While on the plane on my way back to London, I noticed that half of the passengers had performed umrah and had been in the kingdom to visit Mecca during Ramadan, the holy month when the sacred capital is packed with millions of people performing umrah from around the world.
During this month, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, had ordered the establishment of a Royal Commission for Mecca City. We look forward to this commission’s details in the next three months when its procedures are finalized.
Initially, I suppose this move will change the concept of the services provided for hajj and umrah performers and even the face of Mecca itself, especially that it will be established on an organizational basis that is different than before. The new commission will have independent jurisdictions, thus it will not sink into administrative bureaucracy that obstructs both work and the spirit.
The current Mecca experience
It is normal for Mecca to be the interest of all Saudi kings for the past 80 years as it’s the capital of the Islamic world and it’s the direction where more than one billion Muslims across the world turn their faces to in order to perform their prayers.
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Previously, the focus was on building facilities, specifically expanding the Holy Mosque. These expansions have covered massive areas making the Great Mosque the largest mosque in history. The new project, however, is about enabling millions of Muslims to perform hajj and umrah.
The success of services at Mecca and holy sites is measured today based on whether the end up of the season was marked by peace and without any accidents. These are important points, given the lingering threats, but not the normal standards to measure the successAbdulrahman al-Rashed
Millions of visitors go there and find a place to worship but the journey was and it still is arduous as they perform their religious duties with the least amount of movement and in the shortest time possible then leave in a hurry.
Can the religious journey be enjoyable, beautiful and easy at this time? Frankly speaking, no! It entails great suffering due to the large crowd and lack of services. What I saw at Jeddah’s airport and what umrah performers go through in terms of procedures before arrival and at departure, and the necessary services related to transportation and accommodation make this a journey of faith but it’s still an uncomfortable and a discouraging personal experience.
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Places of worship have been built but there are the needs of the worshippers themselves. The number of those who get the chance to perform hajj and umrah is little compared to the great number of millions of Muslims who want to visit the religious holy sites. This is not because the Great Mosque cannot accommodate them but because the chain of services is very weak in terms of lodging, transportation, food, tourism, shopping and others, which people expect to enjoy in any place they visit in the world.
This limitedness is why a small number of Muslims is attracted to perform umrah, which goes on throughout most of the year. The number of umrah performers, however, has increased by 50% during the past two years only thanks to decreasing bureaucratic measures.
The Royal Commission
The new Royal Commission for Mecca City and Holy Sites intends to review and develop the situation to increase the number of people who perform umrah to 30 million Muslims a year as laid out by the goals of Vision 2030. Is it possible to increase the number from seven million to 30 million? This great and interesting challenge is the duty of the new commission which is headed by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman himself. The crown prince is the one who devised the plan and now he has to execute it to reach this expected number.
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The number of those who desire to visit the holy sites in Mecca will not multiply unless people feel it’s an enjoyable journey like travelling to Dubai or Paris, and not an exhausting journey where they perform a duty and then rush back home.
The success of services at Mecca and the holy sites is measured today according to if the wrapping up of the season was done in peace and without any accidents. These are important points given the amount of threats lingering, but they are not the normal standards to measure the success of visits of religious tourism and others. The standard of success is for the visit to be comfortable and pleasurable, convincing visitors to repeat it.
The expectations laid out by the Vision will exert a lot of pressure in order for it to be achieved. Umrah is not like hajj, which is a compulsory ritual. The number of visitors to perform it (umrah) will not increase without several accomplishments that begin with decreasing routine, facilitating visa processes and convincing the private sector to handle the massive developmental process that’s required throughout the entire year so the number of visitors in total can reach more than 35 million.
We hope the design concepts are reconsidered by for instance taking the development process from the center of Mecca itself to the outskirts via building easy transportation networks that enable housing millions of visitors outside Mecca for a lower cost and in wider places. The center of Mecca will thus be a comfortable area free of accidents.
They can also begin enabling national talents by building hospitality and service institutions. We also expect there will be a need for a large army of policemen, security and civil defense forces and healthcare personnel to serve around three million visitors every month. This is what we expect from the new Royal Commission.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former 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. He tweets @aalrashed.