Could AI one day perform all of Hajj social services?

Analysis The amount of tech integrated into Hajj has been growing year on year. (SPA)
The amount of tech integrated into Hajj has been growing year on year. (SPA)
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Updated 19 June 2024
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Could AI one day perform all of Hajj social services?

The amount of tech integrated into Hajj has been growing year on year. (SPA)
  • This year’s Hajj will likely exceed two million pilgrims, more than last year’s 1.8 million
  • Many AI-driven technologies have been introduced to streamline the Hajj process

RIYADH: Like every Dul Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar, millions of Muslims from all over the world have gathered in Saudi Arabia to take part in the ritual of Hajj, one of the world’s largest annual congregations.

Though this massive influx of pilgrims poses a challenge to the limits of the infrastructure and social services of the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, the Kingdom was well prepared to handle this year’s Hajj.




Social workers whose job it is to make the Hajj experience better for visitors, are a staple of the pilgrimage. (SPA)

As Saudi Arabia’s technological capabilities steadily expand, the country’s authorities have taken to using robotic social workers to make this spiritual experience of a lifetime unforgettable.

An estimated 1,845,045 pilgrims, 90 percent of whom came from outside the country, participated in Hajj last year, according to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics.

FASTFACT

Saudi Arabia has extensive experience with the use of tech during Hajj, particularly during the challenging post-COVID-19 seasons.

Social workers whose job it is to help make the Hajj experience better for visitors have long been a staple of the pilgrimage at every relevant location in Makkah and Madinah.




The amount of tech integrated into Hajj has been growing year on year. (SPA)

They play a vital role in supporting and assisting a pilgrim’s needs. However, the sheer scale of the event has some wondering whether artificial intelligence could complement, and even replace, certain social work functions.

Saudi Arabia has extensive experience with the use of technology during Hajj, particularly during the challenging post-COVID-19 seasons. Last year, the Kingdom’s Tourism Authority launched the Nusuk platform to streamline planning and booking for the entire Hajj experience.




The amount of tech integrated into Hajj has been growing year on year. (SPA)

Smart robots have been used for several years, working in the fields of disinfection and sterilization and the distribution of Zamzam water.

Last year’s Hajj also saw the use of AI-enabled robots which communicated with pilgrims in 11 languages to guide them through the performance of religious rituals and offer assistance. A number of advanced technologies have already been introduced this Hajj season.




The amount of tech integrated into Hajj has been growing year on year. (SPA)

On June 12, several officials from the Saudi Ministry of Transport and Logistic Services and the General Authority of Civil Aviation witnessed the launch of a self-driving — or, rather, self-flying — aerial taxi service in Makkah.

The Saudi Authority for Data and Artificial Intelligence has also deployed AI technology to improve the entry process for pilgrims, equipping more than a dozen entry points in the country.




Pilgrims arriving to take part in the ritual of Hajj, one of the world’s largest annual congregations. (File/@haramainrailway)

Drones have been monitoring the flow of pilgrims in Makkah around the clock to ensure a smooth experience, and field monitors wearing augmented reality glasses are overseeing transportation and traffic patterns.

For the elderly and those with disabilities, the new technologies are a welcome improvement. Smart golf carts and electric scooters for those with mobility issues can be reserved by pilgrims; their use has improved the flow of traffic in the holy cities.




Last year, Saudi Arabia welcomed more than 1.8 million pilgrims — some 90 percent of them from overseas. (@HajMinistry)

Saudi technology to benefit pilgrims has expanded even outside of the typical social services. For instance, this season an elderly Chinese pilgrim received a lifesaving, highly advanced wireless pacemaker at the King Abdullah Medical City in Makkah after experiencing arrhythmia.

AI-powered systems can optimize the scheduling and flow of pilgrims, manage crowd control, and ensure efficient distribution of resources.

