The vast white marble floors surrounding Islam’s holiest site, the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, would normally be packed with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world the day before hajj.
On Tuesday, however, only a few officials and workers putting last minute preparations in place were seen at the Grand Mosque housing the Kaaba.
In place of the 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world who preformed the hajj last year, only a very limited number of faithful – anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 – are being allowed to take part in what is largely a symbolic pilgrimage this year.
The select few approved for this year’s hajj have been tested for the COVID-19 virus and are self-isolating in hotel rooms in Mecca, waiting to experience an ancient pilgrimage tailored for a modern-day global pandemic.
“Right now technology is our black horse to developing hajj,” said Amr Al-Maddah, chief planning and strategy officer at the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, during an interview with The Associated Press from Mecca.
“We are looking what technology has to offer to make Hajj easier and make Hajj more accessible. And to do a better crowd management for all of these huge numbers,” said al-Maddah, who holds a degree in electronic engineering and a Ph.D. in robotics and artificial intelligence.
Fatin Daud, a 25-year-old Malaysian studying Arabic in Saudi Arabia, was among the few whose application for hajj was approved.
After her selection, Saudi Health Ministry officials came to her home and tested her for the COVID-19 virus.
She was then given an electronic bracelet that monitors her movement and told to quarantine for several days at home.
After that, Daud was moved to a hotel in Mecca, where she remains in self-isolation, still wearing the electronic wristband.
A large box of food is delivered to her hotel room three times a day as she prepares to begin the hajj.
“I was confident that the government will take every safety measures to ensure that all the pilgrims are in safe atmosphere,” she said, adding that she was praying for the end of COVID-19 and for unity among Muslims around the world.
Thermal scanners are also being used for the first time across the holy sites to monitor people’s temperatures for any signs of illness.
Each pilgrim is assigned to a group of around 20 other pilgrims and a group leader, who will guide them throughout the hajj to each destination at a specified time to avoid crowding in places like the Grand Mosque.
While on Mount Arafat, the pilgrims will be wearing high-tech identification cards that connect to an application on their phones, allowing the government can monitor and assist pilgrims, but also enabling pilgrims can reach out to their group leader and make meal requests.
The cards store the pilgrims’ personal information, health status, residence and other hajj-related details.
In the future, al-Maddah said the cards would be fitted with a location tracker to follow individual pilgrims’ movements and can be used as a payment card in place of cash.
Al-Maddah said all the safety measures implemented were vital to the success of this year’s Hajj.
This year, all pilgrims are being treated as special guests of the Saudi king, with meals, hotel accommodation, transportation and health care provided in full by the government.
Typically, the hajj can cost thousands of dollars for pilgrims who save for a lifetime for the journey. It also generates billions of dollars in revenue each year for Saudi Arabia.
This year also marks the first time in nearly a century of Saudi rule over Mecca that Muslims from outside the kingdom are not allowed to take part in the five-day hajj.
Al-Maddah, who is a member of the hajj planning committee, said allowing people to enter Saudi Arabia from abroad would have posed a global health risk among pilgrims returning home.
Two-thirds of the pilgrims selected this year are foreigners already residing in Saudi Arabia.
The government says they hail from the 160 different nationalities that would have normally been represented at the hajj.
The remaining one-third are Saudi security personnel and medical staff.
All pilgrims have to be between the ages of 20 and 50 with no terminal illnesses and showing no symptoms of the coronavirus.
Preference has been given to residents who have not performed the hajj before, and to doctors and nurses in Saudi Arabia who’ve had the virus but are no longer infected with it.
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The Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city for Muslims. Hajj is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims, who visit the Kaaba, a cubic structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque.
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According to the official published statistics between 2000 and 2019, the average number of attendees is 2,269,145 per year, in which 1,564,710 come from outside Saudi Arabia and 671,983 are local.
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Islam is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion teaching that Muhammad is the final and ultimate messenger of God. It is the world’s second-largest religion with 1.8 billion followers or 24.1% of the world’s population, known as Muslims. Muslims make up a majority of the population in 49 countries.