Main control room for security
As we said before the Hajj is regarded as the largest annual gathering in the world. About 2.5 million people did it in 2009. It is estimated that the Hajj pilgrims spend about $2 billion during the Hajj. Around 1 million prepared meals are given out at 1,500 centers. Thirty-five bakeries bake 5 million loaves of bread. Ice factories produce 1.5 million blocks of ice a day. In 2005, more than 20,000 buses were used to transport pilgrims from the Mina Valley to Mount Arafat.

The huge numbers posted these days are a relatively recent phenomena. Only 50,000 people did the Hajj in 1950. About 300,000 did it in 1965; and 400,000 did it in 1975. In the 2000s, between 2 million and 2.5 million pilgrims from up to 160 nations have taken part each year. There were 1.8 million including 1.3 million foreigners in 2001; 2.04 million in 2003; and around 2 million in 2004 . A record 2.56 million, including 1.53 million foreigners, did the Hajj in 2005. Of the 500,000 additional pilgrims from the year before about 20 percent were pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia and 80 percent were Saudis or people living in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi king holds the title of "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques." The Saudi Arabian monarchy's supervision of the hajj is a source of great prestige in the Muslim world. According to Associated Press, “Riyadh has rejected a suggestion by Shiite power Iran, its main regional rival, to have an independent body take over planning and administering the five-day hajj pilgrimage.” [Source: Jon Gambrell. Associated Press, October 20, 2015]

The number of pilgrims is restricted by a quota system established by the Saudi government that keeps the number at around 2 million or 2.5 million by issuing one Hajj visa for every 1,000 Muslims in any country.

Book: “The Hajj: Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places” by F.E. Peters

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org

Mecca Infrastructure

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To Mina
The Ottoman sultans were guardians of Mecca and Medina for nearly 350 years until they were thrown out of Arabia around the time of World War I. Today the Saudi Arabian royal family bears this responsibility. With money generated from oil revenues, the Saudis have spent $25 billion over the years clearing away run down neighborhoods, building hotels and residences, and enlarging mosques to help accommodate all the Hajj pilgrims. Over $100 million alone has been spent enlarging the Sacred Mosque. Much of the money is believed to be have gone for “commissions” to the Saudi royal family. Much of the construction and maintenance work for the Hajj is done by the Saudi BinLaden Group, the construction company founded by Osama bin Laden’s father.

Since entry into Mecca is restricted to Muslims only. German and French technicians, who oversaw the construction of some Mecca hotels there had to monitors their work crews with closed circuit television cameras and supervise them with cell phones, radios and walkie talkies. In the 1990s, United Automation, a Los-Angeles-based company, was hired to install sound system in mosques in Mecca. Most of the project was completed by American engineers in a warehouse in California because the engineers were barred from entering Mecca. A team of Muslim tacticians had to be flown to Los Angeles to learn how to install and run the system. Because no noise can be transmitted over the system except for the voice of an imam reading the from the Qur’an as part of his duties a system was devised to test the speakers without sound.

To accommodate the large number of pilgrims that arrive during the Hajj, multi-lane roads have been built between Mecca and Arafat and a new airport was erected in Jeddah, 75 kilometers from Mecca. An eight-lane superhighway connects Jeddah with Mecca. The Saudi government has also built housing centers and drilled wells for drinking water. Pilgrims that arrive at the airport are carried to Mecca in double decker buses. Handicapped people are provided with electric wheelchairs and special elevators.

The huge influx of people during the Hajj triples the population of Mecca to between two or three million, straining the water supply and other facilities. During the Hajj, field hospitals are erected and facilities are set up for distributing food and water and providing phone service. Water is given out free from refrigerated truck to prevent dehydration. During the climbing of Mount Arafat the government distributes bottles of water and box lunches.

Hajj Security

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Saudi security forces on parade
Massive security and manpower is needed to keep the huge influx of pilgrims reasonably safe and protected and things running smoothly. Security forces specially trained for the Hajj are deployed. Health education videos are shown flights to Mecca. Ambulances and helicopters are situated in strategic locations. Crowds are monitored with closed circuit cameras. The Ministry of Pilgrimage is the government body that sorts everything out.

About 100,000 employees and volunteers and 50,000 soldiers and security personnel work the Hajj each year. Saudi police have complete authority over pilgrims. Thousands are positioned at the sacred sites and along the route from Mecca to Mina. Roadblocks are set up on all the major roads to the city. Political activity and protests are not tolerated. In 2006, 60,000 security offers were deployed by Saudi Arabia to handle crowds and avert attacks by Islamic militants.

