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Hajj, the coronavirus and technical innovation

April 29, 2020 at 8:20 am

This long exposure photograph shows Muslim pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on 27 August, 2017 [KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images]

The coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic has caused countless events to be cancelled, forcing them onto the digital realm and leaving them to rely on the power of modern technology. Even the G20 summit ended up online.

The annual Hajj pilgrimage, however, is one of those events that cannot be held digitally. Accordingly, the dreams and expectations of over 2 million pilgrims from all around the world, businesses in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, as well as countless travel agencies have been hit.

It is not yet officially confirmed if the Hajj – due to take place in August this year – will be cancelled. However, the fact that Saudi Arabia has asked a number of countries not to sign Hajj contracts and has requested Muslims worldwide not to make any further plans for the pilgrimage suggest that it may well be.

One company which is part of Britain’s Hajj industry is Birmingham-based the co-founder of which is Shoaib Hussain. I spoke to him in order to gain a closer insight into the issue. His company serves as a platform for comparing Hajj and Umrah packages provided by various agencies and operators in the UK.

Hussain told me that while his company has not been particularly affected by the crisis due to its role as a platform rather than a provider, “A lot of hajj companies and providers are really feeling the financial hit from the cancellation of hajj… Obviously Hajj is the main season where they make their money, and of course, they won’t be able to do that this year. A couple of companies have contacted me and they’ve said they don’t know how they’re going to survive because Hajj was a core part of their business.”

He made it clear to me that the Saudi authorities “don’t want to announce anything too early because if somehow a vaccine comes out or there’s some preventative measure which we figure out, the first thing they would want to do is to open up Makkah so that pilgrims could come back and worship.” The authorities are unwilling to cancel the pilgrimage until they are absolutely certain that safety will be compromised. “It looks unlikely that this year’s hajj will go ahead, though. Most likely it will be open by 2021. Maybe it will be a step-by-step process to bring people back.”

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The likely cancellation of this year’s pilgrimage is not the first time that it will have happened. There have been a number of Hajj cancellations and problems caused by conflicts and disease. The most recent was in 1987 when there was a meningitis outbreak. “As a result,” explained Hussain, “10,000 people contracted the disease. When this happened, the Saudi authorities then made it compulsory to have a meningitis vaccination certificate to get a Hajj visa.”

It is possible that similar certification may be required post-coronavirus, he predicted. Until then, Hajj could take place with fewer pilgrims drawn from the local residents. Such downsizing measures are already in place to limit the number of worshippers in Makkah’s Grand Mosque to 40 or 50 staff, officials, and cleaners. “Those few people are allowed in so that to some degree the worship at the Kaaba and Masjid Al-Nabawi are taking place. That can be easily extrapolated into the Hajj, where if the virus is still spreading and the trajectory is still going up, it’s very likely that a localised Hajj would take place and only those few people who have tested negative for the virus would fulfil the rites. That could happen.”

The future of Hajj

A factor in the future of Hajj is that of the technological innovation that looks set to be introduced to the pilgrims’ experience. In 2018, Hussain visited the Kingdom and documented the new “nap pods” which originated in Japan and are apparently to be used in Mina, a place near Makkah where pilgrims camp during the pilgrimage. These pods, which Hussain describes as “isolation pods”, provide a ventilated enclosed space where a pilgrim can rest, but they are controversial, with people saying that they destroy the authentic experience of what the Hajj should be about.

“I described the pods as isolation pods on social media, which could be very useful if pandemics become the norm and we have to work around them,” said Hussain. “New technology is always welcome if it is going to make it easier and safer to gather together millions of people in one place at the same time.”

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He has no time for the “romanticised” view that many Muslims have about Hajj. “A lot of people feel that Hajj should be this thing which is done in the desert and in a tent and you should walk everywhere. They think that we’re not sticking to the romanticised notion of desert-dwellers that they feel we should be. We live in the first world, we’re very used to luxury, and even if someone carries you around on Hajj you would still get very tired. Hajj is tough.”

Such innovation links into Saudi Arabia’s push to achieve the aims of its Crown Prince’s Vision 2030, of which the pilgrimage industry is an essential part. “I think the need for it has been shown now, where the ideas behind Vision 2030 and technological innovation in the time of coronavirus show the need for doing things online; there will be a push for even more tech innovation now.” An example of this was the Kingdom’s launch of an e-system in March, enabling people to get refunds for their Umrah payments online as a result of the cancellation of Umrah visas.

In the face of the coronavirus crisis, Saudi Arabia has a significant responsibility to decide if, when, and how it allows this year’s Hajj to take place while ensuring that pilgrims are safe. Technology may impose major changes on the process, but Shoaib Hussain, at least, feels that this is to be welcomed.