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New rules, overcrowding create holy water black market in Saudi

The reduction was necessitated by the need to provide enough quantities to umrah pilgrims and to visitors of the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah

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With the advent of Ramadan, Saudi King Abdullah’s project to provide Zamzam water in Kudai has become overcrowded with residents, pilgrims and visitors wishing to acquire the blessed water.

But with the recent decision to cut the Zamzam water rations for families — from 20 containers a month to 10 and the quantity for individuals from two from four every fortnight, have resulted in crowds resorting to new practices to get Zamzam water.

The management of the King Abdullah Project for the Supply of Zamzam Water had informed the National Water Company (NWC), which is operating the project, to stick to the new rations.

According to informed sources, the reduction was necessitated by the need to provide enough quantities of the blessed water to umrah pilgrims and to visitors of the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah during the holy month of Ramadan.

The vendors, mostly illegal expatriates, have exploited the congestion at the project site to create a flourishing black market where the Zamzam water is sold at a high price — four times its original price of SR5 a container.

A number of Saudis have complained that the price of the blessed water has increased by more than 150 percent in the black market while also criticizing the project’s management for cutting the rations given to residents according to their IDs or family cards.

Saudi Mansour Abdulllah, a resident of Makkah, recalled that the project’s management used to sell them 20 containers at SR5 a container every eight days which now has been reduced to two every fortnight, adding that Saudis with IDs were sold four containers.

“This was a good system but of late our surprise has been great when we discovered that the system has changed. Now both the holders of family cards and IDs are only sold two containers every 15 days,” he said.

Abdullah said, as a result, many people have resorted to the black market to satisfy their needs of Zamzam water, especially in Ramadan, even at an exceptionally high price.

Omar Madani, a Saudi, recounted his predicament with the project’s management to obtain his monthly rations of the blessed water.

He said armed with his family card he went to the project’s site to obtain his quota of Zamzam bottles, which usually starts with registering. “I had to wait for an hour before being able to show the employee my family card required for registration.”

Madani said the employee wrote for down six containers instead of the 20 that was the previous quote, and asked him to go to the cashier to pay SR30.

“Because of the congestion, I had to wait for many hours before I reached the cashier, who told me that I still had to wait for four more hours to complete my period of eight days after which I would be entitled to buy the Zamzam water,” he said.

Madani questioned why he was not told of this prerequisite at the time of registration and why they made him lose this much time.

“I did not have the patience to re-register and immediately went to the black market to get the quantities I needed of the Zamzam water,” he said.

Mazen Abdullatif, a visitor from Jeddah, said he too resorted to the black market because the project would not give him more than two containers.

In a tour of the black market, Saudi Gazette noted the presence of a number of illegal expatriates either walking on foot in the project site or waiting in their cars.

The vendors would start talking to interested buyers to make sure that they are not from the police and that they are really who they claim to be and are interested to buy the blessed water before they enter into negotiations with them about the price and the quantities they need, Saudi Gazette found out.

A Pakistani vendor, who was in his Dyna truck loaded with cartons of Zamzam water, told Saudi Gazette that there was no best time to buy as the crowd is there 24 hours, so we wait around with people in shifts.

He said they buy the container at SR13 and sells it at SR20 making a profit of SR7. “The price during the second half of Ramadan rises to SR40 a container,” he added.

There were also a number of Arab children, aged 10 and 11, who direct the buyers to the black market after making sure that the person seeking Zamzam water is not from the police.

Away from the project site along the Jeddah-Makkah Expressway, the container of Zamzam water is sold at SR30.

A simple calculation results in a profit, from the SR20 container, of SR15, while it is SR12 from the container priced SR17 and SR25 from the container priced at SR30.

This article was first published by the Saudi Gazette on June 6, 2016.