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Everything you need to know about Hajj 2020 Open in fullscreen

Kamal Afzali

Everything you need to know about Hajj 2020

The scale of the current outbreak in Saudi Arabia is unprecedented [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 June, 2020

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This year's Hajj pilgrimage has been scaled back to 1,000 participants in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus. Here is everything you need to know
Saudi authorities have banned international visitors from taking part in this year's Hajj pilgrimage, over fears of the spread of coronavirus.

Only a small number of pilgrims living within the kingdom will be able to take part - said to number 1,000, according to the kingdom's Hajj ministry.

Usually, an estimated 2.5 million people from over 140 countries take part in the annual religious gathering, while around 2 million people were expected to take part in the pigrimage this year - one of the most significant events in the Muslim calendar.

Saudi authorities say that limiting the numbers of the Hajj this year will allow them to implement social distancing measures and keep pilgrims safe.

Mecca: The holy hotbed

Saudi Arabia is battling one of the worst outbreaks of coronavirus in the Middle East, with more than 161,000 confirmed cases and 1,300 deaths. On Sunday, the kingdom lifted a range of restrictions intended to curb the spread, including a nightime curfew.

The city of Mecca, with its packed slums and undocumented migrants, has emerged as a hotbed for the virus, with more than 22,000 cases and 381 fatalities. The gathering of millions into congested sites - whether circumabulating the Kabah, gathering on Mount Arafat, or sacrificing livestock to mark the end of ritual - thus represents a major source of contagion.

On announcing the cancellation, the Hajj ministry said that the decision had been taken "in accordance with the teachings of Islam in preserving lives", the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

Saudi Arabia has in the past managed to control previous outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as Ebola and MERS, but the scale of the current pandemic has proven to be an unprecedented challenge with its extremely high transmission rates.

Hajj cancellations in history

In March, scenes of the Great Mosque of Mecca empty of people sent shockwaves across the Muslim world, after authorities announced they would temporarily stop issuing visas for pilgrims from abroad who wanted to perform Umrah, a minor pilgrimage to the holy city that can be done at any time of the year.

Disease, conflict, and assaults from bandits are some of the reasons why the Hajj pilgrimage has been cancelled in the past. The Saudi King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives has noted at least 40 occasion when Hajj was either cancelled or the number of pilgrims was severely curtailed, all before the founding of the modern Saudi state.

As early as 865, a rebellion against the Abbasid caliphate, led by Ismail bin Yousef, saw the massacre of pilgrims at the Arafat Mountain near Mecca, and forced the cancellation of the Hajj.

In 930, the Hajj was cancelled for a period of ten years. That year, a heterodox known as the Qarmatians, who had established a state in eastern Arabia and believed that the Hajj was pagan ritual, murdered 30,000 pilgrims.

In 1831, a plague from India is said to have killed three quarters of the pilgrims performing Hajj, while between 1837 and 1892, infections killed hundreds of pilgrims daily, according to the King Abdulaziz Centre.  

Hajj and the Saudi economy

With several Muslim nations have already pulling out of the ritual, international observers have long expected Riyadh to officially cancel the pilgrimage this year - a decision that could have political and economic consequences.

The five-day event generates an estimated $8 billion in revenues for the kingdom every year, according to The Wall Street Journal. The double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and collapsing oil prices have wreaked havoc on the Saudi economy, forcing it to tap into the debt market and triple its VAT. Its economy is expected to shrink by 4.1 percent this year, according to a survey of economists compiled by Bloomberg.

In March, the Saudi government announced cuts in spending in tourism and entertainment development - sectors that are at the heart of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 diversification plans.

Part of the same programme of economic reforms, the kingdom aimed to double the number of foreign umrah pilgrims to 15 million by the end of 2020.   

According to the Council of Saudi Chambers, from 2018 to 2022 spending associated with the pilgrimage was predicted to generate upwards of $150 million in income and create up to 100,000 Hajj-related jobs. With the local economies of Mecca and Medina set to be hit hardest, deep uncertainties now surround the fallout of this year's cancellation.

Pilgrims and soft power

There exist no less than 78 bilateral agreements between the Saudi Hajj ministry and their counterparts across 78 countries, including those where Muslim constitute a minority. These pertain to administrating pilgrims' affairs, programmes to raise awareness and organise pilgrim groupings.

The Saudi brand of Islam is at the heart of the kingdom’s spiritual soft power. It is a deep-rooted ultraconservativism intolerant of alternative expressions of faith, packaged with a deep sense reverence for the kingdom. The move to continue the Hajj in its extremely limited form will likely pander to the country's staunch religious establishment, who would see a full cancellation as an outrage and a further sign of decaying morals.

While scaling back the Hajj could be seen as harming the religious legitimacy Saudi Arabia enjoys in its rivalry with Muslim powers, such as Turkey and Iran, by keeping it going - even with such a reduced capacity - it offers a chauvinistic display of what the country is able to achieve in the most challenging of circumstances.

As Yasmine Farouk, a scholar on Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington told WSJ, the Hajj is "an annual reminder of the special place and the special status of Saudi Arabia".

The meaning of this authority is disseminated at various levels, from the kingdom's religious broadcasting services, through to live social media streams of pilgrims who attend, as uniformed Saudi security personnel marshal seas of people moving and chanting in unison.

Hope in desperate times

The holy pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is an obligation upon all Muslims who are in good health and can afford it to perform it once in their lifetimes. The circumambulating of the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam, is a symbolic act which is supposed to demonstrate unity among believers in the worship of Allah (God).

Millions of Muslim around the world invest their savings and endure long waiting lists to make the trip. Leaders of Muslim nations often petition the Saudi king, whose official title is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, to increase their national quota as demand outstrips supply every pilgrimage. In some rare cases, the waiting list can take up to 30 years, according to The Financial Times.

One of the unique and defining aspects of the Hajj is the hope it can offer for a deeply fractured global Muslim community. "People of all colors, tribes, countries and economic status are all united as one, moving together in the pursuit of one goal", as Dr. Omar Suleiman, a leading American imam and civil rights activist, describes.

In the context of the era-defining impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the surge in critically reassessing how race is thought about and understood, Malcolm X’s account of his own experience is pertinent during this time: "blue eyed blondes" and "black-skinned Africans" displaying "a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white".

The select group

The Council of British Hajjis (CBHUK), an organisation which represents British Muslims on matters pertaining to Hajj and Umrah travel, are now prioritising their work to ensure those who had booked the Hajj can receive refunds from tour operators or rebooking for next year's pilgrimage.

In a press conference on Tuesday, the Saudi minister of health said that special precautionary measures would be taken prior to start of this year's season. The limited group will be tested before undertaking the hajj - as well as all workers, security officials, and anyone else they are likely to encounter.

The group - which are all under the age of 65 and have no previous health conditions - will be monitored daily by dedicated medical teams, and be required to adhere to strict social distancing measures. Upon completing all rites the group will be quarantined.

No further details were provided by the ministry. According to Hajj Minister Mohammmed Benten, the limited group will composed of Saudi nations and foreigners residing in the kingdom. While specific details around their selection remain unclear, Benten said applicants will be chosen through diplomatic mission and Hajj affairs officers for various countries.

Agencies contributed to this report.

Read more: Around 1,000 pilgrims permitted to perform hajj: Saudi minister


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