RIYADH - Saudi Arabia on Thursday suspended visas for visits to Islam's holiest sites for the "umrah" pilgrimage, an unprecedented move triggered by coronavirus fears that raises questions over the annual hajj.
The kingdom, which hosts millions of pilgrims every year in the cities of Mecca and Medina, also suspended visas for tourists from countries with reported infections as fears of a pandemic deepen.
Saudi Arabia, which so far has reported no cases of the virus but has expressed alarm over its spread in neighbouring countries, said the suspensions were temporary.
But it provided no timeframe for when they will be lifted, and the decision left tens of thousands of pilgrims preparing to visit the kingdom from around the world in limbo.
"The kingdom's government has decided to take the following precautions: suspending entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visit to the Prophet's mosque temporarily," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
"Suspending entry into the kingdom with tourist visas for those coming from countries in which the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) is a danger."
The measures comes amid a spike in coronavirus cases across the Middle East even as the number has declined in China, where the disease originated.
Since its outbreak, the United Arab Emirates has reported 13 coronavirus cases, Kuwait has recorded 43, Bahrain has 33 and Oman is at four cases.
Iran has emerged as a major hotspot in the region, with 26 fatalities -- the highest death toll outside China.
To curb the spread of the disease from people returning from pilgrimages to Iran, Gulf countries have implemented a raft of measures including flight suspensions and school closures.
"It's a great concern to the educators, to the students and to the parents," said Ann Marie, a South African expatriate in Bahrain, where many appear on the streets wearing masks.
In Kuwait, government institutions suspended the use of fingerprint recognition to clock in and out, while Qatar -- which has no reported cases -- advised its citizens to avoid the traditional greeting of rubbing noses.
While no cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia, one citizen is reported to be infected in Kuwait along with four Saudi women in Bahrain -- all of whom had returned from Iran.
The umrah, which refers to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of year, attracts millions of devout Muslims from all over the globe each year.
A hajj travel association in Bangladesh said over 1,000 pilgrims, many with non-refundable tickets to Saudi Arabia, were "stranded at Dhaka airport" after being denied permission to board following Riyadh's abrupt announcement.
Uncertainty loomed as some 10,000 visas have been issued for umrah and 137,000 people in Bangladesh have signed up for the annual hajj, it added.
In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, the decision to suspend visas could affect up to 200,000 pilgrims, the local association for hajj and umrah said.
There is still no clarity over how the coronavirus will affect the hajj, due to start in late July.
Some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world to take part in last year's hajj -- one of the five pillars of Islam.
The event is a key rite of passage for Muslims and a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites.
"This move by Saudi Arabia is unprecedented," Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based risk consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, told AFP.
"The concern for Saudi authorities would be Ramadan, which starts at the end of April, and hajj afterwards, should the coronavirus become a pandemic." The holy fasting month of Ramadan is considered a favourable period by Muslim pilgrims to perform the umrah.
Saudi Arabia's custodianship of Mecca and Medina -- Islam's two holiest sites -- is seen as the kingdom's most powerful source of political legitimacy.
But a series of deadly disasters over the years has prompted criticism of the Sunni kingdom's management of the pilgrimage.
In September 2015, a stampede killed up to 2,300 worshippers in the worst disaster ever to strike the pilgrimage.
"As coronavirus spreads, there is serious doubt the hajj will proceed as planned," Gulf analyst Ali Bakeer told AFP.
"Past hajj calamities suggest the kingdom does not have the capacity to deal with a mass outbreak during the pilgrimage." The pilgrimage forms a crucial source of revenue for the government, which hopes to welcome 30 million pilgrims annually to the kingdom by 2030.
De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform plan seeks to shift the economy of Saudi Arabia -- the world's top crude exporter -- away from oil dependency towards other sources of revenue, including religious tourism.
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