BEIRUT — 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 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 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.
On Monday, the kingdom made clear it was not canceling the event outright, but drastically reducing the total number of pilgrims for safety.
In a statement published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, which oversees the pilgrimage, said the event this year would welcome only pilgrims from Saudi Arabia and from other nationalities who are already inside the kingdom.
“This decision is taken to ensure Hajj is performed in a safe manner from a public health perspective while observing all preventative measures and the necessary social distancing protocols to protect human beings from the risks associated with this pandemic,” the statement said.
The statement did not specify what the target attendance would be, but the lack of pilgrims from abroad will surely make for a much smaller pilgrimage.
Last year, of the 2.49 million pilgrims who performed the hajj, 1.86 million came from outside Saudi Arabia, according to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics.
Nor did the statement specify what precautions would be taken to prevent viral spread among the pilgrims who did attend.
The pilgrimage’s conditions can lend themselves to the spread of contagious diseases. Pilgrims fly, drive or sail in from countries across the globe and often form dense crowds while performing a series of religious rites over a number of days.
At night, many sleep close together in tents or other crowded accommodations and share meals. At the end, many return home to grand receptions with crowds of family and friends.
In addition to its religious significance, the pilgrimage is a moneymaker for the kingdom, and especially for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The hajj and a lesser pilgrimage called the umrah, which can be performed year-round, earn the kingdom about $12 billion per year, according to government statistics. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, has spoken of boosting pilgrim numbers to help diversify the economy away from oil.
The kingdom needs that income even more now, since low oil prices have deprived the state of income and created a budget deficit.
Saudi Arabia has struggled to contain the virus while balancing lockdowns with the damage they have caused to the economy.
In March, the government imposed strict round-the-clock curfews in many parts of the country, with exceptions only for medical care and essential shopping. It began a phased reopening last month and lifted the last remaining restrictions on Sunday.
But the number of coronavirus cases has continued to rise, with the government reporting more than 160,000 total infections and more than 1,307 deaths.
In an effort to slow the virus’s spread, the kingdom closed the holy sites in Mecca and Medina to non-Saudis in February, and in April, a Saudi official warned pilgrims planning to travel to the kingdom for this year’s hajj to delay making plans.
Monday’s announcement of the limited hajj will surely disappoint many Muslims who had hoped this year to perform the pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, which every Muslim who is able must undertake once in a lifetime.
So Muslims who have spent years saving for the trip and jockeying for bookings will now have to wait until next year to try again.