A Saudi Overhaul Of The Pilgrimage Process

Al-Sharq al-Awsat, London, June 4

I recently returned to London from a trip to Saudi Arabia. As I was leaving Jeddah Airport, I noticed thousands of Muslim pilgrims, from all corners of the world, who came to perform Umrah in the Mecca during the holy month of Ramadan. There was a lot of disorder, long queues and general dismay among those leaving the Kingdom. These are Muslims from a vast array of backgrounds and nationalities who all gathered in Saudi Arabia to fulfill their religious duty of making the Islamic pilgrimage. To help improve the situation, King Salman bin Abdulaziz recently commissioned a group whose findings and recommendations, which stress the need to modernize Mecca’s infrastructure, will be released to the public in a few weeks. Historically, government investments in Mecca have gone towards building “hard” infrastructure that help accommodate over 30 million Muslims that visit Saudi Arabia each year. This included the construction of roads, hotels, and, of course, the expansion of Great Mosque to become the largest in the world. However, throughout the process, investment in “soft” infrastructure has been neglected. The bureaucratic process to obtain a pilgrimage visa, for example, has become longer than ever. Tourism services are still difficult to obtain from outside the country, ahead of one’s visit. And the hospitality industries in Mecca are lagging behind. The real question, therefore, is how can we turn the experience of traveling to Mecca into an enjoyable one like visiting Paris or Rome? How can we leverage the massive influx of people into the Kingdom, expected to grow in coming years, in order to cultivate Saudi talent and improve the services offered to those who are visiting? How can we make the Hajj more accessible to our Muslim brothers and sisters around the world who lack financial means? How can we decrease the congestion on the streets of Mecca by using more effective public transportation solutions? To date, Saudi authorities considered a Hajj season successful if injuries and deaths were limited. However, this metric falls short of what we aspire to. Instead, Saudi Arabia should offer each and every pilgrim, those performing either the Umrah or Hajj, the experience of a lifetime—one that is streamlined, efficient, and, most importantly, pleasing from start to finish. –Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed 

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