Vacant non secular websites. Abandoned pilgrim tents. Lifeless resorts. A shocking vacancy – and fears of economic spoil – hang-out the often bustling the holy metropolis of Mecca after Saudi authorities curtailed the hajj pilgrimage over the Corona Virus.
Islam’s holiest metropolis often hosts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for the annual ceremony, however the kingdom has barred abroad guests from this yr’s occasion, scheduled for late July.
The hajj and the Umrah pilgrimage collectively rake in some $12 billion, protecting the financial system buzzing in Mecca, dwelling to 2 million individuals and marble-bedecked skyscrapers towering over Islam’s most sacred websites.
A building increase in recent times has added purchasing malls, residences and luxurious resorts, some providing spectacular views of the sacred Kaaba, a cube-shaped construction within the Grand Mosque towards which Muslims around the globe pray.
But most premises have lain empty for the reason that pandemic reached the dominion.
The virus, which hit Mecca exhausting, has additionally battered pilgrimage-reliant companies that help tons of of hundreds of jobs, from journey brokers to avenue barbers and memento retailers.
Many have reported sweeping layoffs, pay cuts or delayed salaries.
“Zero gross sales, zero earnings,” stated Ahmed Attia, a 39-year-old Egyptian who works for a journey company within the metropolis.
“We’re not used to seeing Mecca empty. It seems like a lifeless metropolis. It’s devastating for Mecca.”
A tsunami of cancellations has additionally battered abroad hajj operators who manage journey logistics for pilgrims, many of whom make investments their life financial savings within the five-day ritual.
Saudi authorities had already in March suspended the Umrah pilgrimage, which may be carried out at any time.
Then, in a massively delicate however long-awaited resolution, they stated they might solely permit round 1,000 pilgrims already current within the kingdom to carry out the hajj.
That is a tiny fraction of the two.5 million pilgrims who attended final yr.
“It shall be a symbolic occasion, a photo-op that enables the dominion to say ‘we did not cancel the hajj as many anticipated’,” stated a South Asian official involved with hajj authorities.
Saudi Arabia has pressured that the watered-down hajj shall be open to individuals of varied nationalities.
But the choice course of for the few spots is anticipated to be hotly contested, as some Mecca residents count on to be given precedence over outsiders.
“I’ve gone to hajj earlier than, and hopefully this yr, with God’s will, I shall be among the many first pilgrims,” stated Marwan Abdulrahman, a Saudi residing in Mecca.
Many feared the pilgrimage, which packs colossal crowds into small non secular websites, may have been an enormous supply of contagion.
The Corona Virus has hit the dominion with the very best quantity of instances within the Gulf – greater than 178,000 confirmed infections together with 1,511 deaths.
But scaling the pilgrimage again will deepen the dominion’s economic stoop, analysts say.
The transfer follows a pointy downturn in oil costs and Corona Virus-led losses, which triggered austerity measures together with the tripling of a value-added tax and cuts to civil servants’ allowances.
The hajj resolution “does compound Saudi Arabia’s economic difficulties”, Richard Robinson, a Middle East analyst at Oxford Analytica, advised AFP.
On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund warned the dominion’s GDP will shrink by 6.8% this yr – its worst efficiency for the reason that 1980s oil glut.
The Saudi Binladen building group, a bellwether identified for huge mega-projects, has missed wage funds for hundreds of employees in latest months, in response to a supply near the corporate and staff complaining on social media.
The Arabic hashtag “Delays in Binladen salaries” has gained traction because the slowdown impacts the agency behind a collection of essential initiatives, together with a $15 billion skyscraper resort complicated that towers over Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
The firm is looking for to constitution a quantity of personal jets to ship many of its laid-off South Asian laborers dwelling, in response to the supply.
The firm didn’t reply to a request for remark.
The downturn has additionally disrupted Riyadh’s formidable plans to construct a tourism business from scratch, a cornerstone of the Vision 2030 reform program to cut back the dominion’s reliance on oil.
“The authorities has singled out tourism as a key space for development below its diversification technique, and the loss of hajj revenues may set the sector again by way of misplaced funding or bankruptcies,” stated Robinson.
The kingdom started providing vacationer visas for the primary time final September in strikes to open up one of the final frontiers of international tourism.
“While Saudis wish to diversify tourism revenues past non secular tourism, their efforts nonetheless construct from the hajj,” stated Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“Not having it right now of disruption in oil markets is a blow.”