Saudi Arabia, which has already suspended pilgrimages to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina for foreigners due to coronavirus concerns, extended the ban on Wednesday (March 4, 2020) to Saudi citizens and residents, state news agency SPA reported, Reuters reports.
Saudi Arabia reported its first case of the new coronavirus on Monday from an individual who had not disclosed his visit to Iran when entering Saudi Arabia.
“Based on the recommendations of the committee appointed to monitor coronavirus…it has been decided to suspend umrah for citizens and residents in the kingdom,” SPA said, citing an official source in the Saudi interior ministry.
Umrah refers to pilgrimage rites carried out in the holy cities throughout the year, and is separate from the annual week-long haj, which typically draws 2 million Muslims from around the world. Haj starts this year in late July.
The decision will be reviewed regularly and reversed when the situation changes, SPA added.
Saudis and residents can still visit Mecca and Medina and pray there, provided they do not go for the purpose of umrah, deputy haj minister Abdulfattah Mashat told Al Arabiya TV on Wednesday.
“Mecca is still open to visitors from across the kingdom, the decision suspends only umrah activities,” he said.
Saudi Arabia last week halted umrah visas for foreigners and banned Gulf citizens from visiting the two cities because of the virus.
It also barred tourists from at least 25 countries where the virus has been found, and on Tuesday it limited arrivals of travelers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Pilgrimage is big business for Saudi Arabia and is the backbone of plans to develop tourism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic reform agenda.
Visits by pilgrims accelerate during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, beginning this year in late April.
( Source: Middle East Monitor )