RIYADH | saudi Arabia will be hosting on Wednesday, the great muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, but with a number of the faithful greatly reduced this year because of the pandemic of coronavirus, a first in modern history.
Only 10,000 Saudis and foreign residents in the kingdom are allowed this year to perform the hajj, one of the five pillars of islam.
Some 2.5 million pilgrims have made the great pilgrimage last year, including many from abroad as every year.
The foreign press is not allowed this year, the saudi government has tightened the access to the holiest city of islam.
The number of infections with the novel coronavirus, has exceeded the Sunday $ 16 million in the world, 260 000 cases registered in saudi Arabia.
Pilgrims wearing masks began to arrive in Mecca during the weekend, they are subject to temperature controls and quarantined, according to authorities.
They are convenience kits which include pebble sterilized for a ritual stoning, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug, and a white apparel, white robe without seam worn by the pilgrims, according to a document from the ministry of hajj.
The pilgrims must undergo a screening test before arriving to Mecca, and be placed in quarantine after the pilgrimage.
The government has been reaching out to many health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to respond to the needs of pilgrims, who have to keep a certain distance from each other.
The authorities have had to answer a flood of questions tormented on Twitter by applicants to the hajj rejected by Riyadh, denouncing sometimes a process of selection is opaque.
The “health factors” formed the basis of the selection, has assured the minister of the hajj Mohammad Benten on the television channel of the saudi Al-Arabiya, calling the process transparent.
Residents from 160 countries participated in the draw to be held by the government. Among the chosen, Nasser, a Nigerian who lives in the capital Riyadh, is delighted to have won the “winning ticket”.
“This feeling is indescribable,” he said to the AFP prior to his arrival in Mecca.
The pilgrims saudis have been selected from among a group of health professionals and military personnel who have been contaminated and then healed the COVID-19, said the ministry.
The foreign residents have applied online, the government, ensuring that they would represent 70 % of the pilgrims, but has not specified the number of candidates and of the persons selected.
In a country where the religious tourism annually generates approximately $ 12 billion (10.6 billion euros), the holding of a hajj reduces risk to push saudi Arabia in the economic slump.
Facing the downturn caused by the fall in oil prices and the pandemic, the largest exporter of crude in the world has taken austerity measures, tripling the VAT, suspending social security benefits and making other budget cuts.
“Limiting the hajj to the residents represents a substantial cost, but manageable for the economy,” says Sofia Meranto, the center’s analysis Eurasia Group.
According to her, the authorities hope to “recover the revenue lost by the next hajj or with a return from umrah”, or little pilgrimage, which was suspended in march.
The “umrah”, which attracts each month, in Mecca tens of thousands of the faithful, may be carried out at any time of the year, unlike the hajj, which can only be performed on specific dates of the lunar calendar islamic.
Mecca has experienced a real estate boom in recent years, with the construction of shopping centres, apartments and luxury hotels.
But these places remained almost deserts because of the pandemic, which has hit as many companies in the sector of tourism which depend on hundreds of thousands of families.
Many of them have reported large-scale layoffs, wage cuts or delays of payment.