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Umrah pilgrims wear masks at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on February 28. Saudi Arabia suspended visas for visits to Islam's holiest sites for the umrah pilgrimage, an unprecedented move triggered by coronavirus fears that raises questions over the annual Haj. Image Credit: AFP

Cairo: With his eyes fixed on the TV screen inside his store, Khaled Abdul Moneim followed with jitters a news update on the novel coronavirus that has triggered fears of a global pandemic. Abdul Moneim, a Cairo fabrics trader, has his own reason to feel anxious.

He had planned to go on Umrah during Ramadan, due to start in late April.

“It would have been my first visit to Mecca and Medina. I even bought the ihram [a two-piece snow-white attire worn by Muslim males during the ritual] and decided to take my wife with me to spend the last 10 days of the blessed month there. But now nothing is certain after the Saudi ban,” he said sadly.

Last week, Saudi Arabia halted Umrah trips to the two holy cities due to the coronavirus scare and as part of a raft of measures aimed to prevent the spread of the potentially deadly ailment.

The kingdom said the suspension is temporary and “subject to regular review”.

To Abdul Moneim, 45, the situation looks grim.

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Image Credit: Gulf News [Source:]

“Almost weeks after the suspension of the Umrah visas, the numbers of the virus infections are increasing everywhere. It will be long before this disease stops, especially as there is no remedy yet for it. Until this happens, my dream of visiting the Kaba’a and the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) Mosque will remain a dream that I hope will come true in my lifetime,” he told Gulf News.

Millions of Muslims flock to holy sites in Saudi Arabia to perform the Umrah in the months that precede and follow the annual Haj pilgrimage, which is due to begin in late July this year.

The Muslims who cannot afford the high costs of the Haj, are often content with performing the Umrah.

The Haj is one of Islam’s five pillars. Muslims are expected to perform it at least once in their lives if they can afford it and are physically able.

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More than 2.2 million Muslims perform the Haj each year. Image Credit: AFP

Will the Haj be impacted?

The decision on temporary ban on Umrah visas could eventually force millions of Muslims around the world to postpone or cancel a journey that many have eagerly awaited for years. The outbreak could potentially affect the much larger annual Haj pilgrimage, set to begin in late July. The pain of missing out on the pilgrimage is shared by Muslims worldwide.

Some languish for years on waiting lists to take part in the larger Haj pilgrimage, which all Muslims are required to make once in their lives if they are able.

For many, the lesser Umrah pilgrimage, which can be made year-round, is the only opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and circle the Ka’aba, the holiest site in Islam.

Many travel agencies in Muslim countries deal exclusively with pilgrims and are likely to take a major hit. If at all there is a scenario where we could see the cancellation of the five-day Haj pilgrimage, which annually attracts more than 2 million people, that could be even more cataclysmic.

Dashed dreams of Umrah

A total of 500,000 Egyptians make the Umrah journey round the year, according to official figures. About 1,000 Egyptians, who were to travel for the Umrah last week, were turned back from the Cairo airport shortly after the Saudi ban was announced. Many of the travellers were stunned.

“It was the biggest shock of my life,” recalled Faten Sobhy, a 56-year-old Egyptian woman.

“Like most of my companions, I burst into tears when we were told that the Umrah flights have been stopped until further notice. I have paid 20,000 pounds [Dh4,761] to a travel agency as the cost of the whole trip.

"Whenever I check with them about the situation, they keep telling them: Only God knows. I don’t care about the money although it is part of my end-of-service reward as a hospital accountant. What I yearn to is to do the Umrah.”

Muslims in other countries are equally disappointed. “No words can describe how I feel today,” said Achmad Warsito, an Indonesian who was among many passengers grounded at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta international airport in response to the Saudi ban. “We are very sad and disappointed,” he told the Associated Press.

For the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, the Saudi decision closes one of the last avenues for leaving the narrow coastal strip, which has been ruled by Hamas and blockaded by the Israeli regime since 2007.

An umrah pilgrimage from Gaza starts at around $1,300, a huge sum in a territory with 50 per cent unemployment. Some Gazans sell jewellery or property to pay for it.

“We are imprisoned in Gaza, and for us, visiting Mecca and Medina feels like a prisoner receiving a visit from his family,” said Ebrahim Al Dabba, who had hoped to depart with his two sisters on March 8. “There, we release all the repression inside us.”

Businesses hit

The Saudi measure has thrown the business of many travel agencies into disarray.

“The Saudi decision has struck hard the Umrah season that reaches its climax in the months of Rajab, Shaaban and Ramadan,” said Hossam Khalaf, a tour operator at a travel firm in central Cairo.

“For sure, all the tourism companies organising the Umrah and Haj trips will suffer heavy losses. There are already visas and air tickets issued. There are also hotel reservations made in Mecca and Medina. What will happen with them? I don’t know. I hope the ban will not continue until Ramadan,” he told Gulf News. An estimated 100,000 Egyptians usually travel for the Umrah in Ramadan.

Ihab Abdul Aal, a member of the Egyptian Travel Agents Association sounds optimistic, however. “I don’t expect the decision to suspend the Umrah trips will continue more than two weeks and will not be extended to the Haj season,” he told Egyptian private newspaper Al Watan.

Abdul Aaal defended the Saudi ban. “This decision comes to the benefit of the Umrah pilgrims and their home countries in order to protect them from catching the virus and spreading it,” he said.

“The suspension of the Umrah trips also allows time to set up quarantines at airports and other outlets. We have to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to protect the pilgrims. It is too early to specify the economic losses resulting from the ban.”

Return of funds

An Egyptian tourism official, speaking on condition anonymity, ruled out economic losses for the pilgrims whose trips are on hold and their organisers.

“Rights of the Umrah pilgrims are preserved. When the trips resume, everything will be back to normal without any additional financial burden on them,” the official said. “Stopping the trip is a temporary measure as Saudi Arabia is working hard to keep things under control.”

The Saudi Health Ministry said Sunday that it has designated 25 hospitals as quarantines. The kingdom has recorded no confirmed coronavirus case so far.

The viral ailment has claimed hundreds of lives among thousands of infections around the world since December when it broke out in China, where the virus originated.

The ban will impose major costs of its own, in the form of empty hotels and businesses in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.