Saudi Arabia is resisting any attempt by Arab countries to reduce the number of pilgrims coming to the Haj this year, after Arab health ministers agreed last week to bar children, the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions from attending the annual pilgrimage to stem the spread of swine flu.
Saudi officials have insisted the ban, which is pending the approval of Saudi authorities, will not result in a reduction in any country’s quota of pilgrims. Every country is allotted a number of Haj visas amounting to 0.1 per cent of the total population, or 1,000 pilgrims per million people.
“We will not change the percentage of any country. We changed certain rules,” the Saudi health minister, Abdullah al Rabeeah, told reporters following the Cairo meeting last week, without specifying what the new rules were.
Hussein Gezairi, regional director of the World Health Organisation, told news agencies that the kingdom would likely approve the health ministers’ decision.
“The Saudi government will make [these conditions] a requirement … No one will get their visa unless these requirements are fulfilled,” he told Agence France-Presse.
The Haj, one of the pillars of Islam, is extremely important to the Saudi economy. The five-day pilgrimage, which takes place in November this year, attracts more than three million people annually to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Saudis want to ensure that the Haj industry, worth US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn), will not be affected by the ban. Some critics of the health ministers’ decision have said it was imposed for economic reasons more than for public health, in an effort to keep money at home that would be spent in Saudi Arabia.
Saad al Gurashi, who represents Haj and Umrah companies at the Mecca Chamber of Commerce, said that if the Arab health ministers were to agree to lower the quota, the religious tourism sector would be hit hard.
“Forty per cent of the pilgrims are elderly people and the industry would lose big revenues from the ban, but we have to be concerned about the health of the pilgrims above all,” he added.
Mr al Gurashi told the Al Watan daily newspaper on Friday that Arab countries hurt significantly by the financial crisis, particularly North African countries, have started to reduce the number of Haj pilgrims to limit capital exiting the country.
Mr al Gurashi’s claims were confirmed by Omar al Mudhwahi, a senior editor at Al Watan, who attended a preliminary meeting of Arab health ministers in Jeddah last month.
“Many Arab countries that are hit hard by the financial crisis this year came to the meeting with an agenda to ban pilgrims for economic reasons and not for health concerns,” he said.
The discussion occurred as the Saudi health ministry yesterday reported its first swine flu death. A 30-year-old man admitted to a private hospital in Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia on Wednesday died on Saturday, the ministry said. It was the second death from swine flu reported in the region.
Egypt became the first Arab country to claim that Haj and Umrah were a threat to its citizens’ lives after the ministry of health on July 19 reported its first swine flu death. Samah al Sayyed, 25, died after performing Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, which can be done at any point during the year, in Saudi Arabia.
But a Saudi Arabian health official refuted the Egyptian claim that swine flu caused the death of al Sayyed, who was admitted to a hospital in Medina while suffering from heart illness.
Ziad Maimash, the deputy minister of health for contagious diseases, said the symptoms of al Sayyed, who did not respond to treatment and returned to Egypt at the request of her husband, were far from those of swine flu.
Her husband, Mohammed Saeed Abdul Majdi, told Egyptian media that his wife died from heart failure and not from swine flu and that his government used her death to bar pilgrims from travelling to Saudi Arabia after it failed to get a fatwa from Egypt’s grand mufti.
The victims’ mother, Awatif al Mulla, told the Al Riyadh daily newspaper that her daughter did not die from swine flu and the government lied about the matter.
An Egyptian health ministry official said al Sayyed, who suffered from a pre-existing heart ailment caused by rheumatic fever, had travelled to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage in early July, and developed flu symptoms on July 11.
Egypt’s grand mufti has been quoted in local media as backing the ban, but others in the country are divided. The Egyptian Doctors’ Association said in a statement this week: “There is no need to postpone pilgrimage due to swine flu because the virus is as normal as the common flu, if not weaker.”
Egypt’s quota of pilgrims for the Haj is 80,000 per year. With an average cost of US$2,000 (Dh7,340) per head, the Egyptians spend $160 million per annum on Haj; adding in the Umrah pilgrims, their spending tops $200m.
The majority of pilgrims come from Turkey, Iran, Indonesia and India. None has announced a similar ban, though Indonesia is taking precautionary measures.
Didi Wahyudi, the head of consular affairs at the Indonesian consulate in Jeddah, said his government had already advised elderly pilgrims not to travel to Saudi Arabia this year.
According to Indonesian Embassy figures, each year 210,000 Indonesian pilgrims perform the Haj and 50,000 come for Umrah. The combined expenditure of both groups comes to nearly 19.5 billion Saudi riyals (Dh19.1bn).
India, which has a Haj quota in excess of 1.5 million, has not reacted to the Arab health ministers’ ban.
“If those above 65 are not to be allowed to undertake the journey to Mecca for health reasons then this is bad news for almost 35 per cent of our pilgrims,” Hafiz Naushad Ahmed Azmi, a member of India’s Central Haj Committee, told the Arab News daily newspaper.
In Iran, a health ministry official last Tuesday repeated calls for elderly Iranians and children to avoid travelling to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage as the number of confirmed swine flu cases in the Islamic republic rose to 16.
“Twelve among them are Umrah pilgrims,” Mahmoud Soroush, head of the ministry’s flu and border prevention programmes, told AFP.
Tunisia this month suspended Umrah pilgrimages because of the virus, while reserving judgment on whether the Haj should be undertaken in November.
An editorial in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily on Thursday called on Saudi authorities to cancel the Haj. “Mecca receives millions of pilgrims and worshippers 24 hours a day, shoulder to shoulder … and if one person carries the virus, he can spread it to ten thousand others,” the paper said, adding that the number of people visiting Saudi Arabia during Ramadan in September and October should also be limited.