In 2019, about 2.5 million people took part in the rituals, which include circling the Kaaba, the imposing black cube at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, gathering at Mount Arafat and “stoning the devil” in Mina.
The following year, foreigners were barred and worshippers were restricted to just 10,000, rising to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents in 2021, to stop the Haj turning into a global super-spreader.
One million vaccinated pilgrims under the age of 65 will attend the Haj under strict sanitary conditions, with the Grand Mosque, the holiest site in Islam, scrubbed and disinfected 10 times a day.
The rituals have seen numerous disasters, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 people and a 1979 attack by hundreds of gunmen that left 153 dead, according to the official toll.
The pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, is a powerful source of prestige for the conservative desert kingdom and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is returning from the diplomatic wilderness.
Days after the Haj, Prince Mohammed will welcome US President Joe Biden who, with oil prices sent soaring by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has reneged on promises to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.
The Haj, which costs at least US$5,000 per person, is a money-spinner for the world’s biggest oil exporter, bringing in about US$12 billion a year along with other religious visits.
It is also a chance to showcase a country that is undergoing rapid transformation, while still drawing regular complaints about human rights abuses and limits on personal freedoms.
Saudi Arabia – which has under recent reforms permitted raves in Riyadh and mixed-gender beaches in Jeddah – now also allows women to attend the Haj unaccompanied by a male relative, a requirement that was dropped last year.