Coronavirus: Saudi Arabia temporarily bans religious visits to protect pilgrims' safety

Ministry of Foreign Affairs stresses travel ban temporary as cases continue to spread throughout the Middle East

Saudi Arabia on Thursday introduced a temporary ban on religious visits to the country amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus in the region and the safety of pilgrims.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would temporarily suspend entry to the kingdom for visits to religious sites including Makkah and Madinah as part of a range of precautionary measures, the Spa news agency reported.

Live updates as Middle East cases rise  

The country has also suspended entry for those with a tourist visa from countries with confirmed outbreaks of coronavirus.

The Foreign Ministry said the measures were put in place in line with recommendations made by international health authorities and to support global efforts to curb the outbreak.

Travel to and from the kingdom from GCC countries, using national identity cards, has also been suspended, but the ministry says Saudi citizens will be able to return home. GCC citizens will also be permitted to return to their countries using their own identity cards.

The ministry said the kingdom “renews its support for all international measures to limit the spread of this virus, and urges its citizens to exercise caution before travelling to countries experiencing coronavirus outbreaks".

“Saudi Arabia stresses that these measures are temporary and subject to continuous evaluation by the relevant authorities,” it said.

The announcement came amid an increasing number of confirmed coronavirus cases across the Middle East.

The World Health Organisation on Wednesday said that, for the first time since the global epidemic began, a greater number of new cases of the virus were now being recorded outside China than within it.

Saudi Arabia joins a number of countries in the region imposing travel bans to help fight the spread of the virus, which has now infected more than 80,000 worldwide.

epa08251052 (FILE) - Muslim pilgrims perform Tawaf (circling) around the Kaaba inside the al-Haram al-Sharif mosque, in preparation of the start of the Hajj 2019 pilgrimage, Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 07 August 2019 (Reissued 26 February 2020). According to a statement on 26 February, Saudi Arabia has suspended religious tourism temporarily for the purposes of Umrah (a minor Islamic pilgrimage that can be done at any time of the year), as well as visiting the mosque of Prophet Muhammad, al-Masjid an Nabawi, in efforts to prevent the Covid-19 coronavirus in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia is also suspending the entry of non-Saudi citizens coming from affected countries.  EPA/STR *** Local Caption *** 55383218

Iraq on Wednesday banned all public gatherings and barred travellers from Kuwait and Bahrain from entry, bringing the total number of countries on its entry ban list to nine.

Most of the coronavirus cases in the region have been traced back to Iran, which is experiencing the second deadliest outbreak of the virus after China.