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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
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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)

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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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The Khashoggi Killing Creates Differences Between Trump And U.S. Lawmakers

Numerous U.S. lawmakers have said they intend to push for U.S. sanctions against Saudi Arabia because of Khashoggi's killing.

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A man holds a poster showing images of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (L), dubbed "assassin," and of journalist writer Jamal Khashoggi, dubbed "martyr," during a prayer service for Khashoggi, in Istanbul, Turkey. VOA

Several U.S. lawmakers broke with President Donald Trump on Sunday, disagreeing with his assessment that it was uncertain whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the killing of a Saudi dissident journalist inside Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul.

Congressman Adam Schiff, set to become the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when Democrats take control of the House in January, told CNN, “I have been briefed by the CIA and, while I cannot discuss the contents of the briefing in any way, I can say that I think the president is being dishonest with the American people.”

Schiff said, “It causes our standing in the world to plummet, it telegraphs to despots around the world that they can murder people with impunity, and that this president will have their back as long as they praise him.”

U.S.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters after a news conference in Washington. VOA

Trump last week said the U.S. would stand by Saudi Arabia and that he did not know whether the crown prince had knowledge in advance of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. While living in the U.S., Khashoggi wrote opinion columns for The Washington Post that were critical of Mohammed bin Salman and Riyadh’s involvement in the long-running Yemen conflict.

“It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said.

Trump concluded, “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”

Saudi Arabia has indicted 11 of its agents in connection with the Khashoggi killing, with five of them facing the death penalty if convicted.

Trump, U.S.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey during a bill-signing ceremony at the White House in Washington. VOA

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, also disputed Trump’s equivocation on whether the crown prince had knowledgeable of the Khashoggi killing.

“I disagree with the president’s assessment,” Lee told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It’s inconsistent with the intelligence I’ve seen,” which implicates the crown prince.

Human rights factor

Another Republican, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, said on CNN, “I do think we need to look into this further.” She said that while Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner of the U.S., “We also are a very strong nation when it comes to human rights, when it comes to the rule of law. And if there are indicators that the [crown] prince was involved in this murder, then we need to absolutely consider further action.”

Ernst said she did not think Trump was exonerating Saudi Arabia, but added, “I think at such a time when it becomes necessary, the president also needs to speak directly to the Saudis and say enough is enough.”

U.S.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, returns to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing after a break on Capitol Hill in Washington. VOA

Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a frequent Trump critic, said on Fox News, “Making the realist case (about the need for a U.S.-Saudi alliance) is a different thing than being so weak that we failed to tell the truth.” He said Mohammed bin Salman “contributed to murdering somebody abroad and it is not strength to sort of mumble past that. Strength is telling the truth even when it’s hard.”

Numerous U.S. lawmakers have said they intend to push for U.S. sanctions against Saudi Arabia because of Khashoggi’s killing. Trump, in his statement last week, said, “I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America.”

Also Read: Khashoggi Report To Be Reviewed By U.S. President Donald Trump Soon

He said, “After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As president of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!”. (VOA)