Saudi Arabia suspends entry for Umrah pilgrimage over coronavirus fears

A police officer wears a face mask to prevent contracting coronavirus as Muslim pilgrims pray near the Kaaba in the Grand mosque in Makkah, Saudi Arabia on Feb. 27, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 February 2020

Saudi Arabia suspends entry for Umrah pilgrimage over coronavirus fears

  • Emirates will not allow Umrah pilgrims or tourists from nearly two dozen countries to fly to the Kingdom
  • Health ministry says no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Kingdom

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has placed a temporary ban on Umrah pilgrims in an attempt to ensure public safety by preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Most foreign pilgrims often visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah before or after the completion of their religious duties in Makkah, this has also been halted.

It is one of a number of precautionary restrictions announced early on Thursday as health authorities in the Kingdom closely monitor the spread of the virus. Tourist-visa holders from countries judged to pose a particularly high risk of spreading the virus will also be denied entry.

The Saudi health ministry said again on Thursday that there were ‘no known cases’ in the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation said it supports Saudi Arabia’s actions to protect pilgrims and visitors from coronavirus.

The Egyptian Dar Al-Iftaa also said Saudi Arabia’s decision to temporarily suspend Umrah visas over the coronavirus outbreak was in accordance with Sharia law.

The suspension of Umrah visas due to the coronavirus outbreak preserves the lives of pilgrims, it said.

Indonesia on Thusday said they asked the Kingdom to allow its citizens to continue their Umrah pilgrimage, with hundreds of pilgrims stranded at Jakarta airport following the temporary ban.

Later in the day, Dubai's Emirates said it would no longer carry to Saudi Arabia passengers with Umrah pilgrimage visas or tourists from nearly two dozen countries starting Thursday, until further notice.

In addition, Saudi nationals and citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council nations will not be able to use a national identity card to travel to and from the Kingdom for the time being. Exceptions to this shall be granted to Saudis returning home, and citizens of GCC countries who are in the Kingdom and want to return to their home countries, provided that they left or entered the Kingdom using a national identity card.

Health authorities at entry points will verify which countries travelers visited before arriving in Saudi Arabia and apply all necessary precautionary measures.

Saudi officials stressed that the restrictions are temporary and will be continuously reviewed by the health authorities. They reiterated the Kingdom’s support for and implementation of international efforts to limit the spread of the virus, and the Foreign Ministry urged citizens not to travel to the countries worst affected by the coronavirus.

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Nearly 7 million Umrah pilgrims visit the Kingdom each year, the majority of whom arrive at airports in Jeddah and Madinah.

Earlier, it emerged that seven Saudis are among the latest coronavirus cases in Bahrain and Kuwait. The Bahraini Ministry of Health on Wednesday said six Saudi women has tested positive for the virus.

They had arrived at Bahrain International Airport on a flight from Iran. The total number of confirmed cases in the country stands at 26. Studies at schools and universities have been suspended for two weeks in an effort to limit the spread of the virus.

Kuwait announced the first case of a Saudi citizen infected by the virus. The man, who had arrived in the country from the Iranian city of Mashhad, has been placed in quarantine for 14 days. There have been 26 confirmed cases of the virus to date in Kuwait.

The Saudi Ministry of Health has been providing neighboring Arab countries with advice and guidelines for controlling infectious diseases such as the coronavirus and dealing with health emergencies.

Dr. Hani bin Abdul Aziz Jokhdar, the deputy minister of public health, said that the guidelines were based on Saudi Arabia’s experience of protecting the health and well-being of pilgrims during Hajj season.

He led the Kingdom’s delegation at a meeting of the Executive Office of the Council of Arab Ministers for Health on Wednesday at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.


Carrom’s coronavirus comeback? Saudis are turning to a traditional Indian board game to escape boredom

Updated 09 April 2020

Carrom’s coronavirus comeback? Saudis are turning to a traditional Indian board game to escape boredom

  • Forgotten board game selling out across Kingdom as strict lockdowns keep families indoor
  • Saudi Arabia is among parts of the Gulf where carrom playing has been a popular pastime

JEDDAH: When the global coronavirus pandemic hit, some countries ignored it, while others had people singing from their balconies to beat the lockdown blues.

In Saudi Arabia, people trooped to toy stores to buy a largely forgotten traditional board game, carrom, which quickly sold out across the Kingdom.

Carrom is a wooden table-top board game that bears many similarities to pool. Different standards and rules exist in different parts of the world.

The board, square in shape, is often placed on four wooden legs, with each player occupying one side of the square.

Demand for carrom boards rocketed as lockdowns and curfews aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus forced Saudis to look for ways to keep boredom at bay.

For many families, there is no better way to stay entertained than by playing carrom, a board game that both old and young enjoy.

Carrom is popular in many parts of the Gulf region, especially in the coastal areas of Saudi Arabia, where its appeal cuts across all age groups.

