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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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.