Worshippers’ safety is Saudi Arabia’s top priority, says Hajj minister

Time: 20 October 2020  

Hajj and Umrah Minister Dr. Mohammed Saleh Benten. (AFP)
  • Benten said the gradual resumption of Umrah was taken after studying the global situation

JEDDAH: Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Dr. Mohammed Saleh Benten said on Monday health, safety, and security of worshippers are at the top of the government’s priorities.
Speaking at an online seminar titled “Umrah amid simple procedures and strict precaution,” he said the Saudi authorities are making concerted efforts to serve worshippers without compromising on their safety. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Sudais, head of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques and Deputy Hajj Minister Dr. Abdulfattah Mashat also attended the seminar.
“All government entities have been collectively working to ensure that Umrah pilgrims have registered with the Tawakkalna app. They follow up to make sure that visitors have not recently mixed with anyone who has coronavirus or developed any COVID-19 symptoms,” Benten said.
Benten said the gradual resumption of Umrah was taken after studying the global situation. He said the reintroduction of limits on Umrah pilgrims cannot be ruled out. He said it all depended on the number of infections around the world.
“We are in close contact with the Health Ministry, and if we detect any danger, we will immediately change our plans. However, we may increase the numbers of visitors if we witness a drop in COVID-19 cases,” he added.
The minister concluded that opening Umrah for international visitors would be an extraordinary decision. “No country has so far announced to receive such a huge number of visitors during the pandemic. Once approved, Saudi Arabia will be the only country to take such an initiative.”
Al-Sudais highlighted the measures taken to help pilgrims perform rituals in a safe environment without any hassles.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season

17/10/20

The efforts exerted by the government to ensure a hassle-free Hajj and the facilities provided to pilgrims at different levels were highly praised, most notably the health precautions of social distancing and adhering to health requirements. (SPA)

Kingdom harnesses all its potential to make pilgrims feel at home, prioritizing their safety: Muhammad Saleh Benten
JEDDAH: The Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry has shared some of the secrets behind what made the “exceptional” 2020 Hajj season a success, with zero transmitted cases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten said that the government utilized the latest technology to improve the pilgrim experience this season.
Speaking about his ministry’s efforts in preventing the spread of COVID-19, Benten said that it implemented precautionary measures in every phase of the pilgrimage, starting with the pilgrims being quarantined at home.
It also introduced institutional quarantine from the fourth to the eighth day of the Hajj, gave pilgrims electronic bracelets and enforced social distancing.
“For the second consecutive year, the ministry used the electronic platform through the ‘smart card’ application, taking into account the pilgrims’ special needs in terms of the journey’s organization and management,” he said. “The platform is a digital ID granted to the pilgrim that is directly linked with the ‘Smart Hajj’ application supervised by the ministry.”
He added that the digital ID contains the pilgrims’ personal, health and housing information, such as the numbers of their group, and which bus seat and bed has been allocated to them.
“It also enables pilgrims to know their special program, gathering points and times of departure. Moreover, the ministry registered pilgrims electronically by using an interactive platform that links 52 systems and is complemented by 30 governmental and nongovernmental bodies,” he added.
Relying on those services, the minister said, came as part of the ministry’s strategy to establish virtual platforms that reduce procedures, and keep pace with the technical development required to achieve the Saudi Vision 2030 goal to serve pilgrims.
With every Hajj season having its own challenges, the Hajj and Umrah Ministry has enjoyed success after success. However, the 2020 season put the ministry to an unprecedented test.
“As every year, Saudi Arabia harnesses all its potential and energies to make the Hajj season a success, prioritizing the safety and security of the pilgrims.

FASTFACTS
• When Saudi Arabia took the decision to hold Hajj for a limited number of people, it was keen to comply with all health and precautionary measures.

• This step was taken based on scientific decisions and thorough research studies that would ensure that pilgrims can perform Hajj rituals safely.

