RIYADH: A handout picture provided yesterday shows King Salman bin Abdulaziz chairing a virtual cabinet meeting from his office at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital late Tuesday. — AFP

RIYADH: A Jordanian couple in Saudi Arabia burst into tears of joy to be among the chosen ones for next week’s scaled-down hajj pilgrimage, but countless rejected applications have stirred resentment. For the first time in modern history, millions of pilgrims outside Saudi Arabia have been barred from the hajj - a key pillar of Islam and one of the world’s largest mass gatherings - because of a coronavirus surge.

The dramatically curtailed hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Makkah has drawn a huge rush of applicants. Saudi officials said residents from 160 countries competed in the government-run lottery that many described as an opaque selection process - bringing elation to up to 10,000 people while leaving the vast majority disappointed.

Late Tuesday, Saudi King Salman chaired a virtual cabinet meeting from a hospital office, a day after he was admitted due to gall bladder inflammation, the Saudi Press Agency reported. The cabinet held a virtual meeting, chaired by King Salman “from his office at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh,” SPA said on Twitter. In the meeting, the cabinet discussed arrangements for the forthcoming hajj pilgrimage. The report was accompanied by footage from the spacious office in the hospital where the king presided over the meeting from  behind a large desk. He thanked all those who had enquired about his health, SPA said.

“With so many applicants, we hardly had a one percent chance of being selected,” said a Riyadh-based Jordanian engineer, 29, selected for the pilgrimage along with his 26-year-old wife, a health worker. “We were shocked and overjoyed.” Also among the chosen few is Nasser, a Riyadh-based Nigerian expat, euphoric at winning what he called the “golden ticket” to hajj. “This feeling cannot be described,” he told AFP.

But the Jordanian engineer, who declined to be named, said he felt compelled to delete his social media post announcing his selection, fearing he and his wife would attract the ire and envy of rejected applicants. Pilgrims typically wait for years to be chosen through a strict quota system for hajj, which last year drew some 2.5 million people. Saudi authorities initially said only around 1,000 pilgrims residing in the kingdom would be permitted for hajj, but local media reports say as many as 10,000 will be allowed.

The hajj ministry has fielded a deluge of anguished queries on Twitter. “Why reject me without giving a reason?” a woman asked the ministry, posting a screenshot of her rejected online application. “Everyone around me has been declined.” Two widows, a Nigerian and an Egyptian working in the kingdom, furiously speculated whether they had been denied the chance to attend the ritual because they had not registered a male guardian to accompany them. Others wondered if several slots had been reserved for diplomats and business and royal elites.

The ministry, which did not respond to AFP’s request for comment, said Saudi pilgrims were selected from a pool of health practitioners and military personnel who have recovered from COVID-19. One man, who said he had survived the disease, tweeted: “I am a health practitioner and I had contracted coronavirus... I don’t understand why I was not chosen.”

The government invited online applications from foreign residents, saying they would make up 70 percent of the pilgrims, but did not explain how many applied or how they were picked. “Saudi authorities kept the selection process highly opaque since it is a sensitive matter,” Umar Karim, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told AFP. “Keeping it hidden from public scrutiny is meant to generate less noise about who got selected and who didn’t.”

Just a week before the hajj, an annual global media event, it remained unclear whether it would be open to the foreign press. For Saudi Arabia, curtailing the hajj was a decision fraught with political and economic peril. Selecting a few from a vast pool of contenders risks further roiling public sentiment. To be among the chosen ones adds an aura of religious prestige to this year’s pilgrimage, applicants say.

Despite the pandemic, many pilgrims consider it is safer to participate in this year’s ritual without the usual colossal crowds cramming into tiny religious sites, which make it a logistical nightmare and a health hazard. Even in a regular year, the hajj leaves pilgrims exposed to a host of viral illnesses. “A lot of people want to do the hajj this year as it will likely be less burdensome and more organized due to a smaller crowd,” said Karim.

Authorities said pilgrims will be tested for coronavirus before arriving in Makkah and are required to quarantine before and after the ritual. Pilgrims will be provided with bottled holy water from Makkah’s Zamzam well and sterilized pebbles for a stoning ritual, they added. “The only consolation,” said Farah Abu Shanab, a Riyadh-based Palestinian whose hajj application was rejected, “is that the government is pressing ahead with the pilgrimage, even if in a limited way.” - AFP