Saudi Arabia has released new details on how it plans to gradually allow Muslims back to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca to perform the smaller, year-round pilgrimage, which has been suspended for the past seven months due to the coronavirus.
Hajj Minister Muhammad Benten said the kingdom will launch an online application that allows citizens, residents of Saudi Arabia and visitors to apply and reserve a specific time and date in which they can perform the pilgrimage, known as “umrah”, to avoid crowding and maintain social-distancing guidelines. The minister, who spoke during a virtual seminar, did not say when the pilgrimage would be permitted to resume nor how many people would be allowed to perform it at the same time.
The kingdom held a dramatically downsized, symbolic hajj pilgrimage in July due to concerns that it could easily have become a global “superspreader” event for the virus.
Pilgrims were selected after applying through an online portal and all were residents or citizens of Saudi Arabia.
Rather than the more than two million pilgrims the kingdom hosts for the annual event, as few as 1,000 took part after being tested for the virus and quarantined.
Saudi Arabia on Monday began easing some restrictions on international flights for the first time in six months. The kingdom allowed Gulf Arab nationals and foreign residents of Saudi Arabia abroad to enter the country, provided they are not infected with coronavirus.
The kingdom also allowed for some residents of Saudi Arabia, such as Saudi students with scholarships abroad and foreign embassy staff, to exit and enter the kingdom.
Despite taking early and sweeping measures to contain the virus, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 330,000 cases, including more than 4,500 deaths.