Mecca's Grand Mosque lies almost empty as Saudi gears up for downsized hajj
Saudi Arabia begins hosting the annual hajj pilgrimage, dramatically downscaled due to the coronavirus pandemic that has barred millions of international pilgrims for the first time in modern history. Up to 10,000 people residing in the kingdom will participate in the Muslim ritual, a tiny fraction of the 2.5 million that attended last year, after what many saw as an opaque selection process that left a wave of applicants rejected. The foreign press are barred from this year's hajj, usually a huge global media event, as the government tightens access to the holy city of Mecca and puts in place strict health restrictions to prevent a virus outbreak during the five-day pilgrimage -- a key pillar of Islam. Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 260,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, while the number of declared global infections exceeded 16 million on Sunday. Mask-clad pilgrims began trickling into Mecca over the weekend and were subject to temperature checks and placed in quarantine, authorities said. They were given elaborate amenity kits that include sterilised pebbles for a stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the ihram, a seamless white garment worn by pilgrims, according to a hajj ministry programme document. Pilgrims are required to be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Mecca and will also have to quarantine after the pilgrimage. The ministry said it has set up multiple health facilities, mobile clinics and ambulances to cater to the pilgrims, who will be required to observe social distancing. The government scaled back the pilgrimage as it could be a major source of contagion, but the move will deepen the kingdom's economic slump, analysts say. It comes as Saudi Arabia faces a sharp downturn in oil prices due to a collapse in global demand driven by national lockdowns, which triggered austerity measures including the tripling of a value added tax and cuts to civil servants' allowances. The virus has also battered pilgrimage-reliant businesses that support hundreds of thousands of jobs in Mecca, from travel agents to street barbers and souvenir shops. Many have reported sweeping layoffs, pay cuts or delayed salaries. The pilgrimages together rake in some $12 billion (10.3 billion euros) annually, keeping the economy humming in Mecca.