Muslims make up about 24 percent of the world population. With one and a half billion Muslims worldwide, should one billion of them decide on performing Hajj– which is pillar of Islam– at least once in a lifetime, it will take up to 500 years for the task to be achieved.
The annual capacity of Muslims performing Hajj stands at an average 2 million-- limited by Mecca’s ability to host gathered pilgrims.
Since Hajj has a specific time and place, there are no available solutions. Even if this number is considerably raised, as a result of improvements and future expansion, it will not exceed five million pilgrims in any Hajj pilgrimage. In a hundred years, only one-third of Muslims will be able to visit Mecca.
In order for a majority of Muslims to fulfill their aspirations of visiting Mecca, one alternative emerges: increase the number of Umrah pilgrims, and not the Hajj pilgrims.
Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, performed by Muslims and can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the Ḥajj which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar.
Currently, the number of pilgrims stands at 7 million, but the Saudi transformational Vision 2030 aims to boost numbers to 30 million per year.
It is an ambitious plan and will require a comprehensive development of services, related facilities, and a major fine-tuning of top supervising government agencies.
The planning strategy needs to be given some tweaks, moving crowds to Mecca’s outskirts.
But will 30 million international visitors make the trip to Mecca each year? Most certainly, but there are concerns associated with Hajj and Umrah, most notably security and safety.
Such a project would naturally place Mecca in a permanent state of alert, and would double the number of local pilgrims.
Kingdom authorities have managed to complete most expansions at holy sites, the largest engineering and construction project in the world-- built to accommodate millions of pilgrims, and also host tens of millions of Muslims around the year, the development plan demands that a new city with vast service facilities for housing and service of pilgrims be constructed as well.
Given that the government changed its approach, allowing for the private sector to partake in project, matters improved substantially. The role of the government now is dedicated to planning, regulating, monitoring and holding to account responsible bodies.
This calls for building of a new city in Mecca, to double the size of the Holy City, presenting the private sector with even a greater opportunity.
Such a project promises to ease up the congestion inside Mecca, which has become a concrete jungle surrounded by mountains. Making some distance from the area Great Mosque of Mecca, toward Jeddah, is the solution to such a huge project.
Giving up construction at the center of the holy city will reduce congestion, facilitate transportation of visitors and enable various safety services to operate with high efficiency.
A distance of 20 kilometers between the entrance gate and the city center can accommodate hundreds of hotels, facilities and markets and host most of the 30 million pilgrims, instead of increasing pressure on the inner city territory.
The new train service will facilitate public transport. Such facilities, services and hotels will operate throughout the year, making them economically attractive for the private sector to invest.
Forevermore, the key challenge facing development planners is them meeting the wishes of the world’s Muslim population. The number of people who would perform Umrah will increase threefold.
In good thought, may the government speed up the project’s deadline, prioritizing it for many religious, political and social considerations.