DUBAI: Saudi Arabia has restricted the annual Haj pilgrimage to citizens and residents and set a maximum of 60,000 pilgrims in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision was announced on Saturday (Jun 12) by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in a statement carried by state media.
The pilgrimage, scheduled to be held at the end of July, would be limited to those who have been vaccinated and are below 65 years of age with no chronic illnesses, it said.
It will be the second year in a row that the kingdom hosts a downscaled Haj amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Haj - a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime - typically packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites and could be a major source of contagion.
Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part last year, a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated in the five-day annual pilgrimage in 2019.
In a relaxation of coronavirus curbs last October, Saudi Arabia opened the Grand Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months and partially resumed the all-year-round Umrah pilgrimage.
The limit on Umrah pilgrims is 20,000 a day, with a total of 60,000 worshippers allowed to perform daily prayers at the mosque.
The Umrah usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year. Authorities said the Umrah would be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.
The revered Black Stone in the Kaaba - which is customary but not mandatory to touch during the pilgrimage - remains out of reach.
"In light of what the whole world is witnessing with the coronavirus pandemic ... and the emergence of new variants, the relevant authorities have continued to monitor the global health situation," the Haj ministry said Saturday.
"Considering the large crowds that perform Haj, spending long periods of time in multiple and specific places ... required the highest levels of health precautions," it added in the statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency.
A scaled-down Haj represents a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.
The Haj and the year-round Umrah pilgrimages together rake in some US$12 billion annually.
Last year, the foreign press were barred from the Haj, usually a huge global media event.
Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 460,000 coronavirus infections, including 7,536 deaths.
The health ministry says it has administered more than 15 million coronavirus vaccine doses, in a country with a population of over 34 million.
Hosting the Haj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam's holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.
But a series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom's management of the pilgrimage.