RIYADH, Aug 20 – The rising number of swine flu cases and deaths across the Middle East has cast a cloud over the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with a plunge in the number of people going on pilgrimage to Mecca.
Arrivals in Islam’s holiest city surged ahead of Ramadan starting this week, residents said, but the numbers were well below usual.
With Egypt, Iran and Iraq among countries placing restrictions on who can undertake the minor pilgrimage or umrah during Ramadan because of swine flu, businesses in Mecca are forecasting a disastrous month.
And worries were spreading that fears over the A(H1N1) flu could dampen the sunset iftar parties held across the Muslim world to break the fast and entertain.
Business in the holy city of Mecca could be down by 40 percent in the coming month because of flu fears, Saad al-Qurashi of the Mecca Chamber of Commerce and Industry told Al-Yaum newspaper.
"For umrah we are receiving so many cancellations for Ramadan," said Naseem Khan, an official of Mecca’s Mercure Grand Umm al Qura hotel, which caters mostly for pilgrims from Europe.
"The economy and flu, both of them affect it."
Normally several hundred thousand people travel to Mecca during Ramadan to perform the umrah, a shortened version of the hajj major pilgrimage that takes place in late November this year.
The umrah is popular because people can come at any time and do not need the permits that are assigned to countries by quota for the hajj, which is required of Muslims once in their lifetime if they have the means.
However rising flu numbers and warnings from governments and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have heightened fears of being in crowded places.
This week Saudi Arabia announced that reported swine flu cases had topped 2,000 in the kingdom since the first was detected on June 3. Since then 14 people have died of A(H1N1) inside the country.
The disease has now touched nearly all of the Middle East. On Wednesday Yemen reported its first flu death, a 40-year-old man.
The region’s very first swine flu death, reported on July 19, was an Egyptian woman who had returned home from an umrah trip to Mecca.
After her death, a meeting in Cairo of regional health ministers and the WHO recommended strongly discouraging or banning people over 65, pregnant women, and children under 12 from joining either the umrah or hajj this year.
Saudi Arabia did not apply mandatory controls but has urged countries to voluntarily implement restrictions.
Some Saudis said, however, that Islamic rules would not allow Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, to officially ban any Muslim pilgrims.
In early August Iran imposed a ban on all Iranians travelling to Saudi Arabia during the fasting month in a bid to control swine flu.
"We will have no pilgrims in Saudi Arabia during the month of Ramadan," Health Minister Mohammad Bagher Lankarani said.
Egypt, annually the source of some of the largest numbers of umrah pilgrims, decided to prevent over 65s and under 25s from travelling to Mecca during Ramadan.
On Monday as many as 200 people were prevented from boarding aircraft for Saudi Arabia at Cairo airport, according to an official.
"Fifteen percent of passengers who arrived on Monday at Cairo airport to travel to Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage were prevented from leaving," the airport official said.
"The people banned from leaving are those over 65 and those under 25 because they are the most at risk of being contaminated by swine flu."
Kuwait, hit by more than 900 swine flu cases, advised its citizens to postpone their umrah plans, especially people with chronic diseases, pregnant women and children.
The impact of the pandemic on Ramadan iftar dinners when people sometimes invite hundreds to break the fast together in homes, tents and hotel ballrooms just after sunset has yet to be seen.
But Kuwait’s health minister has already advised people to stop shaking hands and kissing each other at such gatherings to stem the spread of the disease.