Saudi Arabia on Thursday halted travel to the holiest sites in Islam over coronavirus fears just months ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, as the Middle East recorded more than 220 confirmed cases.
The extraordinary decision by Saudi Arabia prevents foreigners from reaching the holy city of Mecca and the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims pray towards five times a day.
It also said travel was suspended to Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina.
The decision indicated the level of concern about the outbreak potentially spreading into Saudi Arabia, whose oil-rich monarchy stakes its legitimacy on protecting Islam’s holy sites.
The epicentre in the Middle East’s most-affected country, Iran, appears to be in the holy Shia city of Qom, where a shrine there sees the faithful reach out to kiss and touch it in reverence.
“Saudi Arabia 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,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement announcing the decision.
“We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm.”