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Grand Mosque in Mecca begins operating at full capacity

Saudi Arabia begins accepting vaccinated foreigners wanting to perform umrah

MECCA: The Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia operated at full capacity yesterday, with worshippers praying shoulder-to-shoulder for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Workers removed floor markings that guided people to social distance in and around the Grand Mosque, which is built around the Kaabah, the black cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.

"This is in line with the decision to ease precautionary measures and to allow pilgrims and visitors to the Grand Mosque at full capacity," reported the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

Pictures and footage yesterday morning showed people praying side by side, making straight rows of worshippers, for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold last year.

While social distancing measures were lifted, the authorities said visitors must be fully vaccinated and continue to wear masks on mosque grounds.

Saudi Arabia announced in August it will begin accepting vaccinated foreigners wanting to make the umrah pilgrimage.

MILLIONS

The umrah, the minor pilgrimage for Muslims, can be undertaken at any time and usually draws millions from around the globe, as does the annual haj, which able-bodied Muslims who have the means must perform at least once in their lifetime.

In July, only around 60,000 inoculated residents were allowed to take part in a vastly scaled down form of the annual haj.

The pandemic hugely disrupted both Muslim pilgrimages, which are usually key revenue earners for the kingdom that rake in a combined US$12 billion (S$16 billion) annually.

The once-reclusive kingdom began issuing tourist visas permitting foreign visitors to undertake more than just the pilgrimages for the first time in 2019 as part of an ambitious push to revamp its global image and diversify income.

Between September 2019 and March last year, it issued 400,000 of them - only for the pandemic to crush that momentum as borders were closed.

But the kingdom is slowly opening up, and has started welcoming vaccinated foreign tourists since Aug 1.

Saudi Arabia also announced that fully inoculated sports fans will from yesterday be allowed to attend events at all stadiums and sports facilities, reported SPA.

It has also said that masks in most open spaces are no longer mandatory.

Saudi Arabia has registered more than 547,000 coronavirus cases and 8,760 deaths. - AFP

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