On Friday (February 28), Saudi Arabia has announced that it will deny entry of GCC citizens to two of Islam’s holiest cities amid fears over the new coronavirus.
The decision to halt access to Mecca and Medinah comes a day after the kingdom suspended visas for the year-round “umrah” pilgrimage, an unprecedented move that has left hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims around the world in limbo.
Saudi Gov’t Suspends Entry of GCC Citizens to Mecca, Medinah
According to the foreign ministry, “the temporary suspension of entry of (GCC) citizens to the cities of Mecca and Medina,” as shared in a report by Gulf News.
The GCC states include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar.
However, the ministry announcement did not specify whether this suspension extended to Saudi citizens, as well.
On the other hand, the ministry statement said the decision excludes “GCC citizens who have been in the kingdom for 14 consecutive days and did not show signs of coronavirus infection.”
So far, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has reported no coronavirus cases but there are mounting concerns over a spike in infections across the Middle East, including neighboring Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE.
Meanwhile, GCC citizens are allowed to enter the kingdom with their national identity document. But on Thursday, the government said they could only enter using their passports and not IDs.
In a report by the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, the move is designed to check the travel history of the GCC citizens, including any recent visits to countries impacted by the virus.
On Thursday, the Kingdom also suspended visas for tourists from countries affected by the virus as fears of a pandemic deepen.
According to state media, electronic tourist visas for people arriving from seven countries, including China, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Kazakhstan, have all been suspended.
And while Saudi Arabia said the suspensions were temporary, it did not provide any time frame for when they will be lifted.
The announcements have also triggered speculations and uncertainty over the annual hajj pilgrimage scheduled for July.
In a statement, the foreign ministry shared: “The government of Saudi Arabia… is closely following developments in the spread of the virus and its repercussions on an ongoing basis, and that the precautionary measures are being reviewed according to any new developments.”
Every year, Saudi Arabia hosts millions of pilgrims in the cities of Mecca and Medina, and this has become one of the Kingdom’s major source of revenue since the decline in demand and production of oil globally.
Interestingly, the pilgrimage forms a crucial source of revenue for the government, which has said it aims to attract 30 million religious visitors annually to the kingdom by 2030.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Haj and Umrah has informed that the Saudi government is closely following developments in the spread of the virus and its repercussions on an ongoing basis and that the precautionary measures will be reviewed according to any new developments, and additional measures shall be taken if the need arises.