The number of Muslims undertaking the Hajj has doubled in 20 years. How is Mecca coping?

The Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca during the Hajj last September. Image: Getty.

Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world travel to a small city on a patch of land in the Tihamah plain of Western Saudi Arabia. For here, in Mecca, lies the Kabbah, Islam’s holiest site.

As gradual globalisation and cheaper air travel makes the world smaller, more and more of the devout are making the pilgrimage, known as the Hajj, every year. In 1997, around 1.2m visited the city during this period. This year, the largest Hajj to do date, saw 2.35m pilgrims – 20,000 of them British – make their way to the city. Though there is some dispute about the data – some of the visitors are Saudis themselves making it hard to compare figures; in some years, the number of visitors has actually fallen slightly – that looks a lot like the number has doubled in just 20 years.

All this provides the city with unique infrastructure burdens: accommodating the vast sea of worshippers that arrive at Mecca during this short period must give many a Saudi city planner sleepless nights.

The requirements of the Hajj have already shaped the centre of the ancient city. Roads must be cut so the pilgrims can reach the Kabbah; accommodation built for them to sleep in at night; and billions of litres of water desalinated to keep them alive in the hot desert sun. Hotels, carparks, lavatories and expansions of the Great Mosque complex have all been created to ensure the safety of the pilgrims.

There is a lot at stake: the list of disasters during the Hajj is tragically long. Most recently and most severely, in 2015, a crush during the ritual led to the deaths of 2,411 pilgrims. There have been five other such disasters, just since 1990.

Following the 2015 disaster, international calls were made for the Hajj to be managed by an independent pan-Islamic organisation, on the grounds that the responsibility was too much for one state.

But the Saudis cherish their identity as the “guardians of the Hajj” – both ideologically, because of the role it gives them in the life of the world’s 2.2bn Mulsims, and practically, because the money involved is astronomical.

An aerial view of the Grand Mosque. Image: Getty.

Due to the centrality of the Kabbah for the rituals, hotels with the best views can charge $7,000 per night during the pilgrimage season. Consequently, the Great Mosque and the adjacent Abraj Al Bait hotel complex are the most expensive buildings in the world, and the area immediately around them is by far the most expensive real estate. According to the mayor, one square foot now sells for up to $18,000: by way of comparison, the most you would pay in London’s poshest Mayfair neighbourhood is barely a third of that, at $6,500. With this amount of money at stake it is a little wonder that the Saudi Arabian government treasure the Hajj.

So the authorities continue to build: more roads, more accommodation, better systems of crowd control.

But all this comes at a cost. These massive structural changes come at the price of the city’s rich material history. In place of an Ottoman era stone citadel, there now lies a hotel complex. The house of the Prophet’s wife, Khadija, is now the site of public loos. Contractors even flattened the very mountain the old castle lay on. The Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca’s ancient buildings have been demolished in the past two decades, all in the name of accommodating the pilgrims.

As Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre, asked the Guardian in 2012: "Why are we imitating the worst mistakes of 60 or 70 years ago from around the world – only even bigger?"

The Saudi government has sacrificed all these things the ensure the future of the Hajj, to ensure that all those who can are able to take part in this holiest of events. The question it should be asking is, considering the destruction of their very history, is it worth it?

This article was amended on 6 November to reflect some controversy around exact visitor numbers. 

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“One of the greatest opportunities facing our region”: Andy Burnham on making work better for older people

Andy Burnham (then health secretary) and Gordon Brown (then prime minister) meeting an older voter in 2010. Image: Getty.

In the Greater Manchester Strategy, published by the Combined Authority in October, we set out our vision for Greater Manchester, including our ambitions for employment.

It’s not simply about getting more people into work – though this is important, given that our employment rate across the region is still below the national average. It’s also about improving the quality of work; creating better jobs with opportunities for people to progress and develop. That’s why we’re working towards a Good Employer Charter to encourage businesses across the region to step up.

But if we want to make a real difference for the people of Greater Manchester, we need to focus on those who currently struggle most to find a job, including people with disabilities, people with fewer qualifications – and older people.

