|The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, where Muslims go to the sacred city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. / Photo by BiksuTong via Shutterstock|
More than 2 million Muslims from around the world participate in the five-day haj (sometimes spelled Hadj or Hajj) pilgrimage every year. The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, where Muslims go to the sacred city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The series of rituals are believed to bring unity and greater humility among Muslims. The haj is also seen as an opportunity for Muslims to wipe clean their past sins and begin anew while others attend the pilgrimage to deepen their faith.
Annual Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia
The largest yearly gathering of Muslims is supposed to start late July but the coronavirus pandemic has caused Saudi Arabia to ask Muslims to put their haj plans on hold, reports Reuters. The country has also previously suspended the shorter version of the pilgrimage called Umrah and stopped all international flights. Entry and exit to some cities, including Medina and Mecca, have also been blocked as part of the country’s effort to stop the spread of the virus. As of writing, Saudi Arabia has 1,563 COVID-19 cases.
Health minister Tawfiq Al Rabiah said that King Salman will cover the treatment for its residents and citizens diagnosed with coronavirus and urge those with symptoms to get tested. The Kingdom has learned its lessons from the last major outbreak called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which killed hundreds of people in the country in 2012. The health officials said that this time around in its fight against COVID-19, the kingdom is better prepared. Their hospitals now have separate triage units for respiratory illness and with specialized ventilation to protect their medics from infection. Drive-thru testing was also put in place in at least two hospitals in the country. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Joanna Gaines even acknowledged this. She said, “Their experience with MERS uniquely positioned them because they learned a lot from that.”
Saudi nations and citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries cannot also use their national identity card for the time being to travel to and from the Kingdom but this will be subject to exceptions. For instance, it is allowed for Saudis who are returning home or citizens of the GCC nations who are in Saudi Arabia and just want to return to their home countries as long as they entered or left the Kingdom using their national identity card. For every entry point, health authorities will verify which countries the travelers have visited before they arrive in Saudi Arabia and precautionary measures will be applied.
Some cities are now on lockdown to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Entering and exiting the Red Sea city of Jedda, for instance, is banned. A nationwide nighttime curfew has also been imposed. The Saudi Ministry of Health has been providing its neighboring Arab countries as well with guidelines and advice for controlling the disease, like how to deal with health emergencies. These guidelines were based on the Kingdom’s experience when it comes to protecting the well-being and health of pilgrims during the haj season.
|More than 2 million Muslims from around the world participate in the five-day haj (sometimes spelled Hadj or Hajj) pilgrimage every year. / Photo by fotoinfot via Shutterstock|
Importance of pilgrimages in the Saudi Arabian economy
The plan to suspend pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the pandemic could hurt the country’s finances. Oil-related industries in the country account for approximately 42% of its GDP. Both Umrah and Haj pilgrims add $12 billion to their GDP per year, accounting for 20% for Saudi Arabia’s non-oil GDP and 7% total GDP. Database company Statista shares that the Haj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia gathered 1.8 million people in 1999 and increased as the year pass. The annual rite gathered the following number of pilgrims, by year: 2000 (1.9 million), 2002 (2 million), 2004 (2.1 million), 2006 (2.3 million), 2008 (2.4 million), 2010 (2.7 million), 2012 (3.1 million), 2014 (2 million), 2016 (1.8 million), and 2018 (2.3 million).
This means that haj is big business for the country. It also serves as a backbone to expand the number of visitors as part of the economic reform of Mohammed bin Salma.
Aside from the direct monetary benefits that pilgrims bring to the country when they visit the country, more than half a million people in Saudi Arabia are employed in Saudi Arabia. The government even planned to increase its revenue from pilgrimages in the country for up to $150 billion by 2022, expecting that there would be visitors willing to pay thousands of dollars per night to stay in hotel suites.
The government has unveiled $32 billion worth of emergency funds or stimulus measures to mitigate the coronavirus and oil impact in its economy. Oil prices plunged by nearly 60% year-to-date.
Saudi Arabia tourism statistics
Index charts and data platform Macrotrends shares that the country’s tourism statistics in 2017 was 4,848,000,000.00, a 10.49% increase from 2016 (13,438,000,000.00 ). International tourism receipts or the expenditures by the international inbound visitors are detailed in the following years: 2016 (13,438,000,000.00), 2015 (11,183,000,000.00), 2014 (9,263,000,000.00), 2013 (8,690,000,000.00), 2012 (8,400,000,000.00), 2011 (9,317,000,000.00), 2010 (7,536,000,000.00), 2009 (6,744,000,000.00), 2008 (6,775,000,000.00), 2007 (6,907,000,000.00), 2006 (4,769,000,000.00), 2005 (4,626,000,000.00), and 2004 (6,486,000,000.00). The international tourism receipts include payments to national carriers for the international transport and for foods and services received in the destination country.
Most foreign pilgrims usually visit the Mosque in Madinah before or after they completed their religious duties in the Mecca. During haj, Muslims from different countries gather and show their love for one another. They also get to know each other without any obstacles or barriers between them. Muslims set aside their differences in economic status, race, nationality, and caste to unite in the holy pilgrimage. Each of them dons a simple two-piece white garb. When they enter the state of spiritual purity known as the “ihram,” they aim to give up symbols of worldly pleasures, symbols of materialism, and give more attention to the inner self than outward appearance. This is why Muslim women would forgo perfume and makeup and wear loose-fitting clothing matched with a head covering. Males are dressed in white terry cloth garments.
Pilgrims are forbidden to lose their temper, fight, or argue during the haj although the physical exhaustion of their journey and the massive crowd would test their tolerance and patience.
Canceling the haj may hurt the country’s finances but is a good strategy for disease containment.