DUBAI: Saudi Arabia is considering barring overseas pilgrims from Haj for the second year running as Covid-19 cases rise globally and worries grow about the emergence of new variants, two sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

Such a move will restrict the pilgrimage to Makkah to Saudi nationals and residents of the kingdom who have been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 at least months prior to attending.

While discussions about a possible ban have taken place, there has been no final decision on whether to pursue it, the sources said.

Before the pandemic enforced social distancing globally, some 2.5 million pilgrims used to visit the holiest sites of Islam in Makkah and Madina for the weeklong Haj, and the shorter, year-round Umrah pilgrimage, which altogether earns the kingdom about $12 billion a year, according to official data.

As part of economic reform plans pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom was hoping to raise the number of Umrah and haj pilgrims to 15m and 5m respectively by 2020, and aimed to double the Umrah number again to 30m by 2030. It aims to earn $13.32bn of revenues from the Haj alone by 2030.

Two sources familiar with the matter said authorities have suspended earlier plans to host pilgrims from overseas, and will only allow domestic pilgrims who have been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 at least six months before the pilgrimage.

Restrictions will be applied on the age of participants as well, one of the sources said.

A second source said the plans were initially to allow some numbers of vaccinated pilgrims from abroad, but confusion over types of vaccines, their efficacy and the emergence of new variants has pushed officials to reconsider.

The government media office did not respond to a request for comment.

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2021

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