This new rule was announced on Tuesday, April 13, at the start of Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims. This is the month when they are known to devote the entirety of their days to prayer and abstain from food and water from sunrise to sunset.
The rule currently applies to the umrah pilgrimage, a short and non-compulsory pilgrimage that can take place any time of the year.
According to the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, the Saudi Arabian executive department in charge of handling pilgrimage issues, there will be three categories of people who the state will consider to be "immunized." These are people who have received at least two doses of a coronavirus vaccine, people who have received a single dose of the vaccine at least 14 days prior to arriving in the country and people who have recovered from the virus.
The ministry said the policy will come into effect at the beginning of Ramadan, but it did not say how long it would last. The holy month lasts for 29 or 30 days.
Only those who can prove they are "immune" can receive the proper permits to perform the umrah pilgrimage, as well as attend prayers in the Great Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in the world for Muslims. Similar rules will also apply to The Prophet's Mosque in the city of Medina, the second holiest site in Islam.
Saudi authorities said the new policy would "raise the operational capacity" of the Great Mosque during Ramadan. The tail-end of the holy month is usually when most umrah pilgrimages occur.
Along with requiring immunization from COVID-19, Saudi authorities have also begun implementing strict social distancing measures for pilgrims with approval. The country's holy sites will be regularly disinfected.
Saudi Arabia has reported more than 393,000 cases of COVID-19, including 6,700 deaths, since the start of the pandemic last year. (Related: Coronavirus comes for Saudi royal family: Elite hospital scrambles to accommodate members of royal family's inner sanctum.)
It is not clear if the new rule regarding immunization applies to pilgrims who want to participate in the hajj. The hajj is the compulsory pilgrimage every Muslim must take at least once in their lifetime if they are able to visit Mecca. It can only be done during a certain time every year. This year's hajj will be from July 17 to 22.
During last year's hajj, only 10,000 Sunni Muslim residents of Saudi Arabia were allowed to participate, which is a significant decrease from the approximately 2.5 million Muslims from around the world who participated in the hajj in 2019.
It is still unclear how many pilgrims will be allowed to participate in the hajj this year. According to Okaz, a pro-government daily newspaper, the government may permit vaccinated pilgrims to do the hajj this year.
The country began relaxing its coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Oct. 2020, when the government opened the Great Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months, and certain visitors were allowed to visit the holy city for the umrah pilgrimage.
Before the pandemic, the umrah pilgrimage attracted millions of Muslims from across the globe each year. Umrah or hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina are key revenue earners for Saudi Arabia, whose kingdom was badly hit by the pandemic.
The country is looking for ways to reopen its economy, and it believes that allowing vaccinated individuals to conduct pilgrimages will help with that goal.
Saudi authorities have stated that the umrah will be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has passed.
The country also believes it can reopen its economy once it has vaccinated its population. As of press time, Saudi Arabia has administered nearly 6.3 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine to its population of around 35 million.
Learn more about how other countries around the world are dealing with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic by reading the latest articles at Pandemic.news.