MAKKAH, 9 October 2006 — Gangs of mainly Bangladeshis, Burmese, Africans and now even Saudis are exploiting the ignorance of pilgrims in Makkah by running a massive Zamzam water scam to make extra money.
Drinking Zamzam water is from among the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and is something Muslims drink when breaking their fast during Ramadan. Pilgrims that come to the Kingdom flock in their thousands to water stations close to the Grand Mosque in Makkah to fill their containers with the blessed water to take back home.
However, Arab News has learned that groups of people have taken up positions near Zamzam stations to sell water that is supposed to be available to people for free. In fact, these people sell empty drums in different sizes at prices higher than drums containing Zamzam to coerce pilgrims to buy Zamzam water from them. The sellers are also known to increase the price of Zamzam water extortionately during the last 10 days of Ramadan.
Pilgrims that Arab News spoke to described the scene at filling stations as a mockery. Muhammad Yusuf from Egypt described the situation as being “ugly” and expressed alarm that individuals connected to the scams would line up first with their large gallons in the morning. “They have drums, they take too much time to fill up compared to the smaller drums that pilgrims have. It’s not fair that they carry these types of scams to make money and deny the pilgrims a quick service,” he said.
The station where Zamzam water is available is divided into two sections. The first section is for the general public and has 14 taps. They are clearly not enough for the high volume of pilgrims that come to get water. Pilgrims are not allowed more than five gallons and because of this a lot of overcrowding takes place, something that more than often leads to fighting.
The fact that the authorities do not control the taps is something that in turn creates a lot of chaos. In charge of the other section of the station is a company, whose workers fill drums for pilgrims for a small fee. This section has three times more numbers of taps than the public section. Both sections are also almost always overcrowded.
Away from the filling station, lined up on the street were large quantities of drums of different sizes that were being sold by Burmese and Africans. Selling Zamzam water like this is illegal; these people fill their gallons from the free taps and also sometimes from the side that is controlled by the company. In fact, these people are taking advantage of pilgrims and visitors who do not know that they are able to fill their drums with Zamzam water for free.
The men who run the scam arrive early in the morning to be the first in line. They bring with them large-sized drums together with five smaller drums, which is the limit any individual is allowed to fill. They then go back to their locations and fill their smaller drums using the water in the larger drums and then sell the smaller drums at extortionate prices. When pilgrims arrive at the station to fill their drums they see the overcrowding and the limited number of taps and are thus coerced to buy Zamzam from the water mafia at high prices just to avoid overcrowding.
One pilgrim directed Arab News to a hidden location near the station where a number of Burmese were busy mixing normal water with Zamzam water to sell to pilgrims.
Sara Yusuf, a pilgrim from Jordan, said: “You can’t trust these people, they mix Zamzam with normal water. An expert will easily notice that the water has been mixed and that they have been cheated.”
Standing in a long line was a pilgrim from the UAE. “I was once cheated by these gangs,” he said. “The water they are selling is not pure Zamzam water. I am standing here in this long line to fill Zamzam water because I do not want to be cheated again,” he said preferring to remain anonymous.
“Where are the police? How could they ignore people and allow these people to cheat pilgrims?” he added.
Arab News approached one of the groups and asked them to fill a 20-liter drum with Zamzam water. A small Burmese man took a pump and filled the drum charging SR17. The entire filling and transaction took place over dirty ground close to a pile of rubbish. There were a lot of mosquitoes and flies at the location casting doubt on the hygiene of the water.
Fadel Hussein, a member of the gang from Burma, said that on a daily basis during Ramadan he earns anything between SR1,000 to SR1,200. “In the last 10 days of Ramadan I make between SR1,500 to SR1,800 per day. This is not illegal; this is just an opportunity to make an honest living. Those that do not want to buy from us can just wait in line. Our job is to provide a quick service to pilgrims,” he said.