Majid Al-Dosari, an engineer working from home in Jeddah, considers himself lucky to have bought a carrom board just days before the item sold out.

“I got into it a few weeks ago after playing games with my future in-laws, and I wanted to get one for my family,” he told Arab News.

“We usually meet up for lunch, but now we play carrom together throughout the day. It’s coffee and tea and carrom with my brother, his wife and my sister.”

When Jeddah was placed under curfew, Al-Dosari placed his order through the Haraj website. The seller delivered the item to his house two days later for SR90 ($24).

“Prices of carrom boards tripled afterwards, going up to SR300-400. They sold out very quickly,” Al-Dosari said.

In many stores in Jeddah, including shops in the city’s downtown area, the board game is now out of stock.


THE RULES OF THE GAME 

A carrom game is a competition between two individual players or two teams of two players each. Rival teams are assigned white or black coins before the game starts, and each team tries to win by sinking all nine coins of their color in the pockets and securing the red-colored queen. The queen can only be pursued after at least one carrom man of the player’s color has been secured. It cannot be secured if its pocketing is not followed up by the sinking of a carrom man of the player’s color.

If either condition is not met, the queen has to be placed back in the middle of the board. Each black and white piece counts as one point, while the queen counts as 5 (3 universally) points. The scoring system varies from region to region, but in most parts of Saudi Arabia, the team that collects 21 points (25 universally) wins the game.


Customers now are searching the websites of online retailers that claim to import the best carrom boards from India for delivery in Saudi Arabia.

Carrom is most commonly played during Ramadan nights as people stay up with family members or friends, waiting for the early morning call to prayer.

At the beginning of a game, small circular wooden disks, called carrom men or coins, are massed in a group in a circle at the center of the board.

The arrangement is considered complete when nine black coins and nine white pieces are positioned in Y formation, surrounded by black coins and the red “queen” in the center. A puck, known as “striker,” is then used to flick carrom men and the queen into pockets located at the board’s four edges.

Carrom lore suggests that the game first reached Saudi Arabia via the Hijaz region through traders from India.

Over the decades, it became an important part of social life in the Kingdom, featuring in family events, all-female or all-male meetings, and even in gatherings of children.

 Artist Najat Mutahr's tribute to Hijaz's connection to the board game: Saudi grandparents playing carrom with grandchild. (Artwork by @nmutahr)

Saudi artist Najat Mutahr has highlighted Hijaz’s links with carrom through an artwork showing grandparents playing the board game with their grandchild.

Saad Al-Suwaiyan, a Saudi anthropologist, has described carrom as one of the games played by Saudis for generations and whose appeal has no age limits.

Tribute has been paid in the 12th volume of Al-Suwaiyan’s series “Traditional Culture of Saudi Arabia,” which is dedicated to popular games and their significance in Arab and Saudi social life.

References to carrom are also to be found in Saudi literature. In her book “Carrom,” published in 2019 by Dar Molhimon, author Rehab Abu Zeid says the rules of the game help tackle issues such as patriarchy and paternalism, with the first stroke of a game unleashing chaos in the lives of the novel’s characters.


THE ORIGINS  OF CARROM

Carrom is known in different regions of the world in different ways: kayrum (Arabic), caroom, karom, couronne, carum, karam and finger billiards. 

The modern version is believed to have originated in India. One carrom board with its surface made of glass is available in one of the palaces in the former princely state of Patiala.

It became very popular among ordinary Indians after World War I, when different provinces began to hold competitions.

The world’s longest carrom marathon lasted 34 hours, 45 minutes, 56 seconds in India. The fifth round of Carrom World Cup was held in South Korea in 2018.


In Saudi Arabia, there are several variations of the carrom game. The most common, Money or Fuloos, pits two individual players against each other.

Players can collect points starting from five for a black piece, 10 for a white one and 50 points for the queen.

The player who collects the most points wins. The arrangements of the coins can vary, but the queen remains central.

Knowledge of the rules of the game are once again in demand in Saudi households.

“I grew up playing carrom with my mom and her family,” Nahid Noor, a 39-year-old teacher from Jeddah, told Arab News.

“The competition tended to be fierce. A tournament would often materialize in the course of a gathering.”

Carrom is a very popular game among South Asian children. (Supplied)

Noor, a mother of two, said that that over the years, her family had lost the habit of carrom playing.

The game was played only rarely — until the coronavirus lockdowns began.

She describes her family’s carrom board as battered and old, but invaluable.

“I just can’t seem to find another one of such high quality. I think my mother bought it from a toy shop in Jeddah seven years ago,” she said.

According to Noor, the board game has made family gatherings more enjoyable during a tense and difficult time.

Late nights are marked by family banter, laughter and, at times, shrieks of disappointment from players when they miss a toss.

“We are all stuck at home now, with nothing to pass the time after everyone is done with their work and chores,” she told Arab News.

“So, we are pulling out the old carrom board and starting to play the game again.”