Each pilgrim needs a permit. In Jeddah pilgrims stop at the Ministry of Pilgrimage Affairs and Religious Trusts to register and file a petition of intent and are issued a permit. Most pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia with a special pilgrim visas given out during the Hajj. On the highway between Jeddah and Mecca the pilgrims clear checkpoints manned by soldiers who check visas and permits to make sure all the paperwork is in order. Signs in English and Arabic read: RESTRICTED AREA, MUSLIMS ONLY PERMITTED.

Hajj Health Problems and Accidents

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Hajj quality control
At one time the Hajj was ravaged by epidemics of small pox, cholera and malaria spread by the crowded and unsanitary conditions. To combat contagious disease the Saudi Government installed mobile hospitals and portable toilets, and made sure there was an abundant supply of pure water. Over the last couple of decades most of the hajj's problems have been caused by the massive numbers of people.

Many problems have occurred in Mina, particularly at Satan stoning site. There security personal have devises, special indicators and systems to measure the number of pilgrims at different locations and to help with crowd control, as well as a variety of tools to manage the flow of people.

In 1997, Saudi Arabia limited the number of Nigerians participating in the Hajj because of an outbreak of meningitis in Nigeria. In 2006, the Saudi government purchased $6.7 million on Tamiflu to be ready if there was a bird flu outbreak. At that time the disease had killed people in the Muslim countries of Turkey and Indonesia.

In 2009, at least five died of the so-called swine flu (H1N1/A flu), a relatively small number considering the size of the event. Authorities recorded 73 cases of the disease and said only 10 of the 2.5 million pilgrims at the Hajj had been vaccinated. Health officials circulated among the tent camps in Mina and conducted swab tests. The also placed hand sanitizers by the wells in camps, near public bathrooms and at ritual sites. Pilgrims arriving at the airport were scanned with a thermal cameras and offered the vaccine.

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Worshippers eat at the Haram
What makes logistics so hard is not so much the large number of people but the fact they all have to be moved around simultaneously at a set time, along stations, spanning about 15 kilometers. After an incident in 2006 left 363 dead Osama al-Bar, director of the Hajj Research Center at Umm al-Qura University, told the New York Times, “There’s an incident every two years now. When you get 300,000 people seeking to move all at once, accidents are bound to happen, and they are quickly magnified...You can never predict the problems of the Hajj. At one point it was the flow of people, and we solved it. Then this problem came up. Our job is to keep plugging the holes.”

Sami Anagawi, a prominent architect who founded he Hajj research Center in the 1970s, told the New York Times that Bar’s solutions tend to deal only with symptoms rather than the underlying causes which have more to do with people management than construction. “The Hajj is a complete system, and must be approached as a system, a flow,” he said. “What they do is concentrate and do a project, and put their hopes in that project until something wrong happens, But all that happens is this project creates new issues....The three main variables in arranging the Hajj are density, space and time. So far all they have been dealing with is space.”

Recent Mecca Development

In recent years Mecca and the area around the Grand Mosque have been overhauled, redeveloped and heavily commercialized. High-rise hotels and apartment blocks now dominate the Mecca skyline. Sites of important events in Islam have been paved over to make way for shopping malls with branches of Starbucks, the Body Shop, Cinnabun and Top Shop. As the number of pilgrims making the Hajj has swelled to nearly 3 million, new investors with an eye for profit have entered the scene, A special effort is being made lure to wealthier pilgrims, with people with links to the Saudi royal family allegedly set to profit the most.

House of Khadijah, wife of Muhammad, after demolition in Mecca

The Saudi Arabia British Bank has estimated that about $5 billion a year is being spent on construction and infrastructure in Mecca, About 120 skyscrapers are currently going up. These include the Abraj al-Bait Towers, which will be one of the biggest buildings in the world. Only meters from the Kaaba, it has seven 30-story-high towers that will hold a 2,000-room hotels, a convention center built to hold 1,500 people, heliports and a four-story shopping mall. When it is completed it will have 1.45 million square meters of floor space, twice that of the Pentagon. “Abraj al-Bait” is Arabic for “Tower of God.”

The famed architect Norman Foster and several foreign architectural firms have been placed in charge of redeveloping the area around Grand Mosque to make it more accommodating to millions of Muslim pilgrims and visitors that come to the city and the mosque every year. The plan calls for initially expanding the capacity of the mosque to around 1 million in the first phase of development and eventually making it large enough to welcome 3 million people.

Objections to Mecca Development and Lost Historical Sites

Not everyone like the changes. Among the biggest critic is Sami Angawu, an expert on Islamic architecture in Mecca and Medina, who objects to the way historic sites have been demolished and the fact that “outsiders” and mon-Muslims who can’t even enter Mecca are spearheading the plan. “When you design a mosque, you need to be able to experience it,” he told the Times of London. On all the development he told AP, “Everyday you can see the buildings becoming bigger and bigger and higher and higher...To me Mecca is not a city. It is a sanctuary. It is a place of diversity and tolerance....Unfortunately it isn’t anymore.” Dissenting voices were not loudly heard in Saudi Arabia as opposition to decisions by the King and his advisors are not welcomed.

