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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

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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.

Renovations

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)

  • Manthra koliyer

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

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Saudi Arabia and India Explore New Avenues Together

We are working towards transforming our economy, governance and society to achieve the dreams envisaged by our leadership for our great nation

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Saudi Arabia, India, Avenues
Saudi Arabia continues its illustrious journey of progress under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Pixabay

This September 23 marks the 89th anniversary of the unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud. The glorious history of our nation was made by the sacrifices of our founder King and his successors who transformed our great country into a regional leader and global economic power.

Saudi Arabia continues its illustrious journey of progress under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense.

We are working towards transforming our economy, governance and society to achieve the dreams envisaged by our leadership for our great nation. Under the ambitious Vision 2030, we are now looking at a post-oil age of world-class technological research, startup development, entrepreneurial vigour and vast investment opportunities.

Our leadership has placed the Saudi citizens and their aspirations at the heart of Vision 2030. The entire development narrative of the Kingdom rests on three pillars — to build a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.

Saudi Arabia, India, Avenues
This September 23 marks the 89th anniversary of the unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by King Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud. Pixabay

The Kingdom’s economic and social reforms are beginning to bear fruit and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects our non-oil real growth to rise by 2.9 per cent in 2019. The current IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook has ranked Saudi Arabia in the 26th position, making the Kingdom the seventh most competitive country among our G20 peers. The World Bank too has ranked the Kingdom as the fourth largest reformer within G20.

We aim to be among the top 10 capital markets in the world by 2030. We are also focusing on logistics. Our aim is to attract 1.6 trillion riyals in private investments over the next decade through National Industrial Development and Logistics Program.

Multiple giga-projects including Neom, Qiddiya, Red Sea Tourism Project etc. are all set to change the touristic map of Saudi Arabia. Special mention goes to Green Riyadh, one of the world’s largest urban greening projects. With the planting of 7.5 million trees, the green cover in the Saudi capital will increase from 1.5 per cent to 9.1 per cent of the total area.

The per capita green space availability will thus increase to nearly thrice of World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation. The project will help reduce average ambient temperature by 2 degrees Celsius and use more than one million cubic metres of treated sewage effluent daily for irrigation.

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King Salman Park Project is yet another grand project slated to become the world’s biggest city park — complete with a National Theatre, an Opera House and an 18-hole royal golf course.

As part of the Vision, the Kingdom is aiming at localising strategic technologies and enabling Saudi young people to work with advanced state-of-the-art technologies.

With a $12 billion IT market and a $10 billion emerging technology market, the Kingdom is today one of the world’s most attractive economies. Our strong digital infrastructure has increased the mobile internet speed four times, surpassing the global average; increased fiber network coverage by 50 per cent to more than one million additional houses and provided 100 per cent internet access.

The newly strengthened communication infrastructure has also enabled the health sector to aspire to contribute about $500 million to the GDP by 2030. Our e-government initiative is building government institutions that are effective, transparent and accountable — we are issuing commercial licences within 24 hours, renewing passports in five minutes and issuing digital authorisation in less than 10 minutes.

Saudi Arabia, India, Avenues
The glorious history of our nation was made by the sacrifices of our founder King and his successors who transformed our great country into a regional leader and global economic power. Pixabay

We are also aiming at full automation of Haj related processes to make the journey more comfortable. The Maqam online portal is issuing electronic visas within minutes of completing the forms. New technologies have been implemented at the Jeddah and Madinah airports to facilitate the pilgrims. Makkah Road Initiative is also enabling the pilgrims to enter the Kingdom via dedicated lanes in record time.

In partnership with the private sector, we are also developing cloud technologies to unify all pilgrim-related data so that real-time insights can be used to improve crowd management, transport and logistics. We are also tapping into mobile applications and the IoT to promote digitally administered services for the pilgrims.

Developing a robust infrastructure for public and commercial transport is quintessential to realising our dreams for our nation. The Kingdom is investing heavily on building modern transportation networks to strengthen its position as a distinct logistics platform between the three continents — Asia, Europe and Africa.

The new Riyadh Metro will be able to carry 1.16 million passengers daily, while the Riyadh Bus Network will be able to carry about 900,000 passengers every day to feed the Metro trains. They are part of the ambitious Riyadh Public Transit Network Project (RPTN).

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Saudi Railway Company (SAR) and Huawei will work together to jointly design and innovate in the field of smart railways, including the application of a next-generation railway wireless network, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, cloud services and 5G across SAR’s railway network. In this context, the Haramain High-Speed Railway has become fully operational with the capacity of transporting 60 million people annually between Makkah and Madinah.

Saudi Arabia is leading the global campaign against terrorism, terror financing and extremism. We recently became the first Arab country to gain membership of the elite Financial Action Task Force that works against terror financing. Our leadership’s endeavour to promote peace and stability in the region has been persistent.

Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a historic peace agreement in September 2018 in Jeddah in the presence of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, ending over two decades of conflict. The UN Secretary-General lauded the Kingdom and its leadership’s role in contributing towards bringing the two parties together and facilitating the peace agreement.

Our values guide us in our humanitarian endeavour. The Kingdom’s development and humanitarian assistance amounted to 3.7 per cent of the Saudi GDP, surpassing the UN proposed rate of 0.7 per cetn of GDP. The Kingdom has been instrumental in extending financial aid estimated at $116 billion to 95 developing countries.

As providing adequate funding to implement Sustainable Development Goals is one of the most important challenges facing the world, as hosts of G20 Summit in November 2020, we are determined to ensure sustainability through an agenda focused on climate change, food security, access to energy and water, and investment in human capital.

We look forward to India’s continued partnership. Saudi Arabia has valued India as a close friend and valuable strategic partner. Our dynamic cultural, economic and political partnership is based on mutual respect and shared interests.

There are nearly 3 million Indians who live and work in Saudi Arabia and their contribution in the development of the Kingdom has been significant. Our newly announced residency permit scheme for qualified international expatriates will further attract global entrepreneurs, innovators and investors from India and across the world.

The visit of HRH Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz earlier this year to India has been a historic milestone in terms of bilateral co-operation between our two countries with the setting up of the Strategic Partnership Council. Saudi Arabia is looking at making investments in India potentially worth $100 billion in the areas of energy, refining, petrochemicals, infrastructure, agriculture, minerals and mining, manufacturing, education and health.

There is huge untapped potential available in merchandise trade, particularly in non-oil trade and we are enhancing cooperation in economic, commercial, investment, cultural and technological fields. This year, more than 40 opportunities of joint collaboration and investments across various sectors have been identified and our current bilateral trade of approximately $34 billion will undoubtedly continue to increase in near future.

Saudi Aramco’s proposed investments in India’s energy sector such as the $44 billion West Coast Refinery and Petrochemical project in Maharashtra and long term partnership with Reliance reflects Saudi Arabia’s commitment of working together with India for development and prosperity of our two peoples.

The visit indeed heralded a new dawn for Saudi-India ties, marked by the inauguration of the new diplomatic complex of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. The occasion was graced by the presence of Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Member of the Cabinet Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir and the late Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. The building has been designed to symbolise the architecture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and convey a hospitable relationship between the Saudi Arabian Embassy and the Indian people.

On the margins of the G20 Summit in Japan this June, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and further discussed deepening bilateral cooperation in trade and investment, energy security and counter-terrorism, among other areas. As we explore new avenues together, the historic bonds between our two peoples will continue its importance as an anchor of our friendly ties and strategic partnership. (IANS)