With the amount of technology integrated into Hajj growing year after year, some may wonder what is in store for the use of AI during the pilgrimage. As in previous years, the Kingdom has continued to ensure that social services are readily available to all pilgrims.




The amount of tech integrated into Hajj has been growing year on year. (SPA)

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development announced this year the launch of Ajeer Al-Hajj, a service that enables businesses to hire seasonal workers specifically for the Hajj period.

The service allows facilities working during the Hajj season to cover the number of workers needed and contributes to serving pilgrims.




The amount of tech integrated into Hajj has been growing year on year. (SPA)

Social workers are entrusted with a variety of duties including helping pilgrims navigate their religious journey, assisting in emergency help with medical staff such as giving medical and psychological support to people at sites, reuniting separated or lost family members, and guiding pilgrims through crowded places.

These tasks require organization skills, language proficiency, cultural sensitivity, and quick responses to orders — all of which AI has the potential to excel at.




One of the services the Kingdom has been providing for decades for its visitors during this religious holiday is social service. At every location, there are social workers to ensure that pilgrims receive safe and best quality experience during Hajj. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Abeer Alomrani, a Saudi AI consultant, says that while it has the potential to significantly support and enhance the efficiency of operations during Hajj, AI cannot replace human creativity, complex moral judgment and deep cultural sensitivity.

“AI can excel in tasks that require data management and logistical planning. For instance, AI-powered systems can optimize the scheduling and flow of pilgrims, manage crowd control, and ensure efficient distribution of resources,” she said.




The amount of tech integrated into Hajj has been growing year on year. (SPA)

“These systems can analyze real-time data to adjust plans dynamically, helping to prevent bottlenecks and manage emergency situations efficiently.”

AI and virtual assistants have already been used to help pilgrims with accessing information and assist in locating missing people. Computer vision and natural language processing algorithms could also help with communication to serve pilgrims who may not speak the local language.

“AI-powered translation tools and natural language processing systems are highly adept at breaking down language barriers. These tools can provide real-time translation services to assist pilgrims from diverse linguistic backgrounds, ensuring that communication is clear and effective,” Alomrani said.

However, there have been concerns regarding AI and whether it can compare with humans in terms of creating genuine experiences for pilgrims. After all, computers cannot offer the empathy or emotional support that human social workers can provide.

Dr. Amal Salamah, a family medicine consultant, explained to Arab News the necessity of human interactions to solve health problems between patients and doctors.

“Some medical rules cannot be replaced, especially the ones that have direct contact with patients,” she said. “Empathy can’t be provided by robots. In our career, one plus one does not necessarily equal two. You might need to provide more. We always need to work by equity.”

Others believe that a hybrid approach, where AI can perform routine tasks and process large amounts of data while social workers focus on complex duties that require emotional intelligence, could be a promising way forward for the future of Hajj.

Alomrani strongly supports the use of a hybrid model and describes it as “the best approach.”

Through a hybrid method, social workers would feel comfortable and would have the time to “focus on the personal, empathetic interactions and decision-making that require a human touch,” she said.

“This synergy could ensure that the spiritual and logistical elements of Hajj are both honored and efficiently managed.”

As technology advances, AI will undoubtedly play a larger role in social services during Hajj season in the future.

Special care is needed to ensure that the new technologies being introduced operate with suitable cultural and religious context for the religious ritual.

While AI may never be able to replace human workers, it can contribute to Saudi Arabia’s ultimate goal of improving the quality of services and offering exceptional experiences to the millions of Hajj pilgrims every year.

