On April 1, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia urged Muslims around the world to delay their plans to perform this year’s Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca due to the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Although the Saudi authorities have not officially canceled it yet.
About two million people from 188 countries descend on Mecca for the yearly pilgrimage, which is an important sacred duty of every Muslim. This year’s Hajj is planned to take place from July 28 to August 2. But it appears that Saudi Arabia is mulling to cancel it to prevent a new wave of the COVID-19 infections that is currently ravaging the whole world. With 3,287 confirmed cases in Saudi Arabia and 44 reported fatalities as of April 9, Saudi authorities will be forced to make a hard, but necessary, decision to delay the religious pilgrimage this year.
Discouraging Muslims to perform Hajj follows cancellation of the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca in February. In addition, visits to Prophet Muhammed’s mosque in Medina were also suspended. To limit travel, the Saudis are poised to temporarily halt visa issuances to foreign pilgrims. The restrictions also apply to residents of the Gulf Cooperation Council, who are exempt from visas. Saudi citizens are already banned from performing the pilgrimage.
Unlike the annual Hajj that lasts for several days, the Umrah, an act of devotion and worship, takes place all year around and can be performed within two hours. And unlike the Hajj that is mandatory for all physically and financially able Muslims, the Umrah is voluntary. Known as a minor pilgrimage, the Umrah brings a million foreign pilgrims to Saudi Arabia every year. It is unclear when the travel restrictions for Umrah pilgrims will be lifted.
Suspension of religious pilgrimage to most sacred Muslim sites in Saudi Arabia is an unprecedented move.
Suspension of religious pilgrimage to most sacred Muslim sites in Saudi Arabia is an unprecedented move in the living memory of the Saudis. But if Hajj is canceled this year, it would not be the first time in the long history of Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Historians list nearly 40 times when the annual pilgrimage did not happen since it first started in 629 CE, many of which were due to conflicts, politics, carnage, infectious diseases, and plagues.
Before the modern times, infections happened more often during the Hajj and the number of fatalities were higher due to poor medical treatments. But the Hajj was not canceled even during the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed millions worldwide. The pilgrimage also proceeded after the 2012 outbreak of the deadly coronavirus known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which emerged in Saudi Arabia. COVID-19 will be remembered as one of the most vicious pandemics in history that forced the suspension of pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.
Although it was a right decision to restrict travel by suspending the Umrah, and, by all indications, the Hajj as well, after COVID-19 was found in Saudi Arabia, the move will have major economic repercussions on the kingdom.
The Saudi economy has been hit by a dual blow from travel bans imposed by virtually all the countries in the world to limit the contagion as well as the collapse of oil prices as global demand for oil has come to a screeching halt with the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Suspension of pilgrimage to Mecca will lead to losses of a guaranteed income—an estimated $12 billion USD annually.
The oil-dependent kingdom heavily relies on revenue from religious tourism. About 20 million tourists visit every year, primarily for religious reasons. Suspension of pilgrimage to Mecca will lead to losses of a guaranteed income—an estimated $12 billion USD annually, amounting to 20 percent of non-oil GDP—to the Saudi elite and local businesses such as tour operators, hotels, and various vendors.
Attracting more tourists to Saudi Arabia has been a key pillar of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s new bold economic reform plan known as Vision 2030. The current travel ban will set back the country’s ability to fulfill the Vision 2030 goals.
With the global economy on the precipice of depression, it is unclear whether the pandemic will subside in weeks or months and when global economic activity will start again. Such uncertainty spells trouble for Saudi Arabia, which chose to start an oil price war with Russia this March and began pumping a record amount of oil to force major oil producers, including the U.S., to cut output.
As the world was close to running out of space to store oil, OPEC, Russia, and other allies of the cartel came to an agreement on April 9 to cut 10 million barrels of oil per day. Although the move concluded the month-long price war, many analysts believe the cuts are not enough to boost the price of oil given the near-total collapse of oil demand worldwide. And the deal is not final because Mexico opposed to its end of the bargain. Under the current global economic slowdown, oil glut, and no demand, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD in foreign exchange reserves may run out sooner than it planned to stretch it out.
Prices for performing the Hajj can reach up to $15,000 USD, so many Muslims save for their trips for years.
Suspending religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia is also a financial blow to millions of pilgrims, who either put down a sizeable deposit or already paid for their trips. Because prices for performing the Hajj can reach up to $15,000 USD per person, many Muslims save money for their trips for years.
While some Muslims are hopeful that the situation could improve before July, many people voluntarily canceled their trips and lost thousands of dollars in non-refundable deposits over fears of contracting the virus. Meanwhile, numerous people who paid for the Hajj and Umrah are still waiting for refunds for travel costs. Local travel agencies, located in home countries of foreign pilgrims, are bound to suffer by absorbing the costs of canceled trips, lodging, and flights.
Given the financial losses from COVID-19 suddenly affecting all parties involved in organizing the religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, individual decisions of Muslims to travel there once the viral infections subside are likely to be largely based on caution and fear of being infected.
Many Umrah pilgrims who traveled from Saudi Arabia to their countries this spring were asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19.
Many Umrah pilgrims who traveled from Saudi Arabia to their home countries this spring were found to be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 in several countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Pakistan. They became sources of infections after they returned to their communities. Many of them were isolated after testing positive for the virus, some of whom later died. This year’s pandemic may have a lingering psychological effect on many people to limit travel to crowded places with known cases of infections.