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Fewer Pilgrims arrive this year at Hajj: Slowdown Hits Saudi Businesses

Those who are still coming have less to spend, said Ali al-Hirabi, who hawks gleaming gold necklaces and rings from a shop in the holy city

FILE - Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 11, 2016. VOA

Saudi businesses catering to hajj visitor have taken a hit this year as far fewer pilgrims arrive and those who come have less cash to spend.

Saudi authorities say only about 1.86 million pilgrims, including around 1.3 million coming from outside the country, are attending this year’s hajj, down from peak figures that approached 3 million a few years ago.

The number of visitors from abroad has fallen by around 20 percent and the number from within Saudi Arabia has fallen by half, said Marwan Abbas Shaaban, head of the kingdom’s National Committee for Hajj and Umrah. Overall, hajj-related business was down by half, he said.

Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Wikimedia

Every Muslim who is able and has the means is expected to travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj month at least once in a lifetime. Muslims also visit the holy city at other times of the year for pilgrimages known as umrah.

Those who are still coming have less to spend, said Ali al-Hirabi, who hawks gleaming gold necklaces and rings from a shop in the holy city.

“They come, but their situation isn’t like it was when there was peace in the world,” he said. “It’s the Arab countries that are the problem.”

Saudi Arabia itself and many of its Arab neighbors are suffering from the fall in global oil prices that has cut state budgets, lowered wages and reduced lavish domestic spending. War across the Middle East has also hit the hajj.

Officials give a variety of reasons for the declining visitor numbers. One of the most obvious is a boycott by Iran, which barred its citizens from attending this year’s hajj after diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia collapsed following the Saudi execution of a Shi’ite cleric.

Efforts to find a way for Iranians to come faltered over Tehran’s accusations that Riyadh was to blame for poor safety at last year’s hajj, when at least 2,070 people died in a crush.

Saudi Arabia says safety has improved over the years and accuses Iran of polticizing the rite with its criticism.

Shabaan said Iranians typically made up 7 percent of foreign hajj visitors, and their absence did not account for the bulk of the fall-off in numbers.

He said another factor was the construction under way in Mecca itself, which is designed to increase its capacity to accept hajj pilgrims in future, but means there is less room while the building is still under way.

“Over the last three years there has been a reduction in the number of pilgrims because of the expansion of the Two Holy Mosques and the massive infrastructure improvements,” he said, also citing “political conditions in some countries and economic conditions.”

Wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, which have brought down numbers in past years as well, have worsened this year.

Most Syrians and Yemenis now live in territory controlled by warring sides opposed by Saudi Arabia, making it difficult to get visas.


Mecca’s mayor Osama bin Fadl Al-Bar played down the lull.

“There is certainly an effect on economic sectors, but the private sector is always looking toward the light at the end of the tunnel and the investment opportunities that are present.”

He said the renovations to expand Mecca’s Grand Mosque and nearby hotels, which have turned the area into a tangle of cranes, would drive future business and let the city accommodate 3.7 million hajj pilgrims in 2020 and 6.7 million by 2042.

As part of a reform plan to wean Saudi Arabia off its dependency on oil, the government aims to encourage even more visits to Mecca outside of hajj season, raising annual pilgrim numbers to 30 million by 2030 from 8 million at present.

Some architectural and cultural critics have lamented the changes to Mecca’s landscape from the development projects, which include high-rises and a 76-story clocktower.

Meanwhile, despite the smaller crowds, merchants in Mecca do not seem to be lowering their prices. The high cost of basic goods, especially near the Grand Mosque, is a perennial complaint for pilgrims.

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Senior Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdullah Bin Sulaiman al-Manea told Okaz newspaper businesses should not gouge customers, and criticized the spread of billboards in the city: “The duty of hajj should not become a venue for trade, profit and gain.”

Fatima al-Murabit, a Moroccan who together with her husband was visiting for the second year in a row, said prices had gone up since last year.

“Even dates are expensive, and bad manners are a general feature of traders and workers in the markets,” she lamented.

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“There is exploitation of the ignorant. I hope that gets changed in the future. People come for the Prophet’s Mosque and the Kaaba, but there’s some exploitation and a lack of oversight.” (VOA)

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  • Manthra koliyer

    This arrival of few pilgrims could be because of the stampede that occured last year.

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Major Plot Twist for Students at Saudi Arabia’s First Cinema School

"Everything is about to change,"

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A Saudi woman studies film making at a university in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 7, 2018. VOA

Student Sama Kinsara adjusts her camera at Saudi Arabia’s only cinema school, her dream of seeing her work on the big screen coming into focus after the lifting of the country’s 35-year ban on cinema.

“Everything is about to change,” the first-year student of “visual and digital production” at Effat University in Jeddah told Reuters.

Her course is to be renamed “cinematic arts,” dropping the deceptive title employed originally to help stay under the radar of religious police and local communities opposed to the idea of men teaching women how to make movies.

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Saudi women study film making at a university in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 7, 2018. VOA

Kinsara and her classmates on the four-year, women-only course have been able to film outside the university grounds for the first time.

“A girl carrying a camera and shooting in the streets is pushing boundaries,” said Mohamed Ghazala, head of Effat’s Visual and Digital Production Department, which began the course in 2013.

The changes follow the lifting of restrictions by reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the last year.

Authorities hope that by opening 300 cinemas and building a film industry, more than $24 billion can be added to the economy and 30,000 jobs created.

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Saudi women study film making at a university in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 7, 2018. VOA

Cinema is one of several new avenues for Saudi women, who can now attend soccer matches, take part in sport, and in a few months will be allowed to drive cars.

The deeply conservative kingdom is still one of most restrictive countries for women in the world, with a guardianship system requiring women to have a male relative’s approval for important decisions.

For film student Qurratulain Waheb, the chance to get off the university campus and film with her classmates is welcomed.

“Before there was a problem if we had a camera in the malls, we were not allowed to enter the malls but things are getting smoother now when we have access,” she said. “When we have permissions it gets easier, it gets better and people are more accepting. They want to see what we’re doing.” VOA