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Saudi Arabia's King Salman sacks pilgrimage minister

The kingdom has suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic from a lack of income from pilgrims
Handout from the Saudi Press Agency on 15 December 2020 shows Saudi Arabia's King Salman signing the 2021 state budget following a virtual cabinet meeting in the capital Riyadh (AFP)

Sauid Arabia's minister overseeing pilgrimages has been sacked in a royal decree, according to the state news agency.

The Saudi Press Agency said that King Salman dismissed Mohamed Benten, minister for the Haj and Umrah, as the impact of Covid-19 continues to sap the kingdom of much needed income from pilgrims.

State minister Issam ben Saeed was appointed acting minister.

"Mohammed Saleh ben Taher Benten, Minister of Haj and Umrah shall be relieved form his position," SPA said in a tweet, without giving reasons behind the decision. Benten was appointed in 2016.

The kingdom, which stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, and its safe organisation of the Hajj, sharply scaled back last year's pilgrimage to prevent the spread of coronavirus, after barring Muslims abroad from the rite for the first time in modern times.

Companies operating in the sector have been hit hard by the government's preventive measures.

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Before the pandemic, more than 1,300 hotels and hundreds of stores buzzed around the clock to cater to pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Earlier this week, Jabal Omar Development Company, one of Saudi Arabia's largest listed property developers, secured 1.6bn riyals ($427m) in loans from Banque Saudi Fransi backed by a finance ministry guarantee, after being hit hard by the Mecca lockdown.

Earlier this week, SPA said King Salman has approved a range of initiatives aimed at assisting firms and individuals operating in the sector to mitigate Covid-related financial and economic effects incurred during the lockdown.

Separately, the royal decrees also included relieving the head of the General Aviation Authority, Abdulhadi al-Mansouri, from his position and moving him to a foreign ministry post.

Abdulaziz al-Duaelij was appointed as new head of the aviation authority.