Black market for wheelchairs, Zamzam booms

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A huge black market for Zamzam water and wheelchairs has emerged in Makkah with the advent of the holy month of Ramadan and Umrah performers are complaining about high prices.

Saudi Gazette spoke to a number of people who performed Umrah this Ramadan to know about their experiences in the Grand Mosque.

Faisal Al-Saadi said he had to pay around SR150 to get a wheelchair for his child.

“As far as I know if one requires a wheelchair there are two options available. One can either obtain a wheelchair from an office located just outside the Grand Mosque or use the services of the hucksters inside the mosque,” he said.

However, he had a different experience altogether when he went to perform Umrah this Ramadan.

“As I was entering the holy mosque, one vendor approached me and offered me a wheelchair. When I told him I do not have a disabled person with me, he advised me to get the wheelchair anyway because with it, the security guards would let me into the exclusive lanes at the upper levels where there is less crowding.

“He said everyone does that and they pretend they have a sick or disabled person with them," Al-Saadi said, adding that he ended up paying SR150 to avoid the crowd.

"After finishing the Umrah rites, however, I tried to give the wheelchair back to the vendor but he was not seen anywhere. An officer told me these vendors vanish after they get hold of their money and go looking for other customers," Al-Saadi said.

“Later, I discovered that these vendors grab wheelchairs, which are distributed free of cost, from anywhere in the Grand Mosque and rent them illegally to Umrah performers for high fees,” he said.

He said these men rent the wheelchairs for between SR100 and SR150, depending on whether one needs someone to push the wheelchair or not.

Nasir Mohammed Al-Obaidi, an official in charge of monitoring activities inside the Grand Mosque, said wheelchairs are available free of charge from a designated office close to the Safa Mount but one has to leave some form of identification as surety.

About those who pretend sick to get on to the upper levels reserved for the invalid, he said the practice "is clearly illegal, but it is hard to monitor such people because of the huge crowds."

Another area where Umrah performers are squeezed out is outside the Zamzam bottling factory.

Hussain Bahrawi, a banker from Jeddah, was among people who did not want to stand in long lines in order to get Zamzam, especially in Ramadan.

“I often go to the Zamzam factory to buy the holy water but because of fasting I could not stand in the long line and I had to return to Jeddah as soon as I could. So, I decided to buy Zamzam from vendors outside the factory. I was shocked when I found out those illegal vendors were selling each bottle for SR15 while one can buy them from the factory for SR5,” he said.

Bahrawi noted that bargaining with these young Saudi and Burmese men failed and he purchased eight bottles for SR120.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on July 6, 2014.