Hajj, oil and the future

Historically, the hajj pilgrimage was a primary source of income for the people of the holy lands

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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There are currently projects related to hajj and umrah worth more than $100 billion under development in Makkah and Madinah. These include the expansion of mosques, outdoor areas, expropriations, cutting through mountains, building more roads and high-rises and a network of railways between the two cities and major subways. All of this together perhaps represents the biggest construction project in the world and gives the concept of religious tourism a whole new dimension.

Hajj and umrah are two occasions which need neither marketing nor advertising. The number of those who desire to perform them will always be more than the area can accommodate regardless of the expansion and modernization. There are more than one billion Muslims in the world and performing hajj is a duty which every Muslim must perform at least once in a lifetime. The number of those who insist on performing hajj or umrah increases each year and many cannot find the opportunity to do so.

This poses a challenge to architects in terms of organization and construction as more open spaces are needed and the demand for funds to operate and maintain the facilities increases over time. Currently, Saudi Arabia enjoys good revenues from oil sales, enabling it to serve the pilgrims with generosity. King Abdullah has put in place a massive and comprehensive project to serve the hajj with a development that made it one of the greatest achievements in the modern history.

Historically, the hajj pilgrimage was a primary source of income for the people of the holy lands. However, it’s now almost completely dependent on state funding

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

But because the cost of hajj and umrah in terms of organization and maintenance is going to be extremely high, there is the question of how to continue to finance this in the future, especially amid the possibility that oil revenues may fall. And even if the revenues do not fall, the government's annual spending could be directed more to meeting the increasing needs of its citizens.

Historically, the hajj pilgrimage was a primary source of income for the people of the holy lands. However, it’s now almost completely dependent on state funding. The formula must change and hajj must once again be a primary source of income and funding.

A few years ago, I spoke about the government’s precious opportunity to achieve two major goals: more umrah performers and more revenues. By allowing more Muslims to perform umrah from across the world, the kingdom would meet a pressing demand, and would also enable pilgrims to be a source of income that covers the cost of projects and services.

Acheiving goals

After the kingdom achieved its infrastructural goals of expanding the two holy mosques, it could now plan to receive 50 million pilgrims each year over the duration of 10 months.

These visitors can provide about half of the amount of the state’s oil revenues of about $200 billion. This is instead of just five million umrah performers which are considered a humble number costing the government huge sums of money. Banks and the rest of the private sector will certainly be enthusiastic about carrying out comprehensive service projects without needing the government’s support.

It is now possible to adopt a different approach, economically and administratively to offer such honorable service after the government has built transportation networks and modern airports. The Saudi private sector will be able to invest in everything that 50 million pilgrims may need. It will also be possible to organize these services at an early time to meet the requirements of security, investment and organizational needs and thus enable half a billion Muslims to perform umrah every 10 years.

These are not just fanciful ideas - projects implemented so far have shown that it is possible.

Many have said that security concerns are preventing the kingdom doubling the number of umrah pilgrims. I don’t agree with this statement - providing for the safety of five million umrah pilgrims each month will not be more difficult than looking after three millions hajj pilgrims five days a year. With the old problem of adequate infrastructure rapidly being solved, many of the old worries are now concerns of the past.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Oct. 4, 2014.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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