Muslims Worry Coronavirus Will Prompt Saudi Arabia to Cancel This Year’s Hajj

The five-day religious event, which gathers millions of people in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca and other sites, is due to begin in lat...

The five-day religious event, which gathers millions of people in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca and other sites, is due to begin in late July

Nada Abdulfatah had already been denied a visa four times to perform the hajj pilgrimage when she submitted her fifth application this year.

The 58-year-old Lebanese woman hoped it would finally be her chance to attend the pilgrimage Muslims must perform once in their lifetime. She submitted her application early and made sure the hajj fund she has fed into for years would cover the $3,000 needed.

But now Ms. Abdulfatah’s pilgrimage, as well as that of some two million Muslims world-wide, is in doubt as Saudi Arabia considers canceling it because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“My heart is burning to go to hajj, even if I have to wear a face mask and gloves and they tell me not to leave the tent, I’ll do anything,” she said. “I need to do it before I die.”

The five-day religious event, which gathers millions of people in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca and other sites, begins in late July. The nature of hajj, which grows in attendance each year, makes it particularly challenging in a time of a pandemic given that pilgrims are often elbow to elbow in religious sites or on overcrowded buses moving from one location to the next.

Further exacerbating the risk of coronavirus is that many of those performing the hajj each year are elderly—those at highest risk of infection. More people apply to perform hajj each year than are able to be accommodated so every country is allowed a certain number of slots and must choose who gets a coveted hajj visa, often prioritizing the elderly. As a result, some Muslims wait a lifetime to go to hajj.

If the Saudi government does decide to cancel hajj, it won’t be the first time in Islam’s history.

Since it began with the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, it has only been canceled around 40 times for various reasons including pandemics and political and economic unrest. The last time was in 1831 because of an epidemic.

But a cancellation in 2020 would be more challenging than in the past, given how much hajj has grown in attendance and no pilgrimage this year would cause an even greater demand next year.

Ms. Abdulfatah has spent the last 10 years trying to get to hajj. When her application was denied four times, she would watch the hajj pilgrimage livestreamed on TV and cry.

She has had to be diligent in setting aside the money. She bought a small plastic piggy bank from a nearby corner shop and put in the money she made from her job selling snacks to school children. She made about $7 a day. Once the piggy bank was full, she would deposit the money into a bank account and start again.

“I saved it dollar by dollar,” she said.

It took her years to save up the $3,000 for the trip.

And now she worries that with an economic crisis gripping Lebanon and her husband, who has heart problems and diabetes, and unable to work, she may have to dip into the hajj savings just to get by.

She also worries that she won’t be as healthy to perform the physically taxing pilgrimage next year. Or that the cost will go up again, forcing her to begin saving dollar by dollar again.

Some Muslims on social media worried that the cancellation of hajj was a sign of the end of times, but religious leaders said this was a misreading of the religious scripture.

Besides the religious ramifications of not having hajj this year, it will have a huge economic impact on Saudi Arabia as well as the hundreds of hajj tour companies which rely on the pilgrimages.

In February, the Saudi government suspended umrah, a lesser Muslim pilgrimage which can be performed throughout the year. The country’s religious sites receive more than seven million people every year, including around two million for the five-day hajj.

Both hajj and umrah are pillars of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to expand tourism as he revamps his country’s economy away from its dependence on oil. Religious tourism contributes around 20% of the kingdom’s non-oil growth domestic product, according to government figures.

But the Saudi government isn’t the only one reliant on the religious pilgrimages. A large global economy has emerged around such religious pilgrimages and many of those tour companies are in danger if the cancellation extends to Hajj.

Last month, a Saudi hajj official asked Muslims to postpone making any reservations for the hajj, which are often done months in advance.

Latif al-Ibadi, who runs a tour company in Iraq, had 450 customers registered to perform the umrah this year and sent $70,000 to Saudi Arabia for reservations. Even after the government canceled umrah, Mr. Ibadi and his clients haven’t gotten their money back.

“There will be huge financial losses for Saudi and for Iraqi companies as well,” Mr. Ibadi said.

Many of his clients who had planned to go to hajj might not be able to afford it anymore given that many have been unable to work because of the pandemic lockdown restrictions.

The obligation for hajj is dependent on Muslims being physically and financially able to do it.

With the pilgrimage increasingly costly, and out of reach for many Muslims, governments in Muslim majority countries like Egypt offer hajj endowments through a lottery system for those who can’t afford it themselves.

Mohamed El-Dessouky, 49, and his 88-year-old mother were among the nearly 1,600 who won hajj-sponsored trips through Egypt’s interior ministry.

But it isn’t even clear if that money is still available. The country’s religious endowment ministry also sponsors hajj trips for Egyptian citizens but had to cancel last month and redirect the funds to assist in the coronavirus response.

“We hope it will not be canceled as my mother is really looking forward to it and I am doing this for her,” Mr. El-Dessouky said.

In Pakistan, Ijaz Ali, a 39-year-old police officer in Lahore, and his wife got permission to go to hajj this year after being denied a visa a few years ago. Now that they have the chance, neither of them wants to give it up—even if there is danger of being infected with coronavirus.

“We will take all safety and protection measures… we would not like to defer it or miss this blessed opportunity,” he said. “If people can walk in streets and markets and other crowded public places… then why can’t this be done during hajj?”

His wife got a job as a schoolteacher to help the couple save up the nearly $6,000 they need to travel to Saudi Arabia and perform the pilgrimage.

“There is nothing bigger in our life than performing hajj,” he said. “If hajj does not happen this year this will break our hearts.”

—Donna Abdul Aziz in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Waqar Gillani in Islamabad, Pakistan; Amira El-Fekki in Cairo; and Ghassan Adnan in Baghdad contributed to this article.

Writer: Raja Abdulrahim at

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Muslims Worry Coronavirus Will Prompt Saudi Arabia to Cancel This Year’s Hajj
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