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Amid heat, millions arrive in Saudi for hajj

Amid heat, millions arrive in Saudi for hajj

The largest hajj pilgrimage in years was held on Friday in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, with more than two million people expected to withstand the sweltering Saudi Arabian heat.

The historic city, now filled with five-star hotels and air-conditioned shopping centers, was crowded with pilgrims wearing white robes and sandals for the annual rituals. They arrived by aircraft, buses, and trains.

According to officials, this year’s hajj, one of the largest yearly religious gatherings in the world with a deadly history of stampedes and other calamities, may break attendance records.

“As the hajj draws near, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia prepares… for the largest Islamic gathering in history,” Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said in a video published by the ministry this week.

Rites include circling the Kaaba, the large black cube in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, praying on Mount Arafat, and “stoning the devil” by throwing pebbles at three giant concrete walls representing Satan.

According to Rabiah, more than two million people from more than 160 nations will participate, a significant increase from the 926,000 who attended last year, when attendance was restricted to one million due to the epidemic.

About 2.5 million individuals participated in 2019. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, just 10,000 were permitted; this number increased to approximately 59,000 a year later.

All Muslims who have the means must perform the hajj at least once in their lives. It is one of Islam’s five pillars.

– ‘Unbelievable feeling’ –

Travellers from around the world have been pouring into Jeddah’s modernised airport, some of them using streamlined visa services to disembark from planes straight onto buses to their accommodation.

Some 24,000 buses will be in service to ferry the pilgrims, as well as 17 trains capable of moving 72,000 people every hour, officials said.

“It is an unbelievable feeling that is very emotional,” Souad bin Oueis, a 60-year-old Moroccan pilgrim, told AFP after arriving on her first visit to Saudi Arabia along with her husband.

This hajj will be the biggest since the requirement for women to be accompanied by male guardians was dropped in 2021.

This year, the maximum age limit has also been scrapped, meaning thousands of elderly will be among those contending with Saudi summer temperatures that are expected to reach 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit).

The hajj rituals begin late Sunday at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The worshippers will sleep in tents on Monday night and spend Tuesday at Mount Arafat, the climax of the hajj, where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his final sermon.

After casting pebbles in the “stoning of the devil” ritual on Wednesday, marking the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday, pilgrims return to Mecca to perform a farewell “tawaf” — circling seven times around the Kaaba.

– Heat risks –

A significant portion of Saudi Arabia’s revenue comes from pilgrimages to Mecca, despite the country’s ambitious plans to transform its heavily dependent on oil economy. The annual revenue from the hajj and year-round umrah rites is believed to be $12 billion.

The kingdom’s economic strategy for attracting more tourists includes an extension project that entails boosting the transportation and infrastructure supporting Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest sites.

The hajj, which takes place during the summer and is timed according to the lunar calendar, will put pilgrims through their paces during the four-day, primarily outdoor ceremony.

More than 32,000 health workers will be on hand to help fend off heatstroke, dehydration, and exhaustion.

But severe weather is just one of the risks at an event that has been hit by deadly incidents from stampedes to militant attacks.

Just eight years ago in 2015, as many as 2,300 worshippers died in a stampede during the “stoning of the devil” ritual in Mina near Mecca, the worst hajj disaster ever.

More than 700 people died in a notorious attack in 1979, when hundreds of gunmen demanding the abdication of the Saudi royal family barricaded themselves inside the Grand Mosque, taking dozens of pilgrims hostage.

Ahead of the hajj, security forces held a military parade in Mecca, including soldiers in full camouflage holding automatic weapons.

Umer Karim, a doctoral researcher focusing on Saudi foreign policy at Britain’s University of Birmingham, said hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige and a source of political legitimacy for Saudi rulers, the custodians of the holy sites.

The pilgrimage “gives the kingdom and its rulers a huge amount of esteem and prestige which then becomes a major source of the kingdom’s soft power”.


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