Muslim worshippers perform Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on June 4. (AFP/Getty Images)

Mecca Will Change Forever

Al-Sharq al-Awsat, London, June 5

Very little, if any, attention has been given to one of the most ground-breaking national programs currently underway in Saudi Arabia. This program, known as “At the Service of Allah’s Guests,” is one of the most important pillars of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. It was inaugurated by the custodian of the two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, in an effort to increase the number of Muslim pilgrims coming to Mecca each year from some 9 million people today to over 30 million people in just over a decade. Once completed, this program will bring thousands of pilgrims to Mecca on a daily basis. However, it will also pose a huge challenge for authorities, which will have to establish a robust infrastructure that can sustain these waves of visitors. To get a sense of this undertaking, it is important to remember the following: Hong Kong currently receives 20 million visitors each year; London receives 19 million visitors each year; Paris receives 17 million visitors each year; and New York receives 13 million visitors on an annual basis. Therefore, hosting 30 million pilgrims every year will make Mecca the largest tourist destination in the entire world. However, unlike the average tourist, most of the pilgrims who come to Mecca are old, have low income and speak [only] their native language. Therefore, the only way to make pilgrimage affordable is to grow Mecca’s infrastructure outside its expensive downtown area. To this end, Saudi authorities have already begun planning a high-speed electric train that will transport visitors from the outskirts of the city to the Grand Mosque. In addition, the country’s second largest airport, in Jeddah, will be connected to Mecca and allow passengers to reach the city within 30 minutes. Furthermore, Saudi authorities will revamp the country’s visa program to enable an easier and more seamless application process for pilgrims coming to Saudi Arabia from across the world. This plan is a matter of great importance to most Saudis, who view Mecca as one of their country’s greatest sources of pride. Once implemented, this plan will improve life in Mecca for both its residents and its visitors, and change the face of the city – and perhaps the kingdom – for decades to come. – Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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