Even as coronavirus cases rise steadily in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has announced the lifting of most of its Covid precautions as it prepares to receive roughly a million pilgrims for the annual Hajj season, the most since the start of the pandemic.
Mask-wearing is no longer required in most enclosed spaces, although they will continue to be mandatory inside the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, the Interior Ministry said on Monday evening. The government also lifted a requirement to show proof of vaccination to enter most enclosed spaces, including airplanes.
But travelers applying to enter the country to observe the Hajj will still be required to show proof that they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, the ministry said.
In relaxing its restrictions, the Interior Ministry cited the country’s high vaccination rate.
Before the pandemic, millions of Muslim worshipers typically visited the holy sites in Saudi Arabia each year to observe Hajj and Umrah, generating billions of dollars in revenue. The pandemic prompted the kingdom, which imposed strict Covid measures, in effect to cancel Hajj in 2020. Last year it allowed only 60,000 pilgrims living in Saudi Arabia to observe the rituals.
Officials expect 850,000 worshipers from overseas and 150,000 residents to begin arriving next month.
In April, the number of daily coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia had fallen to less than 100, but the figure has since risen steadily to more than 1,000 cases a day.
On Monday Fahd al-Jalajel, the Saudi health minister, said that the lifting of Covid precautions offered “historical lessons for the whole world” and were an indication of the health care system’s ability to manage global emergencies.
Across the Middle East, daily coronavirus cases have been rising in recent weeks. The United Arab Emirates, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia, has tightened restrictions after seeing daily cases more than double over the past week. Indoor masks will now be more strictly enforced there, with violators fined more than $800. And a “green pass,” which is required to enter government buildings, will be valid for only 14 days, down from 30, which may require people to test more frequently.