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Is Saudi Arabia unfairly profiting from its holy sites?

  • Adam Bensaid
  • 9 Aug 2019

While Muslims are supposed to undertake the Hajj at least once in their lifetimes, Saudi Arabia’s role in regional conflicts increases — so does the costs of annual pilgrimage it hosts.

The Grand Mosque and the four-faced clock, atop the Abraj Al-Bait Towers are seen from the top of al-Noor mountain where the Hiraa cave is located, overlooking the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws 3 million visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. ( Hassan Ammar / AP )

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS) has done his best to cover up the ruthless policies that have come to be associated with his name, chief among them a smattering of publicised liberal reforms that have been widely celebrated by human rights activists and world powers. This includes allowing women to drive.

MBS’s liberal reforms have not been received with much ado in other parts of the world though, with many refusing to be swayed from the Gulf kingdom’s records of abuse, torture and brutal force.

With a mounting civilian death toll in Yemen due to a Saudi Arabian-led coalition bombarding the country, the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the brutal crackdowns on minorities in the kingdom, believing in visions of paradise in the desert may be asking too much for some.

Nowhere is this more pronounced then in the orders of Muslim clerics throughout the Muslim world, which Saudi Arabia claims to head in a form of ‘Islamic legitimacy’ made possible because two of Islam’s holiest sites reside within the kingdom’s borders.

Muslims are commanded to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lifetimes. For many, this is the cornerstone to a lifetime of faith. 

For others, it means a steady flow of tourists, lucrative state-tendered construction contracts, and the slow creep of luxury hotel chains around the holy mosque that many cannot begin to afford.

Driving between the port city of Jeddah and Mecca, one sees an endless procession of semi-trucks carrying goods and supplies for the holy city’s unrivalled trade. 

Pilgrims buy trinkets, items of clothing, jewellery and souvenirs, believing they are imbued with blessings. With family and friends expecting gifts on their return, some of whom may never make the pilgrimage, buying gifts isn’t a question. It’s a necessity.  

Even for the more religiously conscious who scoff at notions of blessed objects, items from Mecca hold a special significance.

With 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, over two million can attend yearly, but not for lack of demand.  

There isn’t enough capacity for everyone to make the pilgrimage. But there are still plenty of pilgrims to be found for what is expected to be a $150 billion industry by 2022. Saudi economists posit that the Hajj could eventually fund the entire national economy.

Pilgrimage is essential to Saudi Arabia’s economy and worth $12 billion annually. Currently, it makes up 20 percent of Saudi Arabia’s non-oil GDP, and is only expected to grow with the rise of more luxury hotels around the holy mosque. 

Guardians at the gates

In a fusion of business acumen, soft power and religious exploitation, the Hajj lottery system was formed. 

Saudi Arabia arbitrarily determines how many pilgrim slots it gives to countries. For countries like Qatar, the pilgrim quota was a magnanimous gift by King Salman, ‘in spite of ongoing tensions’. Previously, Qataris were banned from entering the kingdom, and while it was formally designated 1,200 pilgrim slots, it was all but impossible for pilgrims to register. 

Pilgrims, some of whom save their entire lives for the pricey journey, apply for a lottery. Some multiple times. If they are accepted, they are required to buy an all-inclusive Hajj package deal from a pre-approved list of tourism agencies, who often quote obscure dealings and fees when marking up rates. 

The trip is not without its costs, ranging from as low as $800 to upwards of $7,000 for the overbooked Hajj season. 

But even Hajj application systems for countries without the lottery system are not without challenges.

Hajj pilgrims are also required to buy a Hajj package ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 or higher depending on accommodations, distance and the like.

The issue is with who gets to sell packages. Only pre-approved tourism agencies qualify, with an opaque process hiding selection criteria.

Insiders in the Hajj industry speak of the hidden rampant corruption that exists behind the scenes, as tourism agencies are asked to pay commissions to well-connected bureaucrats, who in turn owe royal figures hefty percentages, if only to buy their way onto approved tourism agency lists distributed by embassies.

Khalid, whose first name has been changed for privacy, owned a Hajj tourism agency in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but no longer. He’s since been forced out of business.

“I received a license and quota for the first year. In the second, I was asked to pay a 30 percent commission for all Hajj profits if I still wanted the contract. When I protested, the contact at the Saudi embassy told me I could apply normally but wouldn’t get the contract unless an Emir [Prince] recommended me to the Hajj administration,” Khalid says speaking to TRT World.

“I didn’t want to go down that path. It’s a holy pilgrimage. How can they do this?”

The lack of competition and involvement of middlemen among Hajj tourism vendors means prices can be pegged regardless of personal income, or actual costs.

Muslim minorities in the West in particular, suffer from this. 

“Hajj packages used to cost three to four thousand dollars only five years ago,” says Issam Qaddoura from Canada.

“Now they cost at least $10,000. A flight from my city to Jeddah only costs a $1,000. Why is it so expensive? It would be cheaper to go on my own, but I can’t. Something is wrong with the pricing. Aren’t tourism companies supposed to be able to get lower prices because of their group profits?,” he complains.

In the end however, it may be a matter of supply and demand. Group rates or not, the amount of pilgrims that descend on Mecca annually cause prices to skyrocket. For some that’s a challenge. For others, it means business is good.

No longer

Mecca has always seen profit, something widely recognised. But more and more Muslims are uncomfortable, not with the significant profits, but with what the money is being spent on.

In late April 2019, Libya’s most prominent Muslim Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Sadiq al Ghariani, called for all Muslims to boycott the Hajj—the obligatory pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca.

In a minority view, he claimed that anyone who carried out a second pilgrimage was doing “an act of sin rather than a good deed”. 

The reasoning was simple. Saudi Arabia’s economy supplies arms and militarily attacks Yemen, and is indirectly implicated in Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Iraq. 

Ghariani emphasised that investing in the Hajj would “help Saudi rulers to carry out crimes against our fellow Muslims”.

But Ghariani isn’t the only cleric who’s taken a stance against the Hajj. Yusuf al Qaradawi, one of the most prominent and highly acclaimed Sunni scholars and a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia, made a fatwa in August 2018 which called for consciousness towards spending on the pilgrimage.

“Seeing Muslims feeding the hungry, treating the sick, and sheltering the homeless are better viewed by Allah than spending money on the Hajj,” he said.

Others take a contrary stance, and view this as undermining a key pillar of faith. Muslims are required to attempt the Hajj at least once during their life, if they are able to. 

But while many disagree with a Hajj ban, the sentiment is not an unpopular one. 

The Saud royal family’s role in Egypt, Syria and Libya and most recently in the “execution” of Khashoggi is at the forefront of many’s minds.

Saudi Arabia’s King holds the honorary title of ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’, handed down for generations. In today’s times, some pilgrims see the title as less than honorary, and more an iron grip on profit at the expense of religious legitimacy.

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