Official data has shown that Hajj and Umrah (lesser Hajj) earned the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia about $12 billion a year and that this revenue was deflated by the novel Coronavirus, which led to suspension of lesser Hajj and reduction in number of pilgrims for 2020 Hajj.
The Kingdom, according to a state news agency, Saudi Press Agency (SPA), has now announced plans to allow pilgrims living inside the country to undertake the Umrah pilgrimage, beginning from October 4, after a seven-month pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the country declared a freeze on Umrah, which is an Islamic pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina undertaken any time of the year.
It attracted 19 million people last year. Saudi Arabia will now allow 6,000 citizens and residents inside the kingdom to perform Umrah daily, representing 30 per cent of a revised capacity of 20,000 that takes into account precautionary health measures, SPA said.
That will expand to 75 per cent of capacity on October 18. Beginning from November 1, the kingdom will allow visitors from specific countries deemed safe to perform Umrah at 100 per cent of the revised capacity, until the end of the pandemic, SPA added.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is developing a mobile application that will be available a week before the Umrah resumes, so that pilgrims can register and book on it. They will also need to follow the health guidelines provided in the app.
The decision to resume Umrah came after the kingdom organised the smallest hajj in modern history in late July, with only up to 10,000 Muslims allowed to take part in total – a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated last year. Health authorities said no coronavirus cases were reported at the holy sites during the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime.
The kingdom has sought to contain a spike in infections, which have now risen to more than 330,000 cases – the highest in the Gulf – and at least 4,500 deaths. But Saudi Arabia has also reported a high rate of recoveries, which surpassed 312,000 on Tuesday.
Last week, Saudi Arabia partially lifted its suspension on international flights, six months after travel curbs were imposed due to the pandemic. Official data show Hajj and Umrah earn the kingdom about $12 billion a year.
It would be recalled that Kano Pilgrims Board on began refund of over N418 million deposits for 2020 hajj to intending pilgrims. About 359 out of 1,794 intending pilgrims requested for refund of their Hajj deposits after the Saudi Arabia authorities cancelled international pilgrims for 2020 hajj due to COVID-19 pandemic. Although this year’s hajj is scheduled to hold with limited access to 10,000 contingents from Saudi residents, about 2.5 million international pilgrims will miss the spiritual journey.
Speaking at the unveiling of the exercise, executive secretary of the board, Muhammad Abba Dambatta told journalists that the exercise covered 10 out of 44 local government areas of the state.
Dambatta disclosed that the special refund committee comprises representatives hajj board, civil society organization, Police, DSS, Anti-corruption and media were carefully selected to ensure transparency and accountability. The executive secretary explained that the board had encouraged the intending pilgrims to differ their advance fare ahead of 2021, he added that the board has commenced 100 per cent refund of those who choose to recover their deposits.
He said the refund policy was in line with the directive from National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), added that besides the initial 359 people, the board is willing to refund anybody later change mind to apply for repaying.