Makkah: Saudi Arabia is gearing up for next week’s Haj with scores of pilgrims set to miss the world’s largest annual gathering over construction work and fears about a deadly virus.
Last year a total of 3.2 million faithful, including 1.75 million foreigners, performed the pilgrimage to Makkah, Islam’s holiest site. Those from abroad came from 190 countries.
This year Riyadh expects about two million, after the kingdom announced a crackdown on illegal pilgrims and imposed restrictions to cut foreigners by 20 percent and Saudis by 50 percent.
About 1.17 million pilgrims had already entered the Gulf state by Saturday, according to immigration officials, and more are expected before today’s deadline for people to arrive before the Haj starts. The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam that should be performed at least once in lifetime by every Muslim who is financially and physically capable. This year, the pilgrimage starts on Sunday and ends on October 18.
Monday marks the most important day when all pilgrims assemble at Mount Arafat, just outside Makkah, for the peak of the Haj. The pilgrimage ends after Eid Al Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, which starts on Tuesday. Authorities in the kingdom have mobilised health services in Makkah and the holy sites which together have 25 public hospitals with 5,250 beds and hundreds of scattered medical centres.
The Mers virus, which appeared first in the kingdom last year, has killed 58 people worldwide, 49 of them in Saudi Arabia, according to official Saudi figures and the World Health Organisation.
Saudi authorities have appealed to ill and elderly people to avoid the Haj this year although Health Minister Abdullah Al Rabia said last month he was optimistic the pilgrimage will pass without outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus.
There were no Mers outbreaks recorded at last year’s Haj, nor during the Umrah, or minor Haj, season in July and August of this year. The Haj has successfully ridden out two previous viral episodes in the past decade — Sars in 2003 and H1N1 influenza in 2009.
Health officials have also appealed to pilgrims to use masks that cover the nose and mouth because Mers, short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, can be transmitted through the air.
Aside from the virus fears, Saudi authorities have also cited construction work to expand the Grand Mosque in Makkah as a reason to keep down the number of pilgrims allowed to perform this year’s Haj. The expansion work would increase the area of the mosque by 400,000 square metres, raising its capacity to accommodate 2.2 million people at the same time. The mosque houses the Ka’ba — the cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims worldwide pray. Every Muslim country has a Haj quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants.
The quota for Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, for example, was slashed to 168,400 from 211,000, according to Indonesia’s religious affairs ministry. Saudi officials have said the cuts will apply for two more years until the first phase of the multi-billion-dollar work is completed to expand the capacity for worshippers around the Ka’ba in 2015.