Saudi Arabia wraps up successful haj season
Millions of haj pilgrims began heading back to Mecca for final prayers on Tuesday as the world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims wound down without incident despite the logistical challenges and escalating regional tensions.
Senior officials said there had been no major incidents and the logistical, security and health plans had been successful, even with some heavy rainfall.
Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, and its organisation of the pilgrimage. It hopes to continue expanding attendance to help to build its tourism industry.
Pilgrims participated in a symbolic stoning of the devil, part of the haj rituals, in Jamarat before returning to Mecca, where the Grand Mosque filled with worshippers preparing to depart.
The last step for pilgrims concluding their journey on Tuesday was the Tawaf Al-Wadaa (Farewell Tawaf), in which they walk around the Kabaa counter-clockwise seven times before leaving Mecca.
Saudi pilgrim Jasem Ali Haqawi said he was grateful to the authorities for a well-run week of rituals.
“Nobody comes to the haj without things inside him that he wants to ask from God,” he said while preparing to conduct final prayers in Mecca. “The sick, the indebted … such things only God can grant and so you ask God for whatever you want.”
Nearly 2.5 million pilgrims, most of them from abroad, came for the five-day ritual this year. Attendance is a religious duty, once in a lifetime, for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.
Prince Khalid Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz, who chairs the kingdom's central haj committee, noted that nearly 2 million foreign pilgrims attended haj this year, and that the number of domestic pilgrims without licenses had decreased nearly a third.
To accommodate the growing number of pilgrims, Saudi Arabia made use of new technology such as electronic identification bracelets, connected to GPS, and tasked nearly 350,000 workers from different departments with organising procedures.
“There is a comprehensive electronic agenda for every pilgrim and we have provided many apps that offer guidance,” Minister of Haj and Umrah Mohammed Bintin told Reuters.
“We have a fleet of more than 18,000 buses, all of them linked to a control system that tracks their path.”
Prince Khalid said the technological advances were a testament to the kingdom's commitment to improving the haj experience for all pilgrims.
"These capabilities, which every Saudi citizen has contributed to from within or outside the government, is a great honoor that every Saudi is proud of. God has prepared for us all to serve the pilgrims, and I do not exclude any of the workers in this pilgrimage, and they are in the hundreds of thousands,” Prince Khalid said in remarks carried by the Saudi Press Agency.
Future initiatives to improve sercies also include a high speed railway between Mecca and Medina that is being tested, officials added, a smart haj platform, a service-supervision initiative for housing, a pilgrim grouping programme that uses electronic systems to manage and monitor crowds and improved food services. This year, charities distributed nearly 26 million meals to pilgrims.
The kingdom's haj services were commended by pilgrims of all walks of life and international institutions such as the World Health Organisation.
Dr Ibrahim El-Ziq, WHO representative in Saudi Arabia, said "all in all it has been a very successful season."
"We saw that hospitals were well prepared and we saw their desire to serve the pilgrims."
Tunisian paralympian Raoua Tlili, a special guest of the kingdom, praised the Saudi King and all involved in haj prepartions for their work and hospitality.
“They put their country under a good light among young and old. People who serve pilgrims in Makkah and outside it, and in Madinah always welcome you, whether they know you or not," Tlil said.
"You feel the love and kindness of these compassionate people, as if they live in the era of the Prophet himself, peace be upon him.”
“I haven't seen this level of generosity and hospitality in other countries,” she added.
The annual pilgrimage is the backbone of Saudi Arabia's plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil. The haj and year-round umrah generate billions of dollars in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, fees and gifts.
(AW staff and news agencies)