Despite coronavirus, Saudi Arabia to lift ban on Mecca pilgrimage

Muslim worshipers circumambulate the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Muslim worshipers circumambulate the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
(Amr Nabil / Associated Press)

After limiting the annual hajj earlier this year because of the coronavirus, Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that Muslims will be allowed to perform the umrah — a smaller, year-round pilgrimage to Mecca — starting Oct. 4.

State media reported that the government plans to allow up to 6,000 visitors a day at the sprawling Grand Mosque, which will be open to Saudi citizens and residents only during the first phase of reopening. Restrictions on visiting Islam’s holiest site have been in place for the past seven months.

Before visitors can enter the mosque to pray or perform the umrah, they will have to apply and reserve a specific time and date through an online application to be launched Sunday. The aim is to avoid crowding and maintain social distancing.

The second phase launches Oct. 18 and will allow a maximum of 15,000 pilgrims and 40,000 in for prayer from among Saudi residents and citizens at allocated times.


The Grand Mosque houses the cube-shaped Kaaba in whose direction observant Muslims pray five times a day.

Muslim travelers from outside Saudi Arabia could be allowed to perform the umrah pilgrimage as early as Nov. 1, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. Saudi Arabia recently began easing some restrictions on international flights for the first time since March.

With this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca restricted to a mere 1,000 participants, app developers have created ways to experience the hajj virtually.

The ministry said it would continuously evaluate guidelines and developments related to the pandemic.

The kingdom held a dramatically downsized hajj in July out of concern that a large-scale pilgrimage could easily become a global super-spreader event for the coronavirus. Pilgrims were selected after applying through an online portal, and all were residents or citizens of Saudi Arabia. Rather than the more than 2 million pilgrims the kingdom hosts for the annual event, as few as 1,000 took part after being tested for the virus and quarantined.

Despite taking early and sweeping measures to contain the coronavirus, Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 330,000 cases, including more than 4,500 deaths.