Pilgrims descend on Makkah, Saudis warn against politics

MAKKAH: In the Saudi city of Makkah, dotted with fast food eateries and stalls selling Chinese-made trinkets, vendors are ready to cash in on the annual hajj pilgrimage. “Business is going very well,” said Faisal Addais from his stall close to the Grand Mosque-Islam’s holiest site.

“The customers are foreigners and speak all languages,” added the 41-year-old Yemeni, who sells religious souvenirs. To overcome linguistic challenges, sales are often conducted with the help of a calculator. Potential customers stroll past the stalls and shops, while pigeons coo at their ankles on the bustling thoroughfare. Retailer Ali said his sales were expected to “increase fivefold” during hajj, which this year is expected to attract 2.5 million worshippers from Saudi and across the world between Friday and Tuesday. Completing hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and every Muslim with the means is obliged to undertake it at least once in their lives.

The pilgrimage draws vendors to the holy city, the majority peddling religious wares. They include Chinese-made replicas of the Kaaba, a black structure inside the Grand Mosque towards which Muslims around the world pray, as well as call to prayer alarm clocks and water said to be holy. “The religious and mercantile dimensions have always been linked in Makkah,” said Luc Chantre, author of several books about the pilgrimage in the modern era. “When they had come from far away, pilgrims needed to trade to finance their staysand some even went home in profit,” Chantre said.

“What’s new is that these vast multistorey malls have replaced the old bazaars around the Grand Mosque.” Air-conditioned shopping centres near the Grand Mosque are home to leading luxury brands which welcome a constant stream of pilgrims-except during prayer times. Beyond the religious souvenirs, visitors to Makkah can pick up highly-coveted Saudi gold, watches, clothes and more.

The city’s restaurants and fast food outlets, either in narrow side streets or on main arteries, are deluged by worshippers around the clock. As well as the five-day hajj, Muslims also travel to Makkah year-round to undertake the umrah, a lesser pilgrimage. Makkah is unlike Christian pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France and Mexico’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe where “trade is linked exclusively to souvenirs and religious offerings”, said Chantre. Makkah’s nearby city of Jeddah is the traditional home of western Saudi Arabia’s mercantile families, partly owing to its vast port. Religious tourism brings the conservative kingdom billions of dollars annually-an important revenue source as the oil-rich nation seeks to diversify its economy.

Saudis warn against politics
Hundreds of thousands of white-clad pilgrims, many gripping umbrellas to ward off Saudi Arabia’s blistering summer sun, descended on Makkah this week ahead of the annual hajj. Saudi officials asked Muslims to focus on rituals of worship, warning against politicizing the rite as wars rage on in the region and at a time of heightened tensions between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim adversary Iran. “Hajj…is not a place for political conflicts or to raise sectarian slogans that divide Muslims,” Abdulrahman Al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque of Makkah, told reporters. Makkah Governor Prince Khalid al-Faisal asked worshippers earlier this week to “leave all other matters in your countries to discuss when you are back”.

Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites and organizing a peaceful hajj, which has been marred in the past by deadly stampedes, fires and riots. Authorities said more than 1.8 million pilgrims had so far arrived in the kingdom for the world’s largest annual Muslim gathering, which retraces the route the Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.

Outside the Grand Mosque, the world’s largest, temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius as industrial fans sprayed water. “All of this is for the sake of the hajj,” 43- year-old Fatima Sayed from Giza, Egypt, said of the searing heat. “We applied twice before but God didn’t permit it, and, thank God, it was a very big surprise that He ordained it for me this year.” Every able-bodied Muslim who has the means should perform the hajj at least once in their lifetime under a quota system. Saudi Arabia has made use of technology to manage the flow of millions at the same place at the same time. This includes electronic identification bracelets, connected to GPS, that were introduced after a 2015 crush killed hundreds of people. — Agencies