Uncertainty over upcoming hajj

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MECCA: The kingdom has suspended the “umrah” year-round pilgrimage over fears of the disease spreading to Mecca and Medina, raising uncertainty over the upcoming hajj a key pillar of Islam.

The pilgrimages, which pack millions of people into relative small religious sites, could be a major source of contagion and the move mirrors a precautionary approach across the Gulf to cancel mass gatherings — from concerts to sporting events.

But the issue is still a potential powder keg in a volatile region where it risks riling fringe hardliners for whom religion trumps health considerations.

And some devout Muslims view the pilgrimages as an important rite of passage, whatever the risks.

Already reeling from slumping oil prices, the kingdom also risks losing billions of dollars it earns annually from religious tourism as it tightens access to the sites.

Its management of the crisis also shines a spotlight on the Saudi role as the custodian of the holy sites — a pillar of its political legitimacy.

The coronavirus turmoil gives its critics and regional rivals fresh ammunition to “raise questions about Saudi control over Islam’s holiest sites”, said Middle East expert Yasmine Farouk from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. State media has published a series of endorsements by Islamic bodies — from the grand mufti of New Zealand to Malaysia and beyond — which suggest “a concern in Riyadh that such a move might be politicised and used against it,” Farouk told AFP. Pro-Saudi observers have sought to deflect the focus onto the kingdom’s rivals, with some on social media provoking ridicule after they called the virus “the work of Qatar” or a conspiracy by Iran. Authorities in Saudi Arabia, which on Wednesday reported its second case of the virus, did not respond to requests for comment. Its measures stand in contrast to that of its regional nemesis Iran, which has struggled to contain the spread of coronavirus from its own Shiite holy sites as pilgrims and clerics appeared to defy health warnings.

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