• The ministry and all Hajj-related authorities have learned many lessons from the last Hajj experience, where social distancing was implemented.

“However, last year’s Hajj was a little different with the whole world facing the COVID-19 outbreak. During the 2020 Hajj season, the Saudi government faced a rare and unprecedented challenge, and thanks to God, the Kingdom was able to address it,” he said.
He added: “When Saudi Arabia took the decision to hold Hajj for a limited number of people, it was keen to comply with all health and precautionary measures. This step was taken based on scientific decisions and thorough research studies that would ensure that pilgrims could perform Hajj rituals safely.”
He said that the efforts exerted by the Saudi government in this regard and the various facilities provided to pilgrims at different levels were highly praised, most notably the health precautions of social distancing and adhering to health requirements.
The ministry and all Hajj-related authorities have learned many lessons from the last Hajj experience, where social distancing was implemented. The minister shed light on the most notable lessons, and how they can benefit future seasons.
“The ministry implemented social distancing protocols in all phases of the pilgrims moving between the holy sites through limiting the seating capacity of buses to 50 percent,” said Benten.
As for the residence of pilgrims, officials conducted tests for all pilgrims and workers and assigned health observers to ensure guidelines were maintained.
He added: “Moreover, 49-seat buses were assigned to each group of 22 passengers, and Hajj routes were fixed in a way to achieve social distancing. These measures resulted in zero transmission of COVID-19 between pilgrims and their service providers.”
As many government officials have said in the past, preparations for the next Hajj season begin as soon as the previous iteration ends.
One of the advantages of the extraordinary 2020 season was that the ministry could accelerate projects in the holy sites.
Benten told Arab News that his ministry works every year on developing the services provided for pilgrims, to enrich their experience through providing diverse programs and initiatives.
“The ministry always benefits from the accumulated experiences, large-scale projects and personnel to provide the finest services with the best levels for pilgrims,” he said. “One of those initiatives that benefited the ministry, which will continue to implement it in the future, is the preparation and improvement of the holy sites, the preparation of a comprehensive scheme to expand the capacity and receive the largest number of pilgrims in order to achieve comfort, security, safety and environmental dimensions, reduce pollution and study spatial dimensions.”
He added that the ministry aims for a record time reception of pilgrims through the unified center to analyze data, enhancing crowd control efficiency and rapid intervention, reducing time to organize pilgrims, and distributing them equally.
The Hajj and Umrah companies have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; with some failing to meet their obligations towards their employees.
“The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has provided a myriad of facilities to these companies since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic through developing work and encouraging mergers and investments in Umrah companies,” Benten said.
He added that the ministry has also contributed to reducing the value of financial security for nondefaulting active Umrah companies to SR250,000 ($66,666) for six months.
“The ministry also authorized Umrah companies to reduce their capital in the commercial register to SR500,000 ($133,332), close their doors for one year, and postpone payment of nonessential violations for six months,” said Benten.
The ministry launched the business clinics unit, which is one of its programs aimed at helping companies review their mechanisms and operational plans.
“The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah will also be organizing many workshops and training programs for Umrah companies on strategies to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and the means of developing their business with efficiency,” he concluded.

This article was first published in Arab News

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First pilgrims arrive at Grand Mosque after six-month curb

04/10/20

The first group of pilgrims are checked for signs of coronavirus as they arrive in Jeddah on Saturday, before proceeding to Makkah. (Supplied)

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Saudi Arabia issues protocols to ensure the safety of pilgrims during Hajj

06/07/20

The Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control (Weqaya) has set safety protocols amid the ongoing coronavirus disease pandemic. The protocols affects all workers and pilgrims. (Photo/Supplied)

All rituals will be performed as per the rules set by the authorities to control the spread of coronavirus
JEDDAH: With coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases still surging throughout the world, Saudi Arabia has limited the number of pilgrims to performing this year’s Hajj and put several protocols in place.

The Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control (Weqaya) has set the protocols to decrease the infection rate and ensure pilgrims’ safety. Saudi Health Minister Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah announced earlier last month that the number of pilgrims would be limited this year.
Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Mohammed Saleh Benten said that the decision to limit numbers “aims to protect people above everything else, which has been the priority of the Kingdom since the start of the pandemic.”
The long list of protocols affects all workers and pilgrims this year. From July 19, authorities will prohibit all entry into Mina, Muzdalifa, and Arafat without permits.
Guides and awareness signs must be placed in all areas and written in various languages that include COVID-19 infection warnings, hand washing protocols, sneezing and coughing etiquette, and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Organizers must distribute pilgrims in the Tawaf area around the Kaaba to decrease overcrowding while adhering to a 1.5-meter distance between each person. Organizers at the Holy Mosque must ensure that pilgrims are distributed on all floors of the Saee (ritual walking between Safa and Marwa) and place track lines to maintain social distancing while ensuring that the grounds around the Kaaba and Saee are sanitized by cleaning crews before and after each group performing Tawaf.
Touching the Holy Kaaba and Black Stone will be prohibited, barriers will be set to prevent reaching the sites and the mosque’s carpets are to be removed to allow pilgrims to use their personal prayer rugs instead to decrease the chances of the spread of any infection.
Food will not be permitted in the mosque nor will it be allowed on the mosque’s grounds.
All personnel, guides, pilgrims and workers’ temperatures must be checked throughout the pilgrimage; protective face masks and gear must be worn at all times. Floor signs must be placed in locations such as baggage claim areas, restaurants and bus stops with a meter-and-a-half distance between each floor sign.
Concerning the protocols for Arafat and Muzdalifa, pilgrims must adhere to social distancing at all times, wear masks and organizers must ensure that no more than 10 pilgrims are located in a tent of 50 square meters, ensuring a 1.5-meter distance between each pilgrim. Pilgrims must adhere to designated tracks and organizers must be vigilant and ensure that all pilgrims stay in line while adhering to social distancing rules.
Organizers must assemble no more than 50 pilgrims heading to the Jamarat (stone pillars) per group and disinfected and packaged pebbles will be provided for pilgrims as well.

HIGHLIGHTS
• Organizers must distribute pilgrims in the Tawaf area around the Kaaba to decrease overcrowding.

• Food will not be permitted in the mosque nor will it be allowed on the mosque’s grounds.

• Touching the Holy Kaaba and Black Stone will be prohibited. Organizers must assemble no more than 50 pilgrims heading to the Jamarat (stone pillars) per group.

Those suspected of carrying the infection will be allowed to perform their pilgrimage only after being evaluated and cleared by a physician. They will be allocated into specific groups of suspected cases, placed in designated accommodation, and in buses with designated tracks to accommodate their condition.
Weqaya’s protocols also advised that no personnel are allowed to work if they contract flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, runny nose, a sore throat, or sudden loss of the sense of smell or taste) until symptoms disappear and are cleared by a physician.
Disinfecting and sanitization rounds must be scheduled and organized to ensure that surfaces such as door handles and tables in reception areas, public seating areas, and waiting areas are cleaned around the clock.
Sanitizers must be placed next to ATMs, touch-screen guides, and vending machines while all printed magazines and newspapers must be removed to decrease the possibility of transmission.
Workers at pilgrims’ accommodation must always wear face masks. Guests must wear masks when leaving their rooms and workers must disinfect and sanitize all luggage on arrival.
Weqaya also laid out protocols to decrease the rate of transmission at restaurants and rest stops. Water coolers must be discontinued in the Grand Mosque and holy sites and individual bottled Zamzam water will be available and distributed to pilgrims at all times.
Individual pre-packaged meals and food will be served to pilgrims. Workers distributing the meals must follow strict protocols that include washing hands for no less than 40 seconds using soap and water throughout their shifts and where they are not able to access these, alcohol-based sanitizers must be used instead for no less than 20 seconds.

This article was first published in Arab News

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