A pilgrim at Hajj Image Credit: Wikimedia

Cairo: Saudi Arabia’s decision temporarily banning its citizens and foreign residents from performing the Umrah has stoked Muslims’ fears that the ban on the ritual will be in place longer than initially thought and may impact the annual Haj pilgrimage

Last week, Saudi Arabia halted Umrah trips to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina due to the coronavirus scare and as part of a raft of measures aimed to prevent the spread of the potentially deadly ailment that has hit dozens of countries around the globe.

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

However, Muslims are increasingly apprehensive about the prospect of doing any time soon the Umrah, which is a cherished dream for many. One of them is Sabry Abdul Rahman, an Egyptian cafe attendant in Cairo.

“It is my life dream to go and touch the wall of the Kaaba [Islam’s holiest site],” said the 46-year-old man passionately. “With God’s grace, I’ve saved the needed money and planned to perform the Umrah in Ramadan,” he added.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, due to begin in late April this year, usually marks the peak of the Umrah. “But in view of the fast spread of coronavirus, it seems my dream will have to be be delayed for some more time that I hope will not be too long,” Abdul Rahman 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, set 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 during which they walk in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and ritually circumambulate the Kaaba.

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.

Will the Haj be impacted?

The 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. The anguish 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.

Some Egyptian lawmakers have called for cancelling this year’s annual Haj season, citing fears of a pandemic of the coronavirus.

“The official religious institutions should come out and demand postponening the travel of Egyptians for the Haj this year until further notice to prevent transmission of the infection that has spread in several Arab countries and in view of Saudi Arabia’s suspension of the Umrah,” MP Mohammad Abu Hamed said.

The lawmaker argued that Islam exhorts staving off harms and preserving human life.

Agreeing, MP Maysa Atwa said if the virus persisted its spread, it would be advisable to put the Haj on hold this year.

“This decision is set to protect Egyptians and prevent the virus from infiltrating into the country,” she told Egyptian newspaper Al Youm Al Saba.

Egyptian MP Shukry Al Guindy sees the situation differently.

“There is no need to postpone the journey to the Haj, which will take place this year in July when it will be so hot that the virus will not survive,” Al Guindy.

“Such calls [for cancelling the Haj] can cause panic among citizens. Therefore, there should be no such premature talk,” he added.

Egypt has announced two confirmed coronavirus cases so far and denied claims of an outbreak in the country of 100 million people.

Feeling the brunt

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, 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 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 Mecca and Medina.