Along with petroleum, world pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina – the two holiest cities in Islam — gives Saudi Arabia enormous diplomatic weight. Such control over these vital cities confers tremendous influence over global Muslim communities often impacted by Saudi Arabia’s political involvement and decisions.

Attending the five-day pilgrimage of Hajj, held on varying dates based on the Islamic lunar calendar, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and is therefore considered essential for Muslims to complete unless one does not have the financial means or is physically incapable. Pilgrims can also undertake Umrah, considered the “lesser pilgrimage” but still highly encouraged, at anytime throughout the year. 

Nearly 2.5 million pilgrims officially partook in the Hajj in 2019, with around 1.85 million coming from abroad, 55% were male and 45% female.

Nearly 2.5 million pilgrims officially partook in the Hajj in 2019, with around 1.85 million coming from abroad, according to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics; 55% were male and 45% female.

Riyadh claims to be reforming the Hajj process. This year it implemented the Makkah Route initiative, designed to speed up travel to Mecca, creating security checks at airports in larger Muslim countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan, rather than inside Saudi Arabia. 

Yet as Saudi Arabia seeks to reap economic rewards from the holy sites, those who attend Hajj, or wish to, still face numerous difficulties. 

Hajj is becoming a huge asset for the Saudi economy, bringing in about $12 billion annually, and may catch up with oil as the country’s main economic asset. Hajj revenues are expected to reach $150 billion in 2022, according to economic experts. As Saudi Arabia pursues its Vision 2030 goals, to lessen dependency on oil, Hajj pilgrimages and the ensuing economic gains will become central for Riyadh. 

Fees had ranged from as low as $800 for admittance to Hajj, but these are for basic treatment and are limited. Now prices can range up to $7,000, with fees increasing throughout the years. Hajj pilgrims are also required to buy a Hajj package ranging between $1,000 to $20,000 or more based on accommodations, distance, and other variables. Such prices are clearly unaffordable for many Muslims across the world, and difficult for those with more means. Tourism agencies sometimes also pay hefty commission to bureaucrats who then owe royal dignitaries hefty percentages.

Though Mecca is the holiest city in Islam, Riyadh’s avaricious economic aims have transformed its appearance into a commercialized zone.  The Great Mosque of Mecca which holds the Ka’bah is dwarfed by skyscrapers, including the Abraj al-Bait clock tower and expensive hotel complexes. Such changes reflect the widening economic inequality between Hajj pilgrims.

With the Saudi government purely focused on financial profits, pilgrims are often neglected, and sometimes endangered, as little significant efforts are made to protect them.

With the Saudi government purely focused on financial profits, pilgrims are often neglected, and sometimes endangered, as little significant efforts are made to protect them. There have previously been complaints that the Great Mosque itself is not well equipped for visitors, such as a limited supply of water despite the intense heat leading to people collapsing. 

Meanwhile severe stampedes have taken many lives in Mecca. Around 700 Hajj pilgrims were killed and 900 injured during a stampede in 2015 for the ‘Rami al Jamarat’ (Stoning of the Devil) ritual in Mina, two miles east of Mecca. The ritual re-enacts the Prophet Abraham’s stoning of the devil and resisting his temptations according to Islamic traditions. 

This was not the first time such high fatalities had occurred. During the same event in 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died, and in 2006 the figure was at least 363. 

Women often face additional dangers such sexual abuse and harassment, which usually goes unaddressed. Such actions usually happen at the tawaf ritual, a counter clockwise procession around the Kaaba shrine, which is typically very crowded. 

“Anyone found guilty of committing these acts faces serious consequences including imprisonment and caning,” said a Saudi official. However, women who do not keep quiet are often dismissed and shooed away by the Saudi police. 

Many worldwide Muslims who wish to attend the Hajj face difficulties. One factor is the quotas system. Most Muslim countries randomly distribute quotas to their citizens via a lottery, while the rest are provided to private companies. 

Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, managed to secure 231,000 spots after Joko Widodo visited King Salman in Riyadh in 2019, delivering an increase of 10,000 from the previous year and adding to the extra 10,000 given in 2017. With the lottery system, applicants must put in $2,000 to even be considered. Yet Indonesian applicants could wait up to 39 years, or they may never even be able to visit. Other countries have enjoyed rising quotas, including Pakistan which had a small increase of 5000 last year to reach 184,000. 

Several corruption complaints have been registered; a black market of Hajj visas has emerged, making it harder for ordinary people to fairly gain spots.

“There is a black market in visas where Saudi embassy employees from around the world sell visas illegally and give them to their friends,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi academic based at the London School of Economics. “They have a certain interest in getting certain people in and excluding others or putting them on a waiting list for the rest of their lives.”

While Saudi Arabia may increase Hajj visas for countries it has friendly relations with, political tensions involving the kingdom have made it difficult for many prospective pilgrims from countries the kingdom considers inimical. 

While Saudi Arabia may increase Hajj visas for countries it has friendly relations with, political tensions involving the kingdom have made it difficult for many prospective pilgrims from countries the kingdom considers inimical. 

Following Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic and commercial blockade on Qatar in June 2017, imposed alongside the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain, Qatari civilians were banned from travelling to these states. Riyadh said it would make exceptions for the Hajj, yet Qataris have faced challenges in making the pilgrimage. 

Qataris receive around 1200 visas via quotas, which can be accessed on a specific website for Qataris since Riyadh closed its Doha embassy in 2017. Yet prior to Hajj 2019, Doha protested that Qataris had been unable to register, and many applicants complained it was impossible to register. 

Despite Saudi Arabia’s reassurance, such problems have emerged for Qataris every year since the blockade. Hassan Qadi, a Hajj official, said that 2019 was no different.

“Very few Qataris have come to Mecca for the pilgrimage,” Qadi acknowledged, despite claims from Riyadh that the embargo would not affect the hajj.

Iranians meanwhile have usually been able to attend the Hajj pilgrimage. Yet following Saudi Arabia’s executions of 47 Shiite clerics in 2016, Iran restricted its civilians from attending both the Hajj and Umrah, with calls to boycott Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi Arabia and Iran finally signed a deal in 2019 for “better arrangements for Iranian pilgrims and preventing the problems they faced in previous years.” An estimated 88,000 Iranians were able to reach Mecca for Hajj 2019, according to the head of Iranian pilgrims’ affairs, Nasser Jaber Hweizawi.

As Saudi Arabia continues to use the Hajj pilgrimage for profit and influence, the future may hold further economic and political challenges for the international Muslim community.

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