Tens of billions of dollars have gone to Saudi Arabia this year because of the international health crisis, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Muslim Hash pilgrimage was held this summer with a number of restrictions. Only about a thousand pilgrims performed the sacred rituals of the world's largest religious gathering. By way of comparison, last year there were no less than two and a half million.
The Muslim world has discovered on television the completely new images of the Kaaba and the almost empty holy places of Islam. The few pilgrims who had access to them had to respect the physical distance and wear masks. This year, only those living on Saudi soil were able to reach Mecca and make their pilgrimage. Thirty percent of them are Saudi Arabian citizens, while the remaining 70% are foreigners living in Saudi Arabia, according to the country's authorities.
No foreign pilgrims were able to set foot on the holy land, to the dismay of Muslims around the world who had registered and prepared for the pilgrimage. The Hash is one of the five pillars of Islam and a very important ritual, which every good Muslim should perform at least once in his life if his health permits.
However, this year even the sacred rituals had to accept the crisis and adapt. Touching the Kaaba as a blessing has been forbidden. Health measures have been established. "The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health has assigned a health officer for every 50 pilgrims. He will be responsible for ensuring that his team members respect all precautionary and preventive measures established by the authority, including social distancing and movement between holy places, for their safety and comfort," Riyadh announced.
The pilgrims were given "comfort kits that included sterilized stones for the Jamarat stoning ritual, disinfectants, masks, a prayer rug and the Ihram, the two pieces of white cloth that the pilgrims use without sewing. Mobile clinics and health centres were also on the menu of this unique Hach.
Muslims all over the world dream of making this initiatory journey, of going to the place where the prophet Mohammed lived, walking in the footsteps of Abraham, touching the Kaaba and forgetting everything. Often, a lifetime's savings are dedicated to this journey, which takes place according to a very precise calendar in the month of the same name and ends with the sacrifice of the sheep in homage to Abraham. For Saudi Arabia, it is the country's second largest source of income after oil, with $8 billion pocketed by the Saudi regime for this event alone last year.
The small pilgrimage (which is not compulsory) also takes place throughout the year, bringing the number of religious tourists per year to 9 million. This ever-growing figure is a real gift from heaven for Riyadh and is what pushed Bin Salmane to aim for the incredible figure of 30 million pilgrims by 2030.
The young king is right, with 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, or almost a quarter of the world's population, religious tourism has a bright future ahead of it. The number of pilgrims has never stopped increasing to such an extent that Muslim countries have to make do with a quota imposed by Riyadh and the lucky ones are drawn by lot.
In this juicy business, we play among friends. The "accredited" travel agencies have a total monopoly and it is very difficult to access the religious trade - the voices of the Lord remain impenetrable! Since 1932, when the kingdom was created, Saudi Arabia has been the sole organizer of this religious gathering and has no intention of sharing it with anyone, because it is also the sole beneficiary.
The communication fiasco of this pilgrimage season and the deaths of previous years due to poor management of the rituals have raised voices calling for international protection of the sacred sites. This demand will remain a pious wish. Riyadh does not intend to give anyone even a small crumb of the pie.
In ten years the price of the Hach has doubled, it takes between 5,000 and 7,000 euros per traveller leaving Europe to cover the costs of the tour. The royal family and its relatives have continuously invested in the infrastructure of hotels, restaurants and transport in recent years.
Mecca is increasingly opening up to luxury tourism, reserved for the rich. With oil revenues falling sharply this year, Saudi Arabia is becoming more dependent on the religious trade. If the oil wells threaten to dry up one day, we in Saudi Arabia have understood that we have to bet on faith.