Saudi Arabia’s holy business


Kaaba, Islam’s holiest place, Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Image/Wikimedia Commons

Pilgrimage to Mecca comes second only to hydrocarbons as Saudi Arabia’s main source of income, and the country aims to exploit it still further.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of oil at 10 million barrels per day, is also the birthplace and nerve centre of Islam, and the only member of the UN named after a family, the House of Saud. It claims exclusive rightsto the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, which features on its flag to remind the 1.8 billion Muslims around the world that its ruler is the ‘custodian of the two holy mosques’, with jurisdiction over Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthplace — the direction (qibla) Muslims pray to five times a day — and Medina, where he is buried.

The country’s huge oil revenue strengthens its position as religious leader of the umma (community of believers), but its rulers know they must preserve their legitimacy as guardians of the holy cities, and they make huge efforts to ensure pilgrimages on Saudi soil go smoothly and safely. The logistical, sanitary and security challenges are enormous. The hajj lasts at least five days during dhu al-hijja, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and each year between two and three million pilgrims (hajji) make the journey. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and every Muslim must perform it at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and can afford it; it is the apotheosis of believers’ lives, absolving them of all their sins, and a great occasion for Muslims from around the world to come together, promoting unity and exchange.

Saudi Arabia earns an average of $10-15bn a year from the hajj and another $4-5bn from the eight million visitors making the umra, a non-obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca that can be performed at any time except during the hajj period, with numbers peaking during Ramadan. According to the Mecca Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 25-30% of private sector revenue in the holy cities comes from the two pilgrimages.

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