Saudi Arabia set for haj despite Mers virus fears

MECCA (AFP) - Saudi Arabia is gearing up for next week's hajj with scores of pilgrims set to miss the world's largest annual gathering over construction work and fears about a deadly virus.

Last year, a total of 3.2 million faithful, including 1.75 million foreigners, performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest site. Those from abroad came from 190 countries.

This year, Riyadh expects about two million, after the ultra-conservative kingdom announced a crackdown on illegal pilgrims and imposed restrictions to cut foreigners by 20 per cent and Saudis by 50 per cent.

About 1.17 million pilgrims had already entered the Gulf state by Saturday, according to immigration officials, and more are expected before Thursday's deadline for people to arrive before the hajj starts.

The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam that should be performed at least once in lifetime by every Muslim who is financially and physically capable.

This year, the pilgrimage starts on Sunday and ends on October 18.

Monday marks the most important day when all pilgrims assemble at Mount Arafat, just outside Mecca, for the peak of the hajj.

The pilgrimage ends after Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, which starts on Tuesday.

Authorities in the kingdom have mobilised health services in Mecca and the holy sites which together have 25 public hospitals with 5,250 beds and hundreds of scattered medical centres.

The Mers virus, which appeared first in the kingdom last year, has killed 58 people worldwide, 49 of them in Saudi Arabia, according to official Saudi figures and the World Health Organisation.

Saudi authorities have appealed to ill and elderly people to avoid the hajj this year although Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia said last month he was optimistic the pilgrimage will pass without outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus.

There were no Mers outbreaks recorded at last year's hajj, nor during the Umrah, or minor hajj, season in July and August of this year.

The hajj has successfully ridden out two previous viral episodes in the past decade - SARS in 2003 and H1N1 influenza in 2009.

The difference this time is that Saudi Arabia itself is the apparent incubator of Mers.

Health officials have also appealed to pilgrims to use masks that cover the nose and mouth because Mers, short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, can be transmitted through the air.

Aside from the virus fears, Saudi authorities have also cited construction work to expand the Grand Mosque in Mecca as a reason to keep down the number of pilgrims allowed to perform this year's hajj.

The expansion work would increase the area of the mosque by 400,000 sq m, raising its capacity to accommodate 2.2 million people at the same time.

The mosque houses the Kaaba - the cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims worldwide pray.

Every Muslim country has a hajj quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants.

The quota for Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, for example, was slashed to 168,400 from 211,000, according to Indonesia's religious affairs ministry.

"The Saudi government's decision was made quite abruptly," a ministry spokesman said.

Saudi officials have said the cuts will apply for two more years until the first phase of the multi-billion-dollar work is completed to expand the capacity for worshippers around the Kaaba in 2015.

This year's hajj also comes amid continued political instability in the Middle East as fighting rages in Syria and occasional bloody clashes in Egypt between security forces and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi security officials have warned pilgrims against exploiting the hajj season to demonstrate or raise political slogans, warning this will be dealt with harshly.

In June, the kingdom decided to give Syria's opposition National Coalition the right to process applications of Syrians wishing to perform the hajj.

The kingdom handled last year's hajj visa applications from Syrians without the cooperation of the regime in war-ravaged Syria.