcher at the Carnegie Center. Farooq told AFP that the Saudi government media published a series of support from Islamic organizations, from the Grand Mufti of New Zealand to Malaysia and other countries, indicating “Riyadh’s concern that this step can be politicized and used against it.”
Pro-Saudi monitors have sought to direct the focus to the kingdom’s opponents, with some on social media raising satire after describing the virus as a “Qatar act” or a conspiracy by Iran. The Saudi authorities did not comment on what was circulated.
5 injuries in Saudi Arabia
Even Thursday afternoon, the relevant authorities in the Kingdom announced that their HIV infections had risen to five. By taking preventive measures, Saudi Arabia has acted against its regional rival, Iran, which is struggling to contain the spread of the virus from its Shiite holy sites where visitors and clerics appear to have defied health warnings.
“Saudi Arabia is trying to present itself as more responsible than Iran,” Omar Karim, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told AFP. “However, there is fear that its decision may ignite the political debate in the Islamic world about whether (Saudi Arabia) should be the only authority responsible for the pilgrimage and the two holy cities,” he said, referring to Mecca and Medina.
The kingdom is already wary of a possible conservative reaction to a liberal modernization approach led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and has seen permits to open cinemas, hold concerts, and condone mixing between the sexes, behaviors that were considered contrary to religion until a few months ago.
Saudi Arabia said that the restrictions imposed on Umrah are temporary, but this was done without good communication with many pilgrims who bear long waiting lists and invest their savings to make the religious journey. One of the Turkish pilgrims in Mecca told France Press last week that he would be happy if he died as a “martyr” if he was infected with the virus, instead of giving up his Umrah.
The Indonesian embassy in Riyadh appealed to the Saudi authorities to allow their citizens to move forward with their plans to perform Umrah, after many expressed their disappointment with the Saudi decision.
Religious tourism is a vital resource for Saudi Arabia amid the current efforts to move away from dependence on oil, as it provides 12 billion dollars to the economy annually, according to government figures. Capital Economics, the financial institution, said the effects of reducing Umrah would be “significant”, especially during the blessed month of Ramadan, which begins in April, which is seen as a blessed period for performing Umrah.
“The greatest impact may be felt if the restrictions are extended until the end of July, when the Hajj, which represents about a quarter of all foreign visitors annually, begins,” the consulting firm said.
The oil-rich country feels the occurrence of what one of the sources close to the government described as “budget pressure” because low oil prices make it difficult to finance the government’s ambitious plan to diversify the economy. “The Saudi ministries have been informed of the necessity of counting every penny they spend,” the source told France Presse.