Can Makkah Be Developed?

Can Makkah Be Developed?

Monday, 4 June, 2018 - 14:30
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad.
While on the plane on my way back to London, I noticed that half of the passengers had performed Umrah and had been in the kingdom to visit Makkah during Ramadan, the holy month when the sacred capital is packed with millions of people performing Umrah from around the world.

During this month, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, had ordered the establishment of a Royal Commission for Makkah City. We look forward to this commission’s details in the next three months when its procedures are finalized.

Initially, I suppose this move will change the concept of the services provided for Hajj and Umrah performers and even the face of Makkah itself, especially that it will be established on an organizational basis that is different than before. The new commission will have independent jurisdictions, thus it will not sink into an administrative bureaucracy that obstructs both the work and spirit.

It is normal for Makkah to be the interest of all Saudi kings for the past 80 years as it’s the capital of the Islamic world and it’s the direction where more than one billion Muslims across the world turn their faces to in order to perform their prayers.

Previously, the focus was on building facilities, specifically expanding the Holy Mosque. These expansions have covered massive areas making the Great Mosque the largest mosque in history.

The new project, however, is about enabling millions of Muslims to perform Hajj and Umrah.

Millions of visitors go there and find a place to worship but the journey has always been arduous as they perform their religious duties with the least amount of movement and in the shortest time possible then hastily leave.

Can the religious journey be enjoyable, beautiful and easy at this time? Frankly speaking, no! It entails great suffering due to the large crowd and lack of services. What I have seen at Jeddah’s airport and what Umrah performers go through in terms of procedures before arrival and at departure, and the necessary services related to transportation and accommodation make this a journey of faith but it’s still an uncomfortable and a discouraging personal experience.

Places of worship have been built but there are the needs of the worshippers themselves. The number of those who get the chance to perform Hajj and Umrah is little compared to the great number of millions of Muslims who want to visit the religious holy sites. This is not because the Great Mosque cannot accommodate them but because the chain of services is very weak in terms of lodging, transportation, food, tourism, shopping and others, which people expect to enjoy in any place they visit in the world.

This limitedness is why a small number of Muslims is attracted to perform Umrah, which goes on throughout most of the year. The number of Umrah performers, however, has increased by 50% during the past two years only thanks to decreasing bureaucratic measures.

The new Royal Commission for Makkah City and Holy Sites intends to review and develop the situation to increase the number of people who perform Umrah to 30 million Muslims a year as laid out by the goals of Vision 2030. Is it possible to increase the number from seven million to 30 million? This great and interesting challenge is the duty of the new commission which is headed by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman himself. The crown prince is the one who devised the plan and now he has to execute it to reach this expected number.

The number of those who desire to visit the holy sites in Makkah will not multiply unless people feel it’s an enjoyable journey like traveling to Dubai or Paris, and not an exhausting journey where they perform a duty and then rush back home.

The success of services at Makkah and the holy sites is measured today with a peaceful season wrap-up. These are important points given the number of threats lingering, but they are not the normal standards to measure the success of visits of religious tourism and others. The standard of success is for the visit to be comfortable and pleasurable, convincing visitors to repeat it.

The expectations laid out by the Vision will exert a lot of pressure in order for it to be achieved. Umrah is not like Hajj, which is a compulsory ritual. The number of visitors to perform it (Umrah) won't increase without several accomplishments that begin with reducing routine, facilitating visa processes and convincing the private sector to handle the massive developmental process that’s required throughout the entire year so the number of visitors in total can reach more than 35 million.

We hope the design concepts are reconsidered by for instance taking the development process from the center of Makkah itself to the outskirts via building easy transportation networks that enable housing millions of visitors outside Makkah for a lower cost and in wider places. The center of Makkah will thus be a comfortable area free of accidents.

They can also begin enabling national talents by building hospitality and service institutions. We also expect there will be a need for a large army of policemen, security and civil defense forces and healthcare personnel to serve around three million visitors every month. These are our expectations from the new Royal Commission.

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