The city of Makkah can accommodate two million people a year to perform Hajj. Since Hajj has a specific time and place, there are no obvious solutions. Even if this number were considerably raised, as a result of improvements and expansion, it would not exceed five million pilgrims at any Hajj. In 100 years, only a third of Muslims would be able to visit Makkah.
There is, however, a way for a majority of Muslims to fulfill their aspirations to visit Makkah, and that is to increase the number of Umrah pilgrims.
Umrah can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the Hajj, which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar. Currently, the number of Umrah pilgrims stands at seven million a year, but Saudi Arabia’s transformational Vision 2030 aims to increase that number to 30 million.
It is an ambitious plan that requires a comprehensive development of services and related facilities, and a major fine-tuning of supervising government agencies. The planning strategy needs to be given some tweaks, moving crowds to Makkah’s outskirts.
Will 30 million international visitors make the trip to Makkah each year? Most certainly, but there are concerns associated with Hajj and Umrah, most notably security and safety. Such an increase in numbers would naturally place Makkah on a permanent state of alert.
Saudi authorities have managed to complete most expansions at the 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 throughout the year.
When the government changed its approach, allowing for the private sector to participate in the project, matters improved substantially. The role of the government now is dedicated to planning, regulating, monitoring and holding responsible bodies to account.
The development plan effectively requires the construction of a new city with vast facilities for housing and serving pilgrims, doubling the size of Makkah, and presenting the private sector with an even greater opportunity.
Makkah cannot cope with the millions of Muslims who wish to take part in the annual ritual. The solution is to increase the number of Umrah pilgrims, with a new development to accommodate them.
Such a project promises to ease the congestion inside Makkah, which has become a concrete jungle surrounded by mountains. Developing the area from the Great Mosque toward Jeddah is the solution. Giving up construction at the center of the holy city would reduce congestion, make transporting visitors easier and enable the safety and security services to operate with high efficiency.
A ribbon development of 20 kilometers between the entrance gate and the city center could accommodate hundreds of hotels, markets and other facilities, and host most of the 30 million pilgrims, instead of increasing pressure on the inner city.
The new train service will improve public transport. Such facilities, services and hotels would operate throughout the year, making them economically attractive for the private sector to invest in.
The key long-term challenge facing development planners is to meet the wishes of the world’s Muslim population. The number of people who perform Umrah should increase threefold.
For the best religious, political and social reasons, may the Saudi government bring forward this project’s deadline, and make it a priority.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published. Twitter: @aalrashed