Road to Makkah: A hallmark project for millions in Pakistan
The yearly pilgrimage in and around Makkah is a special occasion for Muslims around the globe. Simultaneously, it is a formidable logistics challenge for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There are a number of public and private entities involved in air travel, accommodation, land transport, health facilities and security. Even co-ordination between the Ministry of Hajj and private Hajj operators is a daunting task. Providing makeshift accommodation to over three million pilgrims in Mina for a few days and transporting them to Arafat is another challenge that Saudi authorities and private Hajj offices accomplish every year.
Road to Makkah was launched in 2019 as a pilot project. It included the completion of formalities like electronic visas, biometrics, luggage coding with the help of digital technology in the home countries of the pilgrims. Pakistan was one of the four countries initially selected. But during the subsequent two years, Hajj was performed by a limited number of local pilgrims only due to Covid-19 and no foreign pilgrims were allowed. This sagacious policy paid dividends and things went back to normal in a couple of years. Normal Hajj activity was resumed in 2022 and a special team came from the Kingdom and worked together with Pakistani officials at Islamabad airport. The experiment was a resounding success.
The Kingdom’s Deputy Interior Minister Dr. Nasir bin Abdul Aziz Al Dawood has visited Pakistan very recently to formalize this arrangement. Upon his arrival in Islamabad, the visiting dignitary was received by Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah. They both signed the agreement regarding the Road to Makkah project. It will be expanded next year to include Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar airports as well. That would be a quantum jump in facilitating the pilgrims. They have been saved the effort of immigration formalities and luggage identification at Saudi airports. Their luggage is coded for its destination and will be directly dispatched to their designated accommodation. By next year, almost all Pakistani Hajj pilgrims will be able to enjoy this facility.
Pak-Saudi relations were earlier focused around defence and security co-operation, but the next target should be the expansion of trade and cultural activities to promote people-to-people relations.
The extensive use of digital technology is an essential part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s vision 2030. The use of this technology is transforming not only trade and industry around the globe but also being extensively employed for travel, hospitality industry and instant remittances. And now, the use of technology is making the performance of Hajj less and less cumbersome. Pilgrims can focus more on religious obligations and supplications. Gone are the days when old pilgrims with language barriers would get lost in Makkah or Mina and it would take volunteers hours to locate their abodes. Now all the details can be found out through the touch of a thumb. Over the last few years, facilities extended to pilgrims have been consistently improving and use of digital technology is a big step forward in that direction.
The diversification of the Saudi economy is the central objective of Vision 2030. Islam does not forbid trade activity during Hajj. In fact, local and foreign pilgrims make handsome contributions to the Saudi economy and, in return, get facilities of their choice. The world is shifting to alternatives sources of energy and the Kingdom is fully prepared for that quantum jump. In the future, industry, trade and tourism will get greater traction in the Saudi economy. As the number of pilgrims grows, it could also be a good opportunity to display Saudi products to pilgrims. A large number of industrialists and businessmen perform Hajj annually. In fact, Hajj season could be a means of increasing trade within the Muslim world which is currently quite low.
Dr. Nasir bin Abdul Aziz Al Dawood also called on Prime Minter Shehbaz Sharif at his office. PM Sharif also witnessed the signing ceremony of the Road to Makkah project along with the Kingdom’s ambassador in Pakistan, Nawaf bin Said Al Malki. This was a clear indication that Pakistan’s leadership viewed this project, that will benefit 26,000 pilgrims embarking from Islamabad airport this year, as very important. From next year, almost all Pakistani pilgrims will avail this facility.
Pak-Saudi relations are entering a new era of expanding to multifarious fields. They were earlier focused around defence and security co-operation, but the next target should be the expansion of trade and cultural activities to promote people-to-people relations. The Road to Makkah is a step in that direction and deserves expansion.
– Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.