Saudi Arabia’s decision to temporarily halt all umrah pilgrimages amid fears of the Covid-19 outbreak shocked hundreds of Indonesian pilgrims who were left in uncertainty at airports and forced to cancel their journeys.
Among the pilgrims was Suyato, 59, from Tangerang, Banten, who said he had only learnt about the ban upon his arrival at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport at midday on Thursday. Suyato, his wife Mujirah and his umrah group of 33 other pilgrims were initially scheduled to fly to Saudi Arabia at 1.30pm, only to be told by his travel agent that the trip would be cancelled.
“It would’ve been my first time performing umrah. I’ve been waiting for three years, but I also understand that this measure has to be taken because of the virus. I hope my trip can be rescheduled soon, ” Suyato said, while waiting for his children to pick him up at the airport.
Another pilgrim from Gresik, East Java, Zakaria, 57, also had no other choice but to leave the airport with her group of 36 pilgrims, who came from various cities across the country. She expected her first pilgrimage would be rescheduled as she would still be on the waiting list for the haj until 2024.
“I’ll have to return to Gresik now. I bought a return ticket for March 6, but what about now? Do I have to spend more money?” she said as she made her way out of the airport.Indonesian pilgrims who had landed at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates were in an even more difficult position. Some 83 pilgrims were expected to fly back to Jakarta, according to Indonesian Ambassador to the UAE Nur Ibrahim.
The pilgrims had left Jakarta and arrived on a stopover in Abu Dhabi at 12.25am on Thursday on their way to Madinah in Saudi Arabia. As a result of the ongoing outbreak, which has affected Saudi nationals in Bahrain and Kuwait, the Saudi government imposed the suspension of umrah and visits to the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah as one of several precautionary restrictions.
The Saudi Haj and Umrah Ministry has also temporarily halted the issuance of umrah visas and suspended entry to tourist-visa holders from “countries with confirmed coronavirus outbreaks, according to criteria established by the Saudi health authorities”.
Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, contributed the second-highest number of umrah pilgrims last year with 443,879 arrivals, according to data from the Saudi Haj and Umrah Ministry.
Saudi Arabia welcomes nearly seven million umrah pilgrims every year. While the temporary ban on Indonesian pilgrims is unprecedented, Saudi Arabia previously imposed a similar policy on several countries over Ebola fears.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has conveyed his respect for the Saudi government’s decision to impose the restrictions, saying that it demonstrated the country’s swift action in protecting its citizens from the virus.
Indonesian officials, however, were still in the process of lobbying the kingdom to exclude visa-holding Indonesians from the temporary ban, which immediately took effect upon its announcement.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she had met with the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Indonesia to lobby on behalf of Indonesian pilgrims already flying to and arriving in the country at the time of the announcement to be allowed to perform umrah.
“We’ve suggested that those already arriving (in the country) be allowed to perform umrah, perhaps with a health evaluation. However, we haven’t heard back (…) because, again, if the country gives Indonesia that treatment then it’ll have to treat other countries the same way too, ” Retno said.
She added that she had also raised the issue of Indonesia being categorised as one of the countries that Saudi Arabia had suspended tourism visas for during the meeting, arguing that Indonesia had not confirmed any cases of Covid-19.
She gave an assurance that all Indonesian envoys in the Middle East were on stand-by and that from the latter’s reports, pilgrims already in the country before the ban could still continue their activities as normal.
The Religious Affairs Ministry issued a statement calling on all travel agencies to temporarily halt sending pilgrims until Saudi Arabia lifts the ban. The ministry said that it was planning to meet with all travel agency associations and airlines to find a solution to the issue.