One in three people aged between 50 and 64 in the Greater Manchester area are out of work. Adding in older workers on low pay, nearly half (46.3 per cent) of 50-64 year olds in Greater Manchester are either out of work or in low paid, low quality jobs. This is a bad situation at any age – in your 50s, with fewer chances to get back into work and less time to make up the shortfall in income and savings, it’s terrible.

It’s also bad for the region. People out of work are more likely to have or develop health problems, and need more care and support from our public services. We are also missing out on the skills and experience of thousands of residents. If Greater Manchester’s employment rate for 50-64 year olds matched the UK average, there would be 19,000 more people in work – earning, spending and paying into the local economy. GVA in the region could grow by £800m pa if we achieved this. 

If it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse unless we act. This is the fastest growing age group among working age people in Greater Manchester. And with the rise in State Pension Age, we are no longer talking about 50-64 year olds, but 50-65, 66 and eventually 67. There are more older workers, and we are working for longer. Many of us are now expecting to work into our 70s to be able to earn enough for our later lives.

As the State Pension age rises, older people without decent work must struggle for longer without an income before they can draw their pension. But if we approach this right, we can improve people’s lives and benefit our local economy at the same time. It makes financial and social sense.

Older people bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the workplace, but we must make sure we provide a work environment that enables them to flourish. If we can help them get into good quality, suitable work, older people will be able to retain their financial independence and continue contributing to the region’s economy.

A report published earlier this week by the Centre for Ageing Better looks at exactly this issue. Part of our strategic partnership with the Centre for Ageing Better, the report is based on research conducted over six months with older residents in five communities with high levels of economic disadvantage across Greater Manchester.

In Brinnington, Stockport, the team met Adrian, in his late 50s. Adrian is a trained electrician, but since being made redundant ten years ago, has only managed to get a few short-term contracts. These short term, zero hours contracts, are “more trouble than they’re worth” and have left Adrian stressed and worse-off financially.

He has been sent on a large number of employment-related courses by JobCentre Plus, and has a CV with two pages listing training he has completed. However, these courses were of little interest to him and did not relate to his aim of finding stable work as an electrician. He told the team he only attended most of the courses so he “doesn’t get in trouble”.

Adrian recognises there are other types of work available, but much of it is warehouse based and as he is not in the best physical health he does not feel this work is suitable. He said he has “given up” on finding work – even though he still has 8 or 9 years to go until State Pension age.

Adrian’s story shows how badly the system is failing people like him – highly skilled, in a trade that’s in high demand, but being put through the motions of support in ways that make no sense for him.

A major finding of the report was the high number of people in this age group who had both caring responsibilities and their own health problems. With the need to manage their own health, and the high cost of paying for care, people found that they were not better off in low paid work. Several people shared stories of the complexity of coming off income support to take up temporary work and how this left them worse off financially – in some cases in severe debt.

The report concludes that changes are needed at every level to tackle chronic worklessness amongst this age group. This is not something that employment and skills services alone can fix, although Adrian’s story shows they can be much better at dealing with people as individuals, and this is something we want to do more on in Greater Manchester. But the health and benefits systems need to work in sync with employment support, and this is a national as well as a local issue.

Employers too need to do more to support older workers and prevent them from falling out of the labour market in the first place. This means more flexible working arrangements to accommodate common challenges such as health issues or caring responsibilities, and ensuring recruitment and other processes don’t discriminate against this age group.  

Greater Manchester has been at the forefront of devolution and has been using its powers to bring together health, skills and employment support to improve the lives of local people. The Working Well programme is a perfect example of this, providing integrated and personalised support to over 18,000 people, and delivering fantastic outcomes and value for money.

Such an approach could clearly be expanded even further to include the needs of older people. Ageing Better’s report shows that more can and needs to be done, and we will use their insights as we prepare our age-friendly strategy for Greater Manchester

We have to act now. In 20 years’ time, over a third of the population of Greater Manchester will be over 50. Making work better for all of us as we age is one of the greatest economic and social opportunities facing our city region.

Andy Burnham is the mayor of Greater Manchester.

For more about the work of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and its Ageing Hub, click here.