About three million pilgrims preformed Haj this year. As happens every year, the gap between expectations and capabilities is wide. The majority of about one billion Muslims cannot perform Haj, not only because most of them are poor, but also because the capacity of the holy places to hold more pilgrims is limited, and can be stretched to a limited extent.
Saudi Arabia faces a big challenge because it is the country in the Islamic world that is primarily responsible for taking care of pilgrims and ensuring easy Haj for them. The Kingdom knows for sure that the number of pilgrims will not increase, although it has increased the area to the extent that it has gone beyond Makkah and the holy sites. It has taken numerous steps to accommodate three million pilgrims in the holy city; to ensure their transportation to and from the holy sites and also to make sure that they perform Haj rituals easily and comfortably. There are no more steps left to be taken for Haj and not more than 3 million pilgrims will be able to perform this holy duty. Even if the capabilities were doubled it is impossible that their number will exceed four million.
Though much has been said about Umrah, little has been executed. Umrah is not the alternative to Haj, but a good solution if the Kingdom cannot come up with solutions to accommodate more pilgrims coming for Haj. With Umrah, the Kingdom can boost its capacity from 5 million pilgrims for Umrah to 50 million people.
Years ago, I wrote about Umrah after listening to people associated with companies organizing Umrah visits. All of them were willing to take care of Umrah pilgrims, to overcome the difficulties related to it and to enable the largest possible number of Muslims to perform this ritual. But this could not be achieved yet, although massive construction has been completed or is under progress for the benefit of Haj and Umrah.
There are many problems related to the issue of increasing the number of Umrah pilgrims. The bureaucracy granting visas makes this matter difficult as also the poor internal services. This means that the government has to restructure the Tawafa organizations, which usually take care of the pilgrims from the time they start their journey from their home countries until their return. The government also needs to take these institutions to a higher level. The private sector must also be encouraged to provide services to about 45 million extra Umrah pilgrims every year. This also means that the state must develop services sector as has been done by the largest tourism country in the world, such as Spain, which receives visitors equivalent to this number every year.
There are other issues that make our thinking limited. The Kingdom considers itself the patron of pilgrims who come to perform Haj and Umrah. This costs it heavily. The government spends a huge amount on building rail networks in remote areas that serve the pilgrims for only five days during the year to commute them between Arafat, Mina and Muzdalifah. There is no country in the world that builds and operates trains and railways that big, just to leave them without operation for the rest of the year. In addition, expansion projects and using the most expensive kinds of building materials and technology for the service of pilgrims is something very extraordinary.
The solution lies in the establishment of a specialized economy in serving 50 million pilgrims of Umrah that can support itself, with an initial support from the state that should subsequently be able to meet the desires of millions. It is not true that there are dangers and security pitfalls as a result of the large number of people entering the country. Saudi Arabia has had successful experiences of accommodating about seven million workers from outside. Their educational background is relatively less than usual.
I personally think that Saudi government has to reconsider all its plans for the services of pilgrims of Umrah to meet this goal.
This article was published in the Saudi-based Arab News on Oct. 28, 2012.