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Hajj trash
Among the historical and religious sites and buildings that have been lost or paved over are the house of Mohammad’s first wife Khadija — where Muslims believe the prophet received some of the first revelations of the Qur’an — and Dar- al-Arqam, the school where Muhammad was taught, and the house where Muhammad was born. A 200-year-old fort built by the Ottoman on a hill overlooking the Kaaba, to protect the holy sites, was torn down to make way for a multimillion-dollar housing complex for pilgrims.

Some Islamists have not been unhappy to see the historical sites go. In their eyes they promoted idolatry. They encouraged the house where Muhammad is believed to have been born to be torn down. The library that was built on top of it in the 1930s was a compromise to appease Wahhabi clerics. The Khadja and the Dar- al-Arqam disappeared when the Grand Mosque was expanded in the 1980s. At Hira’s Cave, where Muhammad; is believed to have received the first verses of the Qur’an in the mountains on the edge of Mecca signs posted by Wahhabi religious police warn pilgrims not to pray or “touch stones to be blessed.”

In Medina the only shrine to have survived the Wahhabi anti-idolatry campaign is Muhammad’s tomb. There, religious police bar visitors from praying in the tomb chamber or touching the silver cage around it. Among the historical sites destroyed there were the baqi, a large cemetery where tombs of several of the prophet’s wives, daughters, as many as six grandsons and Shiite saints were once located. Grave markers at the site have been bulldozed away . Religion police open the site once a day to let in male pilgrims. Visitors are not allowed to pray. One Indian pilgrim who cried because he was not allowed to pray told AP: “It is pretty sad that our imam do not have tomb stones to tell where they are buried. They deserve a shrine as monumental as Taj Mahal.”

Renovations and Construction in Mecca

There is massive construction underway in Mecca as the city increases its capacity to accept Hajj pilgrims in the future, but this means there is less room while the building is going on. Over the last three years there has been a reduction in the number of pilgrims because of the expansion of the Two Holy Mosques and the massive infrastructure improvements. [Source: Dahlia Nehme, Reuters, September 12, 2016]

Dahlia Nehme of Reuters wrote: “Mecca’s mayor Osama bin Fadl Al-Bar said the renovations to expand Mecca’s Grand Mosque and nearby hotels, which have turned the area into a tangle of cranes, would drive future business and let the city accommodate 3.7 million Hajj pilgrims in 2020 and 6.7 million by 2042. “There is certainly an effect on economic sectors, but the private sector is always looking toward the light at the end of the tunnel and the investment opportunities that are present.”

As part of a reform plan to wean Saudi Arabia off its dependency on oil, the government aims to encourage even more visits to Mecca outside of Hajj season, raising annual pilgrim numbers to 30 million by 2030 from 8 million at present. Some architectural and cultural critics have lamented the changes to Mecca’s landscape from the development projects, which include highrises and a 76-story clocktower.

World's Biggest Clock Launches 2010 Ramadan in Mecca

Abraj al-Bait Towers in 2012

In August 2010, the world's biggest clock began ticking in Mecca at the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, amid hopes by Saudi Arabia it will become the Muslim world’s official timekeeper. Asma Alsharif of Reuters wrote: “The Mecca Clock, which Riyadh says is the world’s largest, has four faces measuring 43 meters in diameter. It sits 400 meters up what will be the world’s second-tallest skyscraper and largest hotel, overlooking the city’s Holy Grand Mosque, which Muslims around the world turn to five times a day for prayer. “The Holy Mecca Clock started with the order of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud ... one minute after 12 a.m. this morning, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan,” Saudi state news agency SPA said. [Source: Asma Alsharif, Reuters, August 12, 2010 -]

“Over 90 million pieces of colored glass mosaic embellish the sides of the clock, which has four faces each bearing a large inscription of the name “Allah.” It is visible from all corners of the city, the state news agency said. The clock tower is the landmark feature of the seven-tower King Abdulaziz Endowment hotel complex, being built by the private Saudi Binladen Group, which will have the largest floor area of any building in the world when it is complete. Local media have said the clock tower project cost $3 billion. -

“The clock is positioned on a 601-meter tower, which will become the second tallest inhabited building in the world when it is completed in three months’ time. “Because it based in front of the holy mosque the whole Islamic world will refer to Mecca time instead of Greenwich. The Mecca clock will become a symbol to all Muslims,” said Hashim Adnan, a resident of nearby Jeddah who frequently visits Mecca. -

The project is part of efforts to modernize the old city and make it more capable of catering to pilgrims.While many in Saudi Arabia are celebrating the clock tower’s launch, some Mecca visitors are critical of how it will affect the ambiance of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthplace. The complex is built on the land once occupied by an Ottoman fortress. “I think they are trying to do a lot of luxurious development around the Grand Mosque which is taking away from the spiritual atmosphere of the place, making it more modern,” said Lina Edris, a frequent visitor to Mecca. “The clock tower is higher than the minarets of the Grand Mosque, which will take attention away from the mosque even though it is obvious the mosque is more important,” she added.” -

World's Largest Hotel Will Open in Mecca in 2018?

