The huge, iconic Jamaraat bridge appeared empty to pilgrims on the first day of Eid Al-Adha, a far cry from the previous year when a stampede broke out. The noticeably change was a success for the Saudi authorities who sought an incident free hajj season this year. It is unclear whether the noticeable lack of chaos on the bridge was more because of the 30% decrease in pilgrims this year or because of better organization from authorities.
The hajj reportedly may have raised the economic contribution of non-oil related activities – which I question -- but at the expense of the quality of life for locals. There were millions of temporary workers brought in provide the services needed for the flood of pilgrims coming into the country. These workers did not add any value to our economy or culture and deplete our scarce natural resources in the Arabian Peninsula which barely sustain its own people. In addition, the workers make the city uglier and overcrowd it without any order.
Saudi responds to hajj chaos
The lessons learned from 2013 Hajj should be used to revisit some facts in our cities. Do Jeddah or Riyadh really need one million expat workers which represent more than half their inhabitants? The answer is, of course they don’t.Jamal Khashoggi
In response to the previous year’s overcrowding and stampedes, Saudi forbade unlicensed pilgrims this year which decreased the number of pilgrims, causing internal pilgrims to be reduced by more than half (600,718) external pilgrims reduced by 20%.
What does this mean?
The chaos that ensued previously was a clear manifestation caused by expat workers, not only during the hajj season, but throughout the year and in all Saudi and some Gulf cities. Expats go to Hajj without any prior reservations with legal operators, abuse the available natural resources and create problems to pilgrims. In performing their pilgrimage, they don’t respect the directives and regulations of the Ministry of Pilgrimage, unlike the regular pilgrims who abide by the set times to carry out the traditional stoning of the devil or circling around the Ka'aba.
The lessons learned from 2013 hajj should be used to revisit some facts in our cities. Do Jeddah or Riyadh really need one million expat workers which represent more than half their inhabitants? The answer is, of course they don’t. The cities suffer from overcrowded roads and neighborhoods and the municipalities are helpless to solve the issue despite millions spent on projects to do so. For some reason, we feel we cannot live without expat workers, as they are the backbone of our productive economy. But is it really a productive economy?
A problem a long time in the making
I spent the first day of Eid Al-Adha reading the book of the late Saudi minister Ghazi Al-Qussaiby “Face to Face with Development”, which is a collection of lectures he gave in the late seventies about development in the Kingdom. These were decisive years in Saudi history, as they witnessed the biggest rise in construction in one country since the end of World War II. Within a short amount of time, the Kingdom sought to go from a humble desert to a modern, developed state. At that time, Al-Qussaiby was one of the “young ministers” who came from an American university and entrusted with this transformation. He was among those who should be praised for the achievements or blamed for the setbacks of that era.
In his lectures, Qussaiby referred to a “low percentage” of expat workers with only one million and a half million at the time with a total population of 14 million. He stated expat workers were a temporary solution and spoke about an advanced industry that doesn’t need extensive labor. He even went so far in predicting manufacturing plants run by robots. However, most of his lectures focused on Saudi citizens who will develop and work and build and prosper. We see now, however, things didn’t go as he wished and planned for with his peers.
He died in 2010 while leading the Ministry of Labor which at the time was trying to find jobs for millions of Saudi youth unable to find work while 7 million expat workers with low salaries and little experience took many of the existing jobs that relied on cheap labor; a concept Qussaiby and his peers had tried fighting since 19.75
Questioning our economy
We misinterpreted development, believing that it meant having bigger cities, higher buildings, and the manufacturing of more non-oil products. This school of thought was similar to our planning for the pilgrimage. While it was more justifiable, as we pride ourselves for serving the two Holy Mosques and therefore strived for increasing the capacity of the premises with massive expansion projects. In spite of the expansion, we couldn’t solve the issue of overcrowding and resulting stampedes, which turned the hajj season into a nightmare instead of being a spiritual experience to boost morale and strengthen determination to build a better society. This year we saw the fruits of the labor after more was done to organize the pilgrimage. The structures looked wider and seemed to be able to host more pilgrims, and even if we return to the 3 million pilgrims in the coming years that we have seen in the past, it is unlikely to witness congestion if we maintain the order we established.
Our cities have become smaller in spite of their expansion because of the expat workers. These cities will become wider immediately and streets, offices and residences will expand even without laying one more brick. We can achieve this by just easing these cities from the burden of unneeded expat workers. We need to rearrange our economy, our industry and our products according to the demographics of our native population and the available natural resources in Saudi and the Gulf.
To conclude, may I borrow this sentence from a personal letter I received from the Lebanese researcher Najib Saab, the Secretary General of Arab Forum for Environment and Development. He commented on one of editorials in which I stated we should get foreign labor out of the Arab peninsula. In his letter, he agreed with my idea, and asked: “Can the environment of the region and its natural resources bear this number of ‘imported’ inhabitants? Is increasing the GDP create growth for the sake of growth or is the purpose to guarantee a sustainable decent life?”
The key phrase is “to guarantee a sustainable decent life.” Currently, the present situation isn’t sustainable and life isn’t decent.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 19, 2013.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi