MECCA: Pilgrims were quarantined Tuesday in the Muslim holy city of Mecca ahead of the dramatically downsized haj as Saudi authorities strive to prevent a coronavirus outbreak during the five-day pilgrimage.
Up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom will participate in the annual ritual starting Wednesday, according to haj officials, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million international pilgrims that attended last year.
Those selected to take part in this year’s haj were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine as they began trickling into Mecca at the weekend.
State media showed health workers sanitising their luggage, and some pilgrims reported being given electronic wristbands to allow authorities to monitor their whereabouts.
Workers, clutching brooms and disinfectant, were seen cleaning the area around the Kaaba, the structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque draped in gold-embroidered cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.
Haj authorities have cordoned the Kaaba this year, saying pilgrims will not be allowed to touch it, to limit the chances of infection.
They also reported setting up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims, who will be required to wear masks and observe social distancing.
“There are no security-related concerns in this pilgrimage, but it is to protect pilgrims from the danger of the pandemic,” Khalid bin Qarar Al-Harbi, Saudi Arabia’s director of public security, told reporters on Monday.
Some 70% of the pilgrims are foreigners residing in the kingdom, while the rest will be Saudi citizens.
All worshippers were required to be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Mecca and will also have to quarantine after the pilgrimage as the number of cases in the kingdom nears 270,000 — one of the largest outbreaks in the Middle East.
They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilised pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims, according to a haj ministry programme document.
The foreign press is barred from this year’s haj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to Mecca.
Saudi authorities initially said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted for the haj but local media reports say as many as 10,000 will be allowed to take part.
The haj ministry has fielded a deluge of anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants.
But Haj Minister Mohammad Benten insisted the process was transparent, telling the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television that “health determinants” formed the basis of selection.
“I did not expect, among millions of Muslims, to be blessed with approval,” Emirati pilgrim Abdullah Al-Kathiri said in a video released by the Saudi media ministry.
“It is an indescribable feeling… especially since it is my first pilgrimage.”
The ministry said non-Saudi residents of the kingdom from around 160 countries competed in the online selection process.
But it did not explain how many applied, and some disappointed pilgrims have complained that the government-run lottery was not clearly outlined and say no reason was given for their rejection.
Despite the pandemic, many pilgrims consider it is safer to participate in this year’s ritual without the usual colossal crowds cramming into tiny religious sites, which make it a logistical nightmare and a health hazard.
Even in a regular year, the haj leaves pilgrims exposed to a host of viral illnesses.
The government scaled back the pilgrimage as it could be a major source of contagion, but the move will deepen the kingdom’s economic slump, analysts say.
It comes as Saudi Arabia faces a sharp downturn in oil prices due to a collapse in global demand driven by national lockdowns, which triggered austerity measures including the tripling of a value-added tax and cuts to civil servants’ allowances.
The haj and the year-round umrah pilgrimages together rake in some US$12 billion annually.