Abraj Kudai plan

Abraj Kudai—the $3.5-billion project expected to become the world’s biggest hotel (by room count) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia is set to open in 2018. The 10,000-room, 70-restaurants complex supposed to have been completed by 2017. Eustacia Huen of Forbes wrote: “This is a result of the low oil prices, which according to a recent Gulf Business article, could be causing quite a ripple effect on the Saudi economy. As the owner of the Abraj Kudai project, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Finance is also a prime customer of The Saudi Binladin Group (SBL)—one of the country’s largest construction companies. Naturally, the actions of the government directly affect SBL. So when the low oil prices began propelling the government “to cancel or suspend projects and delay payments,” SBL suffers too. Further exacerbating the situation, as reported by Gulf Business, was when one of SBL’s cranes fell into the Grand Mosque in Mecca, resulting in 107 deaths and the company banning “from receiving new state contracts altogether.” In response to its potential financial collapse, the conglomerate lets go of thousands of employees and stopped work on several important projects that includes, of course—Abraj Kudai. [Source: Eustacia Huen, Forbes, Jul 31, 2016 /+/]

Since 2015, “Abraj Kudai has attracted much attention for a number of reasons. First, it overtook (most notably) the likes of First World Hotel (7,351 rooms) in Malaysia and MGM Grand (5,044 rooms) in Las Vegas to become the world’s biggest hotel in terms of room-count. Then, many such as Time.com and Architectural Digest reported on the multi-functional project, revealing how it would contain 70 restaurants, food courts, a bus station, a shopping mall, a conference center and ballroom. With twelve towers housing four- and five-star rooms, five floors reserved entirely for Saudi royalties, and four rooftop helipads, Abraj Kudai was touted for “offering an unprecedented level of luxury” by CNN. /+/

“So while the folks at Dar Al Handasah—the international design firm in charge of the project—believes this development will become a striking landmark for its “unparalleled size, height, distinguished location and exposure,” the $3.5-billion project and the likes of other luxury hotels near the Sacred Mosque also attracted much criticism—especially from pilgrims who attend Haj. For instance, Irfan Al-Alawi, Director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation in the UK, spoke to The Guardian about how “Everything has been swept away to make way for the incessant march of luxury hotels, which are destroying the sanctity of the place and pricing normal pilgrims out.” And while the starting price of Abraj Kudai’s four or five-star hotel towers are unknown as of press time, it appears that these luxury hotels are turning the “simple rite of passage”… “into an experience closer to Las Vegas, which most pilgrims simply can’t afford,” he noted. /+/ 20120509-life hajj  Mecca streets_packed_with_worshippers.jpg
crowd outside the Great Mosque in Mecca
“At this point, given the potential effect SBL’s actions could have on the Saudi Arabia economy, it seems questionable as to when (or if) the development could be built. This progression of events is hardly surprising to Tarik Dogru, Assistant Professor of Hospitality Finance and Accounting at Boston University School of Hospitality Administration. Prior to the reporting by Gulf Business, he noted how the country’s fiscal deficit has risen to approximately $100 billion in 2015, which effectively makes budget management of a major project like Abraj Kudai especially challenging. /+/

So as it seems, what we see now— according to Dogru—is the effect of the Saudi government restructuring the economy in response to the deficit. With plans to reduce spending, opening their economy to foreign investment in a larger scale, and changing immigration policies, the Saudi Arabia—as Dogru sees it—is a strong country and major oil producer that could well have the effective strategies to weather this storm.

And as for the Abraj Kudai, the financial expert believes the potentially prestigious country icon would continue and be finished in the near future—although he predicts that it would most likely be after 2018. Completing this development through this difficult time would mean applying different strategies—from finding other construction companies to finish the job or entering into a joint venture with a foreign investor, “but in theory, the solutions are endless,” Dogru said. Ultimately, “The decision about when and how to complete the Abraj Kudai would depend on the government, and it will probably be an important indication of how a restructured Saudi Arabia economy will look like,” noted Dogru.

Image Sources: Al-Jazeera English, Wikimedia Commons except Abraj Kudai, BetterInteriors.in

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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