Every year, Saudi Arabia welcomes millions of Muslims from around the world for the hajj pilgrimage, a sacred rite that pumps cash into the economy and enhances the prestige of the monarch. But not this year.
The kingdom announced on Monday, June 22 that the 2020 hajj, scheduled to take place next month, would welcome “very limited numbers” of pilgrims in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, The New York Times reports.
The dramatic shrinkage of the largest annual rite in Islam could hit Saudi Arabia particularly hard, with a reduced pilgrimage delivering a further financial blow to a kingdom already grappling with low oil prices and an economic slowdown caused by the lockdowns aimed at preventing contagion.
It could also disappoint Muslims from around the world who have saved for years to have a once-in-a-lifetime religious experience.
The Saudi statement on Monday marked the first time since the founding of the modern Saudi kingdom in 1932 that such restrictions have been placed on the hajj. The event is so closely linked to the king’s international standing that he bears the title “the custodian of the two holy mosques,” a reference to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina where the hajj takes place.
The pilgrimage has been canceled many times throughout history because of wars and disease, but has faced no significant limits on attendance since the mid-1800s, when outbreaks of cholera and plague kept pilgrims away for a number of years.