Saudi Arabia considers limiting haj pilgrims amid COVID-19 fears

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Marwa Rashad

DUBAI/RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia could drastically limit numbers at the annual haj pilgrimage to prevent a further outbreak of coronavirus after cases in the country topped 100,000, sources familiar with the matter said on Monday.

Some 2.5 million pilgrims visit the holiest sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina for the week-long haj, a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. Official data show haj and the lesser, year-round umrah pilgrimage earn the kingdom about $12 billion a year.

Saudi Arabia asked Muslims in March to put haj plans on hold and suspended umrah until further notice.

Two sources familiar with the matter said authorities are now considering allowing "only symbolic numbers" this year, with restrictions including a ban on older pilgrims and additional health checks.

With strict procedures, authorities think it may be possible to allow in up to 20% of each country's regular quota of pilgrims, another source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Some officials are still pushing for a cancellation of the haj, expected to start in late July, the three sources said.

The government media office and a spokesman for the haj and umrah ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Limiting or cancelling haj will further pressure government finances hit by the plunge in oil prices and the pandemic. Analysts predict a severe economic contraction this year.

The kingdom halted international passenger flights in March, and on Friday it reimposed a curfew in Jeddah, where haj flights land, after a spike in infections in the city.

In 2019, around 19 million pilgrims attended umrah while haj drew 2.6 million. An economic reform plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims to increase umrah and haj capacity to 30 million pilgrims annually and generate 50 billion riyals ($13.32 billion) of revenues by 2030.

(This story corrects penultimate paragraph to say curfew was reimposed in Jeddah on Friday, not Sunday, and to say international flights were suspended in March, not on Sunday.)

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Marwa Rashad; Editing by Catherine Evans and Kevin Liffey)