By: Ingy ElSafy
Mubasher: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought technology-enhanced methods that help authorities implement social distancing to preserve the health of people. Saudi Arabia will provide a digital Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage) this year and rely on robots to assist pilgrims with fatwas, guidance, among other services.
The Kingdom aims to efficiently reduce human resources in managing crowds and organising the pilgrimage, with digital services facilitating the movement of pilgrims, providing the electronic Mosshaf (Holy Qur’an), while artificial intelligence (AI) will be used to increase the efficiency of surveillance cameras and enhance security operations.
The Hajj season this year will witness a digitised journey from start to finish, given the growing role of digitisation in various services, Saudi Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah, Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat, confirmed, on the sidelines of the Makkah Region Digital Projects Exhibition that was held in June.
The Kingdom will be accurately setting Hajj rituals’ timings for every pilgrim as soon as they arrive in Saudi Arabia until the date of their departure. Digital pilgrims will likely continue to grow in number as the COVID-19 pandemic persists.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is applying the Smart Card service for the third year in a row in 2021, aiming to facilitate the whole Hajj journey. Smart cards contribute to guiding pilgrims to their residence in holy sites, controlling entry, besides offering various facilities.
The service also has a main role of reducing illegal travel, while being part of the ministry’s strategy to implement digital transformation by creating virtual platforms to ease and reduce procedures.
Mashat noted that until mid-June, more than 450,000 people have submitted their requests through the electronic portal.
Provided at a limited scale when first initiated in 2019, the smart card service is considered an extension of the Smart Hajj platform project, which is a digital identity for a pilgrim. The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah developed a number of services related to the card including the pilgrim’s personal, medical, and residential information.
Saudi Arabia first enhanced smart cards with different features designed according to five basic colours of programme services, pilgrim grouping, and transportation. They included technology for the near field contact (NFC) to read the Hajj data through the self-service machines and on a barcode that is read by the personnel working in Hajj to know all the relevant information of a pilgrim.
The digital revolution will lead the economy while contributing to the operation of smart cities, President of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Tony Chan, commented. He added that in order to achieve this, digital infrastructure must be flexible, secure, and focused on people, given the necessity of sustainability for future smart cities.
Hajj Smartphone Applications
Saudi Arabia provides e-services through different smartphone applications, which can be downloaded to IOS or Android systems, to serve pilgrims who perform Hajj rituals in a smooth way. Among those apps is the Hajj and Umrah Navigator, which is a digital geographic app launched by Saudi Post for the area of Holy Places (Mashair) inside Saudi Arabia. It has a map providing information about addresses, Hajj camps particularly in Makkah and Madinah, streets, districts, public services, and Mashair boundaries.
The Hajj ministry offers several apps like Manasikana, Ershad, Violations, Housing, E-Hajj Monitoring, I-Hajj Monitoring, and others.
Another app is Turjuman, which translates instruction signs for non-Arabic speaking pilgrims to their languages, without having to use the internet.
Al Maqsad, meanwhile, helps visitors of Makkah to locate their exact destination inside the corridors of the Grand Mosque (Almasjid Al Haram) and find out any place where they want to go, which also works offline.
As for Mutawef, the app includes many services such as Guide Me, which enables the users to find their place of residence using maps. Other services include a guide to the Grand Mosque with all its facilities and services, and audio guides that enable users to listen to all Hajj Rituals and consultations from religious scholars.
Asefny app helps and supports people of determination, allows filing an emergency report, finding the exact location, and recording medical history.
Arafat Sermon is an app that provides information about the Arafat Sermon Translation project with the ability to listen to the translated sermon on Arafat Day, the main rite of the Hajj, which is followed by Eid Al Adha holiday.
Islamic pilgrimage has a main ritual of sacrificing a livestock animal, therefore, Hadaj app can be used as a simple communication tool between buyer, seller, and carrier in the field of sheep transportation.
Hajj in 2021 in Comparison with 2020
This year in May, Saudi Arabia announced the resumption of Hajj for the 1442 Hijri Year, while preserving the health and safety of pilgrims, in accordance with the health, security, and regulatory controls and standards.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is limiting the availability of registration for those wishing to perform Hajj in July 2021 to citizens and residents of all nationalities inside Saudi Arabia only.
Only 60,000 total pilgrims among the age group between 18 and 65 years old will be allowed to perform the rituals this year in light of the continuing developments of the COVID-19 and the emergence of new variants across the world.
The ministry confirmed that those willing to perform Hajj this July have to provide a health status confirming they are free of chronic diseases and have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. It added that applicants can visit the nearest vaccination centre without an appointment but within 48 hours of receiving the Hajj 2021 permit.
In 2020, Saudi Arabia allowed a limited number of 1,000 people from different nationalities who were already residing in the Kingdom and met the criteria to participate in Hajj. The chosen pilgrims were required to self-isolate at home seven days prior to arriving in Makkah, and then were quarantined in the designated hotel until the start of the Hajj rituals.
Last year, the pilgrims were transported in groups on a daily basis to perform the rituals, while every 50 individuals were accompanied by a health leader to ensure safety measures, such as wearing a mask and social distancing.
Hajj Contribution to Saudi Economy
Over the past 10 years, Saudi Arabia served more than 150 million pilgrims, which contributed to the economies of Makkah and Medina. The Council of Saudi Chambers reportedly said the spending associated with the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages could together generate $150 billion in income and create 100,000 permanent jobs related to Hajj during the period from 2018 until 2022.
Spending by Hajj pilgrims alone is expected to increase to $5.6 billion by the 2022 Hajj, compared to $4.2 billion in 2017, according to a report by Oxford Business Group (OBG).
In addition, a recent research by the Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry reportedly found that an average of 25% to 30% of private sector income earned in the area around the two cities is derived from pilgrimage.
Hajj season is seen registering between $6 billion and $8 billion in revenue for Saudi Arabia each year.
Several sectors, including retail, benefit from the growing number of visitors to Saudi Arabia. “During the Hajj, the sale of watches increases substantially in the Makkah region, because many pilgrims buy watches as gifts for their families,” OBG quoted CEO of Al Hussaini and Al Yahya Investment Group, Abdulrahman Al Hussaini, as saying. He explained that “the price of watches for international pilgrims is lower than in their own countries, because value-added tax is lower in Saudi Arabia.”
A previous report showed that both Hajj and Umrah worshippers’ fees, food, transport, and accommodation amount to nearly $12 billion in revenues.
Prior to the pandemic, the local government set a target of receiving 6.7 million Hajj pilgrims by 2030.
Saudi Arabia’s total revenues are projected to stand at SAR 849 billion in 2021, higher by 10.2% than the SAR 770 billion total estimated in 2020. The forecast is backed by a domestic economic recovery and higher oil prices, according to KPMG’s Saudi Arabia 2021 budget report.
As for the infrastructure helping during Hajj season, the Kingdom implemented its 450-kilometre megaproject Haramain high-speed railway at a cost of $16 billion SAR 60 billion), inaugurating it in 2019 to become one of the largest railways across the Middle East. It connects Makkah to Medina through Jeddah, King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA), and King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC).