Virus: cancel or not? Ryad in the face of a tough choice for the great pilgrimage

Virus: annuler ou pas? Ryad face à un choix cornélien pour le grand pèlerinage

RYAD | Limit the number of pilgrims or cancel the hajj because of the COVID-19? A few weeks of the great annual pilgrimage to Mecca, saudi Arabia is facing a delicate choice.

Planned for the end of July, the “hajj” is one of the largest gatherings in the world. But while time is running out, the kingdom has still not told his intentions.

In 2019, the pilgrimage, that any faithful muslim is supposed to accomplish at least once in his life if he has the means, has attracted some 2.5 million faithful.

Such flow seems to be excluded this year: Ryad was asked at the end of march to the muslim countries — responsible for selecting pilgrims candidates, pay in advance their accommodation and transport, etc — to delay their preparations.

“It’s going to play heads or tails to maintain the hajj, or cancel it completely,” sighs from the AFP, the leader of a country in South Asia.

“The decision will be made soon and announced,” says a manager of saudi arabia.

Indonesia, most populous muslim country, has taken the”bitter and difficult” decision to forego the hajj, just as Malaysia and Singapore.

Senegal has said it is suspending “all the formalities for the trip” of the pilgrims. Other countries — from Egypt to Morocco, passing through Turkey or Lebanon — are still awaiting a decision from Riyadh.

In France, the faithful have been called by the French Council of the muslim faith to “defer” their pilgrimage to 2021.

“To save time””

Because of the proximity between pilgrims, the hajj may become a huge vector of contagion of the COVID-19.

But any decision to limit or cancel the hadj could arouse the anger of muslims believed that the religion should be above health concerns.

And Ryad could see his role of guardian of the holy places of islam put into question then that it is a powerful source of political legitimacy, both outside and inside the kingdom.

Already, of the fatal incidents — including a scramble to have done in 2015 is around 2 300 deaths — had attracted criticism on the management of the hajj by Ryad.

“The delay in the announcement of its decision shows that (saudi Arabia) weighs the political consequences of the cancellation of the hajj, or the reduction of its scale,” says Umar Karim, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

The kingdom “saves time”, says the head of a country in South Asia.

“If the Saudis say, at the last minute, be prepared for the hajj, many countries will not be able to participate in it”, he says.

Many international flights being suspended, a hajj not welcoming as the people living in saudi Arabia is a possible scenario, ” he adds.

With 120 000 cases, including more than 1,000 deaths reported officially, the country is always seeking to contain the new coronavirus.

The authorities have strengthened the measures of containment in Jeddah (west), the gateway to Mecca.

“Broken heart”

The cancellation of the hajj would be a first since the foundation in 1932 of the kingdom, which had maintained the pilgrimage during the epidemics of Ebola and MERS-CoV (respiratory syndrome and Middle East)

“If saudi Arabia maintains it, it will increase the pressure on its own health-care system,” judge Yasmine Farouk, of the Carnegie centre.

And if the virus spreads, it could also be held responsible,” she says.

A hajj nullified or limited would also be a loss of revenue for the kingdom, which is already the double shock of the pandemic and the fall in oil prices.

During the hajj and umrah — little pilgrimage, which can be done throughout the year and which was suspended in march, the pilgrims inject it every year, 10.6 billion euros in the economy of saudi arabia, according to the government.

In case of cancellation of the hajj, Riyadh décevrait millions of muslims, who spend sometimes all of their savings to this pillar of islam.

“I can’t prevent me from having a broken heart. I’m waiting for years,” this time, laments, crying, a civil servant indonesian Ria Taurisnawati, 37 years old.

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