RIYADH: Making necessary arrangements each year for the growing number of pilgrims poses a real logistic challenge for Saudi Arabia, which has, since the 1950s, spent more than $125 billion to expand pilgrimage facilities in the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
The Kingdom, under the leadership of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, has made elaborate arrangements for Haj this year. The concerned government and private agencies in Saudi Arabia have been asked to redouble their efforts to provide all available facilities to the millions of Muslims thronging the Two Holy Mosques during Haj.
King Salman has directed the concerned agencies to ensure that the pilgrims are able to perform their religious rites and other obligations in peace and comfort. Culture and Information Minister Adel Al-Toraifi said the king has directed all agencies to ensure speedy execution of the expansion projects in Makkah and Madinah.
In this connection, the Cabinet praised King Salman’s inauguration of several gigantic projects in Makkah and Madinah. The pilgrims, whose total number is likely to exceed three million this year, have already started pouring into Makkah and Medinah.
In fact, the pilgrims from about 183 countries will be traveling to Saudi Arabia in a staggered schedule. The Kingdom has geared itself well for Haj this year like all previous years. It has made all preparations. Major issues like housing, transportation, sanitation, and health care have been addressed and improved greatly by the Saudi government by introducing various development programs, with the result that pilgrims now enjoy modern facilities and perform various rites at ease.
The Saudi government often sets quotas for various countries to keep the pilgrims’ number at a manageable level, and this has also been done this year in consultation with different countries. But, it is important to mention in this context that there has been a substantial increase in the number of pilgrims during the last 100 years. Apart from domestic pilgrims, who travel from various cities and villages of the Kingdom for Haj, the number of foreign pilgrims has increased by approximately 2,824 percent, from 58,584 in 1920 to 1,712,962 in 2012.
In 2013, the pilgrims’ quota of various countries were reduced because of the expansion projects. In fact, Saudi government spends billions of riyals to make the Haj as smooth as it can be. Haj is, however, becoming a very difficult challenge for the Kingdom. This is why the government doesn’t spare any effort to help the pilgrims fulfill the obligation of the Haj, which is called the fifth pillar of Islam. During Haj every year, Saudi leaders host a large number of pilgrims on their own expenses. This year is also no exception.
King Salman will be hosting thousands of Muslims from places where it is difficult for people to perform haj for any reason. Their entire trip will be paid by the king. Saudi Arabia has made arrangements for receiving the foreign pilgrims at Jeddah and Medinah airiports, which have now dedicated terminals to assist the arrival of pilgrims.
During Haj, several airlines including Saudia — the national carrier of the Kingdom — have been authorized to run extra flights to accommodate the large number of foreign pilgrims.
Since the pilgrims’ number has been progressively growing, the Saudi government agencies have adopted several crowd-control techniques to ensure safety. Also, the large pillars symbolizing satans used in the pebble throwing were changed to long walls with basins below to catch the stones for safety reasons. Another example is that the animal slaughter can now be done by appointing someone else to do it. Local banks have been also authorized to facilitate animal slaughtering, which is an important Haj ritual.
Saudi Arabia has also geared itself well to cope with any emergency situation. To this end, it is important to note that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif, interior minister, has announced that adequate security measures are in place to ensure peace and security during Haj this year. The Kingdom has deployed about 100,000 security forces to maintain order during Haj. Additional forces from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of the National Guard, and the Presidency of the General Intelligence besides medical missions of different countries have been deployed to deal with any emergency situation.
Saudi officials, however, have called on the intending pilgrims to contribute to the efforts to ensure successful haj this year. The officials have advised all pilgrims to adhere to the performance of their rituals and stay away from anything that distracts them from the Haj and puts them at risk. Electronic gates have been installed at the entrance to Makkah to control the flow of pilgrims and to ensure that only those with Haj permits are allowed access. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the timing of Haj varies with respect to the Gregorian calendar (for example, it was from Oct. 1 to Oct. 6 in 2014 and now it will be from Sept. 20 to Sept. 25 in 2015).
More than three million Muslims from183 countries perform Haj each year. They first converge in Makkah on the first day of Haj. By foot or by bus, then the pilgrims travel 8 km to the massive tent city of Mina, where most pilgrims are housed in air-conditioned fire-proof tents. Besides the air-conditioned tents, the Kingdom makes arrangements for thousands of Haj ambulances and medical stations along the route for medical assistance.
This is really an impossible task. That is why, the question many people ask is: What does Saudi Arabia do to accomplish the impossible? In fact, getting ready for the haj seasons starts few months before the lunar month of Dul Hijjah. It is the last month of the year in the Islamic calendar. The first step is to announce the number of people coming to perform haj from all over the world. The Saudi embassies around the world handle the task of providing Haj visas for pilgrims.
The pilgrims, who arrive in the Kingdom for Haj, are in the millions and they need to be moved from one place to another in a very short period of time. All these arrangements are made by the Kingdom and its government agencies. The pilgrims have to be in the Grand Mosque for (Tawaf) and (Saie) then they have to be in Muzdalifah, Mina and the Grand Mosque again. All these movements have to take place at a specific time in a specific place.
This is not an easy task and requires years of preparation and experience.
The Kingdom and its various government agencies including NGOs go extra mile to prepare for such a massive religious congregation. Besides this, Saudi Arabia also prepares health care system and accommodations well in advance.
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