Riyadh suspends umrah as region works to contain coronavirus outbreak

The move to suspend religious tourism is unprecedented in Saudi history.
Sunday 01/03/2020
A Muslim pilgrim wears protection mask at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, February 27. (AFP)
Unprecedented. A Muslim pilgrim wears protection mask at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, February 27. (AFP)

LONDON - Saudi Arabia suspended visas for umrah visits to Islam’s holiest sites and is also limiting tourists’ entry into the country to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry said it suspended entry into the country for those seeking to make pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina and was halting entry for all people travelling from countries where there have been confirmed coronavirus outbreaks.

Saudi officials said it would stop Saudis and citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries using national identity cards from travelling to and from Saudi Arabia, the statement added.

The move to suspend religious tourism is unprecedented in Saudi history. However, after report of infection were traced to a severe outbreak in Iran, the move to temporarily halt tourist visits to the holy sites was deemed necessary, particularly considering that many cases in Iran were linked to visits to the holy city of Qom.

The Economist reported that infections in Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq and Oman were traced back to the outbreak in Qom.

"The whole situation is quite fluid at the moment but, for now, there have not been any orders to barricade the two cities (Mecca and Medina)," an unidentified Saudi official told the Wall Street Journal. "We don't want to reach a level similar to that of Iran."

The decision to suspend religious and traditional tourism should not have a major effect on the Saudi economy because tourism accounts for about 3% of the kingdom’s GDP. However, with the haj season approaching -- that period this year is July 28-August 2 -- if the virus is not contained millions of Muslims worldwide who attend the annual pilgrimage could be affected.

Saudi Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Health Dr Hani bin Abdulaziz Jokhdar declared that Saudi Arabia was coronavirus free after authorities took precautions to block the disease from entering the country.

The only known case of a Saudi infected with coronavirus involves a 61-year-old Saudi national who was quarantined in Kuwait. The man, reported to be in stable condition, was said to have been infected while on a trip to Iran. He is being treated in Kuwait after testing positive for the virus at the airport.

Saudi efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives worldwide, was commended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean said the measures will enable Saudi Arabia to implement sustainable plans to protect the crowds during haj.

Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also banned GCC nationals from using national identity cards to travel to and from their countries, Al Arabiya television reported.

Officials in Kuwait were checking people entering the country and said 45 individuals -- all of whom were returning from Iran -- had been infected with coronavirus, the Kuwait Health Ministry said.

Kuwait had suspended all flights from Dubai International Airport and Sharjah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.

Bahrain's Civil Aviation Affairs said flights to and from Iraq and Lebanon were suspended until further notice. It had already extended its suspension of flights from Dubai International Airport and Sharjah International Airport.

In the United Arab Emirates, the first Gulf country to report cases of the coronavirus, the last two stages of the 2020 UAE Tour, a cycling world tour event, were cancelled after two cyclists from Italy tested positive for coronavirus, the Abu Dhabi Sports Council said in a statement.

UAE officials said that, as of February 27, there were 19 cases of coronavirus infection in the country after six new exposures were found by the Health Ministry's early detection system.

The Ministry of Health said the nationalities of the new cases included four Iranians, one Chinese and a Bahraini, all of whom had travelled from Iran before a travel ban from that country was established.