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In pictures: Pilgrims head to Makkah for second pandemic Haj

Only 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi residents from more than 558,000 applicants have been chosen for the downsized pilgrimage.
Updated 17 Jul, 2021 05:10pm

Pilgrims will begin to arrive in the holy city of Makkah on Saturday for the second downsized Haj staged during the coronavirus pandemic with only fully vaccinated residents permitted to participate.

The kingdom seeks to repeat last year's success that saw no virus outbreak during the five-day ritual but nonetheless caused resentment among Muslims abroad.

It is allowing 60,000 residents of Saudi Arabia to participate through a lottery, higher than in 2020 but drastically lower than in normal times.

Religious rites will begin on Sunday.

Pilgrims are pictured in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
Pilgrims are pictured in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

Among the chosen ones was Ameen, a 58-year-old Indian oil contractor based in the eastern city of Dammam, who was picked for the ritual along with his wife and three adult children.

“We are overjoyed,” said Ameen, who only gave his first name.

“So many of our friends and relatives were rejected,” he told AFP.

A pilgrim wears an umbrella hat to protect herself from the sun, in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
A pilgrim wears an umbrella hat to protect herself from the sun, in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world participated in the annual Haj.

Earlier this month, the Haj ministry said it was working on the “highest levels of health precautions” in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.

Like the other countries of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia is home to significant expatriate populations from South Asia, the Far East, Africa as well as the Middle East.

Pilgrims are pictured in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
Pilgrims are pictured in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

“I feel like I won a lottery,” Egyptian pharmacist Mohammed El Eter said after being selected.

“This is a special, unforgettable moment in one's life. I thank God for granting me this chance, to be accepted among a lot of people who applied,” the 31-year-old told AFP.

'Restrict exposure'

Workers were shown on the Al-Ekhbariya news channel disinfecting the area in the Grand Mosque around the Kaaba in anticipation of the start of rituals.

On Saturday the faithful will begin circling the Kaaba before officially starting the Haj on Sunday.

Members of Saudi security forces and staff work around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
Members of Saudi security forces and staff work around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

Chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, the event is confined to those who have been fully vaccinated and are aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses, according to the Haj ministry.

Pilgrims will be divided into groups of just 20 "to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection", ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi told official media.

Members of Saudi security forces and staff perform the Friday prayer by the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
Members of Saudi security forces and staff perform the Friday prayer by the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 507,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths.

More than 20m vaccine doses against coronavirus have been administered in the country of over 34m people.

The Haj went ahead last year on the smallest scale in modern history, with authorities initially saying only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, before local media said up to 10,000 took part.

Members of Saudi security forces and staff perform the Friday prayer by the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
Members of Saudi security forces and staff perform the Friday prayer by the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

No infections were reported as authorities set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater for the pilgrims, who were taken to the religious sites in small batches.

In normal years, the pilgrimage packs large crowds into congested religious sites, but even this year's downscaled events are seen as a potential mechanism for contagion.

'Biggest challenge'

“The biggest challenge of this Haj season will be for it to pass off without any Covid-19 infections,” a doctor working at a hospital in Makkah told AFP by phone.

Mask-clad members of the Saudi security forces monitor on screens, the streets and the religious sites of the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
Mask-clad members of the Saudi security forces monitor on screens, the streets and the religious sites of the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

Worshippers were last year given amenity kits including sterilised pebbles for the “stoning of the devil” ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and an ihram.

Hosting the Haj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam's holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.

Tents are set up to host pilgrims in Mina, near the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
Tents are set up to host pilgrims in Mina, near the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

But barring overseas pilgrims has caused resentment and deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, who typically save for years to take part.

The Haj ministry received anguished queries on Twitter from rejected applicants about the tightly controlled government lottery.

Pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, as they wear masks and keep social distancing, a day before the annual Haj pilgrimage, Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 17, 2021. — AP
Pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, as they wear masks and keep social distancing, a day before the annual Haj pilgrimage, Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 17, 2021. — AP

“We are still anxiously waiting to be accepted, as though we're facing an exam,” wrote one Twitter user.

And in addition to the many virus-related obstacles, the price of participating in this year's Haj, including official taxes, is 12,000 riyals ($3,200).

A pilgrim carries an umbrella to protect himself from the sun, in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
A pilgrim carries an umbrella to protect himself from the sun, in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

Members of Saudi security forces and staff perform the Friday prayer by the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
Members of Saudi security forces and staff perform the Friday prayer by the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

Mask-clad members of the Saudi security forces walk in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
Mask-clad members of the Saudi security forces walk in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

A Saudi man stands in front of Mount Arafat, southeast of the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
A Saudi man stands in front of Mount Arafat, southeast of the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP

This picture shows a partial view of Mount Arafat, the tip of the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, and security cameras, southeast of the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP
This picture shows a partial view of Mount Arafat, the tip of the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, and security cameras, southeast of the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP


Header image: Members of Saudi security forces and staff work around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2021. — AFP