June 14 (Al Jazeera) – Saudi Arabia has lifted a mask mandate for indoor spaces even as COVID-19 infection numbers steadily climb past 1,000 new cases a day after reaching double-digit lows just two months ago.
Monday’s move comes as the kingdom prepares to welcome around 850,000 pilgrims from abroad to participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
The first batch of foreign pilgrims since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic began arriving from Indonesia earlier this month.
Masks will still be required at Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, where pilgrims gather for worship, according to the new rules. Organisers of events and festivals can continue to require masks if they wish.
The kingdom also dropped a rule requiring proof of vaccination on a mobile app that was needed to enter certain places, attend some events and board planes.
Both mask-wearing and use of the app have been sparsely enforced in recent months.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hugely disrupted Muslim pilgrimages, which are usually key revenue earners for the kingdom, bringing in some $12bn annually.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj must be undertaken by all Muslims who have the means at least once in their lives.
For nearly two years, Saudi Arabia was among the world’s most restrictive in its efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Protocols included banning Saudi nationals from leaving the country, barring travellers from multiple countries from entry into Saudi Arabia, requiring proof of vaccination to enter local malls and other indoor spaces and dramatically curtailing the annual hajj pilgrimage.
The country has since relaxed its rules as it hopes to woo tourists under a new scheme to boost the economy.
Meanwhile, in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, the government is stressing the importance of wearing masks indoors amid a 100 percent jump in cases in less than a week. The country of 9 million residents has around 1,300 confirmed new cases daily, despite high rates of vaccination.
Anyone found breaching indoor mask rules in the UAE will be fined 3,000 dirhams, or roughly $815.