A ban on citizens from the Democratic Republic of Congo from entering Saudi Arabia has been implemented as a result of the serious Ebola outbreak in the African country. The decision was announced by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs following the World Health Organization (WHO) labeling the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
The announcement means that all Hajj visas for Congo citizens have been suspended, and travelers from DR Congo will be unable to attend the religious pilgrimage event later this year. It is expected that the Saudi government will not allow any new permit to visit Saudi Arabia to be issued for citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo until the epidemic has been resolved.
The Hajj Visa for Congo Citizens
Citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo are normally able to obtain a visa for Saudi Arabia for purposes of religious pilgrimage. It is possible to obtain either an Umrah or a Hajj visa for Congo citizens through a simplified electronic application. Both visas allow travel for religious pilgrimage to Mecca, although pilgrims can undertake Umrah at any time of the year, while the Hajj pilgrimage takes place during the last month of the Islamic calendar (August – September).
The Hajj pilgrimage forms a major part of the religious culture of Saudi Arabia and is a key event for followers of Islam from all over the world. All adult Muslims are encouraged to undertake a Hajj pilgrimage at least once during their lives. The 6-day event commemorates the ‘farewell pilgrimage’ taken by the Prophet Muhammad in 632 BCE and is believed to cleanse attendees of their sins.
Travelers from sub-Saharan Africa make up around 10 percent of the more than two million annual pilgrims to Mecca. As around three percent of the population of DR Congo is Muslim, the fact that the Hajj visa has been denied for citizens of the country is bound to affect travel plans for many.
Why Saudi Arabia Suspended the Hajj Visa for DR Congo
The suspension of the Saudi Hajj visa for Congo citizens because of the Ebola outbreak is not that surprising considering that foreign citizens are required to meet strict medical requirements for Saudi Arabia before traveling to the country.
However, the decision to stop issuing Hajj visas goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, who had advised countries not to close borders, restrict trade or travel, or ‘panic’ in response to the epidemic being labeled a public health emergency. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended their decision by stating the move was intended ‘to conserve the wellbeing of pilgrims’ and prevent the spread of Ebola.
The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has already killed over 1,700 people in the country since it was declared in late 2018 and is threatening to spread to the major city of Goma as well as across the border into Uganda. The WHO has warned that security must be stepped up in the affected area and called for foreign aid agencies to increase efforts in an attempt to contain the epidemic. The United States, in particular, has been called to deploy more experts from their Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
However, there is the hope of beating the outbreak, as vaccines have been deployed against the Ebola epidemic for the first time since the disease was discovered in 1976. Vaccinations against Ebola are currently being administered in the affected Ituri and North Kivu provinces of DR Congo and a second vaccine is being considered for the general population of the country outside of the disease epicenter.
This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has implemented a travel ban and suspended visas for citizens from countries in the grip of an Ebola epidemic. The kingdom also closed its borders to travelers from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia during the West Africa outbreak of 2014-2016, the deadliest yet with over 11,300 fatalities. However, Hajj visa applications for the affected countries have since reopened since the prior epidemic was brought under control.