White-robed worshippers from across the world have packed the streets of Mecca. The ancient city is preparing to host the biggest hajj pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic. Banners welcoming the faithful, including the first international visitors since 2019, festooned squares and alleys. Armed security forces patrolled the ancient city, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed.
One million people, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed at this year’s hajj in Saudi Arabia. The hajj is a key pillar of Islam that all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform at least once. In 2019, about 2.5 million people took part in the rituals, which include circling the Kaaba. The following year, foreigners were barred and worshippers were restricted to just 10,000. The rituals have seen numerous disasters, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 people. One million vaccinated pilgrims under the age of 65 will attend the hajj under strict sanitary conditions.
The trip, which is one of Islam’s five pillars, is a strong source of prestige for the conservative desert country and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is returning from a diplomatic exile. Days after the hajj, Prince Mohammed will be greeted by US President Joe Biden, who has reneged on threats to make Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ after the 2018 murder of writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives, sending oil prices rising.
The hajj, which costs at least $5,000 per person, generates around $12 billion in revenue for the world’s largest oil exporter each year, along with other religious trips. It is also an opportunity to highlight a nation that is rapidly changing while yet receiving regular complaints about human rights violations and restrictions on personal liberties. Saudi Arabia, which has recently allowed raves in Riyadh and mixed-gender beaches in Jeddah, now permits women to do the hajj without being accompanied by a male relative, a condition that was removed last year.
Masks are no longer required in most Saudi Arabian enclosed venues, although they will be required in the Grand Mosque. Pilgrims from other countries must provide a negative PCR test result. According to officials, the Grand Mosque will be ‘washed ten times a day… by more than 4,000 male and female employees,’ with more than 130,000 litres (34,000 gallons) of disinfectant used each time. Saudi Arabia has recorded about 795,000 coronavirus cases, 9,000 of which were fatal, in a population of around 34 million people since the outbreak began. The country is also one of the hottest and driest places on earth, with temperatures reaching up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) Some pilgrims say they are becoming physically and mentally exhausted due to the extreme heat.