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Indonesia stops hajj pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia this year

Malaysia waits for Riyadh's decision as COVID-19 threatens Islamic gathering

Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in August 2019.   © Reuters

JAKARTA/KUALA LUMPUR -- Indonesia said Tuesday that it will not send any pilgrims to Saudi Arabia during this year's hajj season in July because the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted tightly scheduled preparations for one of the world's largest religious gatherings.

Indonesia has traditionally sent the largest contingent to Islam's holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, every year. It was supposed to send 221,000 hajj pilgrims this July.

But the Indonesian government said it has not received any clarity from Saudi authorities regarding hajj preparations, despite the first batch of pilgrims being due to depart June 26.

"In May, we prepared two options: a 50% quota reduction or cancellation. [But] Saudi Arabia has not opened access to hajj pilgrims from any country to date," Fachrul Razi, Indonesia's religious affairs minister, said at a media briefing Tuesday.

"As a result, the government doesn't have enough time to make primary preparations for services and protection of pilgrims. Based on these realities, the government has decided not to send any hajj pilgrims in 2020," Razi said.

The Hajj is a religious duty for Muslims who can afford the trip and has attracted a growing number of pilgrims over the years. Nearly 2.5 million people from around the world gathered last year. Due to capacity constraints, however, Saudi Arabia imposes national quotas on the number of pilgrims. Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, receives the largest allotment.

Even so, the number of spaces falls far short of demand. Up to 4 million Indonesians are reportedly on the waiting list for the hajj, and many must wait 20 to 30 years before they can take part. Razi said Indonesian hajj pilgrims who were supposed to depart in July will go next year instead, meaning an even longer wait for others.

The delays for the hajj have boosted the popularity of the umrah, a shorter version of the hajj. The umrah, which is not mandatory, has fewer rituals and can be undertaken at any time of year.

About 7 million tourists visit Saudi Arabia annually, most for the hajj and the umrah. The pilgrimages contribute $12 billion to the Saudi economy annually, equal to about 20% the country's economic output, outside the oil sector and 7% of gross domestic product overall. Up to 30% of private-sector income in Mecca and Medina is derived from the pilgrimages, according to the Mecca Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The rising popularity of the pilgrimages is crucial to Riyadh's attempts to reduce its high dependence on the oil industry.

In Indonesia, the umrah has become more popular as the country's middle class grows and people become more pious. Hundreds of registered umrah and hajj travel agents -- and many more operating illegally -- have popped up across the country, and the pilgrimages have become a main source of revenue for local airlines.

But the coronavirus pandemic has hit the travel business hard. Indonesia's umrah and hajj travel agents association in March said the Saudi ban on pilgrims since late February would cause local travel agents an estimated 2 trillion rupiah ($138 million) in monthly losses.

Malaysian pilgrims, meanwhile, are still waiting for an official response from Saudi authorities on their status, according to a person with Malaysia's pilgrimage fund, Lembaga Tabung Haji. The person, who asked not to be named, told the Nikkei Asian Review that Malaysia has submitted a request to Saudi Arabia to resume religious travel but has received no response so far. Malaysia was allotted 31,600 places for the hajj this year, an increase of 1,400 versus 2019.

"Although the Saudi Arabian authorities [will] allow pilgrimages to resume, we don't expect to get all the 31,600 quota by year's end. It might be rationed," the person said. "However, the Malaysian government will also make a decision on whether or not it is safe for Malaysians to travel to Saudi Arabia throughout this year due to the pandemic, based on daily developments."

Additional reporting by Ismi Damayanti in Jakarta.

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