Muslim worshippers circumambulate around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah during the holy fasting month of Ramadan on May 31, 2019. (AFP)
Little has been said about a program called Service of the Guests of Allah, one of the most visionary ideas of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan. The program aims to achieve a qualitative shift in Hajj and Umrah services, which will interest and impress the world. Inaugurated by King Salman, the goal is to attract 30 million worshippers and 5 million pilgrims per year, a huge leap from the current figure of 9 million.
When completed, Makkah will be in pilgrimage almost daily and throughout the year.
The project will be the biggest challenge for planners and implementers in Saudi Arabia, as 35 million visitors is considered the largest number in the world to be hosted by a city. Hong Kong has 20 million visitors annually, London 19 million, Paris 17 million, Dubai 15 million and New York 13 million.
The challenge in Makkah is greater than the rest of the world. Most of the visitors are old, have low incomes and speak their native language, yet all of them will perform religious rites in the same holy places.
The holy city is expected to become a convenient city for the huge number of people who will visit it throughout the year.
The Royal Commission for Makkah City and Holy Sites is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the visionary behind Vision 2030 who committed himself to transform Saudi Arabia into one of the most developed countries. The commission held a meeting this week and endorsed the program’s direction.
I think the heart of Makkah, where the Grand Mosque is located, has become a concrete forest, too expensive for developers and too crowded. As such, servicing it is no longer easy, nor is ensuring its safety.
The solution is construction away from the heart, transporting visitors in fast electric trains. A few months ago, work began on a railway network that will be able to transport 60 million passengers yearly, shortening the journey from Jeddah’s airport to Makkah to 30 minutes, and to Madinah to two hours.
Makkah is expected to become a convenient city for the huge number of people who will visit it throughout the year, not only for two weeks like nowadays, and to become modernized so as to increase quality of life. Saudis consider Makkah and the service of its guests as a source of pride, and achieving the target of 35 million visitors will be a milestone. More promises have been made in terms of reforms regarding visa facilitation, travel and services, making visits to Makkah far more convenient.
- Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.
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