Curtailed hajj compounds Saudi Arabia financial woes

RIYADH: Vacant spiritual websites. Deserted pilgrim tents. Lifeless inns. A surprising vacancy — and fears of financial spoil — hang-out the normally bustling metropolis of Mecca after Saudi authorities curtailed the hajj pilgrimage over coronavirus.
Islam’s holiest metropolis normally hosts tens of millions of pilgrims for the annual ceremony, however the kingdom has barred abroad guests from this 12 months’s occasion, scheduled for late July.
The hajj and the lesser umrah pilgrimage collectively rake in some $12 billion, protecting the financial system buzzing in Mecca, residence to 2 million folks and marble-bedecked skyscrapers towering over Islam’s most sacred websites.
A development growth lately has added buying malls, flats and luxurious inns, some providing spectacular views of the sacred Kaaba, a cube-shaped construction within the Grand Mosque in direction of which Muslims around the globe pray.
However most premises have lain empty for the reason that pandemic reached the dominion.
The virus, which hit Mecca laborious, has additionally battered pilgrimage-reliant companies that help lots of of 1000’s of jobs, from journey brokers to avenue barbers and memento retailers.
Many have reported sweeping layoffs, pay cuts or delayed salaries.
“Zero gross sales, zero revenue,” mentioned Ahmed Attia, a 39-year-old Egyptian who works for a journey company within the metropolis.
“We’re not used to seeing Mecca empty. It looks like a lifeless metropolis. It is devastating for Mecca.”
A tsunami of cancellations has additionally battered abroad hajj operators who organise journey logistics for pilgrims, a lot of whom make investments their life financial savings within the five-day ritual.
Saudi authorities had already in March suspended the umrah pilgrimage, which could be carried out at any time.
Then, in a vastly delicate however long-awaited determination, they mentioned they might solely enable round 1,000 pilgrims already current within the kingdom to carry out the hajj.
That could be a tiny fraction of the two.5 million pilgrims who attended final 12 months.
“It will likely be a symbolic occasion, a photo-op that enables the dominion to say ‘we did not cancel the hajj as many anticipated’,” mentioned a South Asian official in touch with hajj authorities.
Saudi Arabia has pressured that the watered-down hajj might be open to folks of varied nationalities.
However the choice course of for the few spots is anticipated to be hotly contested, as some Mecca residents count on to be given precedence over outsiders.
“I’ve gone to hajj earlier than and hopefully this 12 months, with God’s will, I might be among the many first pilgrims,” mentioned Marwan Abdulrahman, a Saudi residing in Mecca.
Many feared the pilgrimage, which packs colossal crowds into small spiritual websites, may have been an enormous supply of contagion.
The novel coronavirus has hit the dominion with the very best variety of instances within the Gulf — greater than 178,000 confirmed infections together with 1,511 deaths.
However scaling the pilgrimage again will deepen the dominion’s financial hunch, analysts say.
The transfer follows a pointy downturn in oil costs and coronavirus-led losses, which triggered austerity measures together with the tripling of a worth added tax and cuts to civil servants’ allowances.
The hajj determination “does compound Saudi Arabia’s financial difficulties”, Richard Robinson, a Center East analyst at Oxford Analytica, informed AFP.
On Wednesday, the Worldwide Financial Fund warned the dominion’s GDP will shrink by 6.eight p.c this 12 months — its worst efficiency for the reason that 1980s oil glut.
The Saudi Binladen development group, a bellwether recognized for huge mega-projects, has missed wage funds for 1000’s of staff in latest months, in keeping with a supply near the corporate and staff complaining on social media.
The Arabic hashtag “Delays in Binladen salaries” has gained traction because the slowdown impacts the agency behind a sequence of essential tasks, together with a $15 billion skyscraper lodge advanced that towers over Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
The corporate is in search of to constitution numerous personal jets to ship a lot of its laid-off South Asian labourers residence, in keeping with the supply.
The corporate didn’t reply to a request for remark.
The downturn has additionally disrupted Riyadh’s formidable plans to construct a tourism business from scratch, a cornerstone of the Imaginative and prescient 2030 reform programme to scale back the dominion’s reliance on oil.
“The federal government has singled out tourism as a key space for progress below its diversification technique, and the lack of hajj revenues may set the sector again by way of misplaced funding or bankruptcies,” mentioned Robinson.
The dominion started providing vacationer visas for the primary time final September in strikes to open up one of many final frontiers of worldwide tourism.
“Whereas Saudis need to diversify tourism revenues past spiritual tourism, their efforts nonetheless construct from the hajj,” mentioned Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“Not having it at the moment of disruption in oil markets is a blow.”

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