By Nuru Ahmed

The annual religious visit of Muslims to Mecca and Medina have been called off by Saudi Arabian Kingdom as global alert for the deadly Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) fears.

The continuous spread of coronavirus has compelled several countries to be on high alert by suspending all international travels by air, sea or land. The pandemic disease now disrupts global socio-economic activities apart from fears of unlimited illness and death.

The Gulf and Middle East, Saudi Arabian Kingdom suspends entry for religious purposes, including pilgrims to Mecca and Medina the Prophet’s Mosque. This is aimed at minimizing chances of contracting Coronavirus that has become a global problem.

Saudi Arabia therefore halted the entry of Muslim pilgrims seeking to worship at the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Muslims are told to be cautious of their health and lives as much as the pilgrim is concerned in the religion.

 Although the country has not confirmed any cases of Coronavirus by time going on press 29/2/2020, it is taking precautionary steps to protect its citizens. The country usually boasts of millions of people touring its Umrah pilgrim.

“We would like to inform all Muslim faithfuls that the Kingdom’s Government has suspend pilgrimage to Medina or Mecca with immediate effect,”Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“There would be no entry to the kingdom for the purpose of Umrah and visit to the Prophet’s Mosque temporarily until further notice,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry added.

Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of year. Some 8 million Muslims make the journey annually, with many during the holy month of Ramadan that is scheduled in late April this year (2020).

Saudi Arabia has two holiest sites of Islam; Mecca and Medina which welcomes millions of Muslim visiting throughout the year for Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages. Unfortunately, for year 2020 trips have been banned apart from Muslims already at the holy sites.

According to an official in the kingdom, the ban was officially declared on Wednesday, 26 February as temporary measures without its time frame indication. This comes amid broader ban on visa holders from States deemed high risk to regional health.

On Thursday, 27 February, border authorities at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, screened passengers from Iran, China, South Korea and Italy, clusters of Coronavirus spread from China.

So far Saudi Arabia has closed the two holiest shrines of Islam to foreign travelers as well as pilgrimage. The Middle East countries of Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Lebanon are on the watch out.

Officials in Iran last Friday 28/2/2020 said: “Prayers in Tehran are likely to be cancelled as a crackdown on large gatherings is an easy way of spreading the virus.”

Iran remains the regional hotspot for the coronavirus and the country with highest death toll outside China, where the COVID -19 outbreak originated.

So far Iran had confirmed 245 cases and 26 deaths, although experts fear the country is underreporting number of cases. At least 139 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Iran, including the country’s deputy Health Minister. The first cases were traced to the Shia holy city of Qom.  

Meanwhile, Kuwait announced that it had confirmed 43 cases of coronavirus, all of which involved people who had been to Iran.

Iraq confirmed first case of coronavirus in its capital, Baghdad, taking nationwide infections to six and raising concerns about capacity of dilapidated health system response.

The Iraqi government publicized sweeping measures to try to contain the spread of the virus, ordering the closure of schools and universities, cafes, cinemas and other public spaces until 7 March, 2020.

The decision to stop pilgrims from visiting sites such as Medina’s Prophet’s Mosque is likely to divide opinions among religious scholars. While Saudi Arabia has in the past restricted pilgrims from some countries or regions due to diseases, such as the Ebola outbreak in 2014, a worldwide ban appears to be unprecedented.

During the swine flu outbreak of 2009 the Saudi Grand Mufti, the country’s most senior religious leader, expressed astonishment at calls to suspend the main Hajj pilgrimage. “Such fear is absolutely unjustified,” he said at the time, adding that it was permissible for pilgrims to wear protective face masks.

Completing the hajj at least once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars of Islam, but there is no word on whether the restrictions will still be in place by July. 

The Saudi government plans to increase the number of Umrah pilgrims to 30million a year by 2030 as part of its tourism and economic diversification strategy. The Foreign Ministry said it had suspended tourist visa entry from countries where the virus was spreading.

The Saudi Health Ministry said it was co-coordinating with the authorities in those countries to treat the infected Saudis.

Riyadh’s unprecedented move comes as regional states grapple with the rapid spread of coronavirus cases in the Gulf, largely contracted from visitors to neighboring Iran, where the official count has 22 deaths from 141 cases. The outbreak in Iran has fuelled a rapid increase in cases in Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman this week.

 The UAE, a popular transit point for many travelling to Iran, has suspended all flights to the Islamic republic. The UAE, which has now reported 13 cases, was the first to report cases of the virus from among Chinese tourists to the holiday hotspot.

Fears for Dubai’s outward looking services and tourism oriented economy, which has struggled with a downturn since oil prices collapsed in 2014, have grown in light of the global impact of the virus.

Some bankers in the financial center of Dubai say their employers have introduced restrictions on travelling between global offices for internal meetings, as well as tighter scrutiny of all travel requests.

The Kingdom affirms that these procedures are temporary, and is subject to continuous evaluation by the competent authorities.