Muslim pilgrims from around the world began boarding their flights, ships, and buses this week for Hajj 1427 AH (after hijra), a hajj following years of tragedies that culminated with last year’s stampede at the jamarat bridge (killing nearly 350) and the collapse of a hostel housing pilgrims (killing 76). Both issues have weighed heavily on the minds of the Saudi government and aspiring pilgrims, so it’s no surprise that big changes are in store for the current crop of visitors.
Immediately after last year’s hajj, the old bridge was demolished and work began on a new 4-level bridge, with 2 of the levels opening last week, along with two new tunnels. In addition, helicopters will be used to monitor movement, along with renewed emphasis on crowd management (to supplement the mutaween).
Like the Saudis or not, the hajj is one of the world’s most profound logistical challenges, with well over 2 million pilgrims expected this year, due in part to the increasing affordability of the trip to Muslims worldwide. As such, the hajj quota has increased in several countries, with an estimated 25,000 Muslim pilgrims from Britain, many of whom are taking advantage of this year’s corellation with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
With more pilgrims comes concerns about disease, and there are new calls to make flu shots mandatory, as polio and meningitis ones currently are. And as before, the continued incorporation of technology has both helped pilgrims (e-sacrifices, podcasts, and viewing the entire site in Google Earth’s high resolution) and hurt them (mobile phone ringtones at the kaaba?).
As for accommodations, more travellers are demanding luxury in addition to safety. This year, the 80-story Abraj Al Bait, shopping and residential complex can now be seen just south of the haram, part of the vast construction in the area spurred by the recent liberalisation of foreign ownership of residences. Though many of these building projects are highly controversial, with much of the 1km radius of the haram razed this century, the demand for improving the housing stock from pilgrims continues unabated.
Expect changes such as these to continue in the near future, along with ones you may not have expected. Amidst the sudden resignation of Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Turki al-Faisal after 15 months on the job, there are new concerns that Saudi Arabia could join the war next door if the US pulls out of Iraq. If so, some Muslims may have to put their future hajj dreams on hold.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.