 


Saudi Arabia calls for UN Security Council resolution to compel Israel to end war, ‘starvation’ of Gazans

Saudi Arabia calls for UN Security Council resolution to compel Israel to end war, ‘starvation’ of Gazans
Updated 18 July 2024
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Saudi Arabia calls for UN Security Council resolution to compel Israel to end war, ‘starvation’ of Gazans

Saudi Arabia calls for UN Security Council resolution to compel Israel to end war, ‘starvation’ of Gazans
  • Tel Aviv must end its ‘aggression’ and allow for urgent delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged Gaza
  • UN failure to stop Israel driven by ‘short-sighted, selfish political interests,’ says Saudi envoy Abdulaziz Alwasil

NEW YORK: Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN, Abdulaziz Alwasil, on Wednesday called on the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution that would compel Israel to end its war on Gaza.

Alwasil said Tel Aviv must comply with the Security Council’s own resolutions, which call for an immediate ceasefire and the delivery of aid into Gaza.

He said Israel, as the occupying power, must be forced to respect international law. This includes implementing the International Court of Justice’s provisional measures to end the genocide being perpetrated on the Palestinian people.

Alwasil said the UN Security Council, since the beginning of the assault on Gaza 10 months ago, has been holding “meeting after meeting to no avail.”

Meanwhile, the world continues to witness the Israeli “war machine deliberately targeting civilians and imposing the harshest forms of collective punishment by killing, displacing, starving and imposing a blockade on civilians.”

Alwasil added: “All of these blatant violations are happening before the eyes of the world and the international community continues to turn a blind eye.

“And this inaction pushed the occupation power, which is hiding behind a solid wall, to take advantage of this weakness and international silence to impose its inhumane, violent practices unabated.”

The Saudi Arabia envoy was speaking at a signature UN Security Council meeting called by Russia, which is holding the rotating presidency of the body for the month of July. It was chaired by Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Alwasil lamented the failure of the Security Council to stop the war, which he blamed on members of the body being bound by “short-sighted, selfish political interests that have impeded its ability to take the necessary firm actions to stop the Israeli aggression.”

“The failure by the international community and the Security Council to protect the innocent civilians has led so far to the killing of 38,000 people and the injury and maiming of tens of thousands, most of whom are women and children,” said Alwasil.

He added: “How can such a forced displacement that is recurrent in Gaza be justified? How can we stay silent in the face of this systematic starvation and deliberative blockade? How can the international community stand idly while a major humanitarian catastrophe is taking place before our eyes?”

Alwasil vowed that his country would continue to support the Palestinian right to self-determination and the establishment of a state on the lines of 1967 with East Jerusalem as the capital.

This would “ensure comprehensive justice (and) peace in line with the Arab Peace Initiative and the relevant resolutions of international legitimacy.”


Saudi crown prince, Russia’s Putin discuss relations 

Saudi crown prince, Russia’s Putin discuss relations 
Updated 18 July 2024
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Saudi crown prince, Russia’s Putin discuss relations 

Saudi crown prince, Russia’s Putin discuss relations 

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made a call to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Saudi Press Agency said early Thursday.

The pair discussed ways of enhancing bilateral relations in all fields.

The call also reviewed issues of mutual interest.


Saudi crown prince, Iraqi PM discuss relations 

Saudi crown prince, Iraqi PM discuss relations 
Updated 18 July 2024
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Saudi crown prince, Iraqi PM discuss relations 

Saudi crown prince, Iraqi PM discuss relations 

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made a call on Wednesday to Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Sudani, the Saudi Press Agency said.

The pair discussed ways of enhancing bilateral relations in all fields.

The call also reviewed issues of mutual interest.


Saudi Arabia condemns Israeli strikes on UN school in Gaza

Saudi Arabia condemns Israeli strikes on UN school in Gaza
Updated 17 July 2024
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Saudi Arabia condemns Israeli strikes on UN school in Gaza

Saudi Arabia condemns Israeli strikes on UN school in Gaza

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has condemned Israel’s targeting the UNRWA-run Al-Razi School in Nuseirat camp in Gaza, and Al-Attar area in Khan Yunis, killing dozens and injuring hundreds, the Kingdom’s foreign ministry said.

The statement described the attacks as “a series of repeated violations by the Israeli war machine against defenseless civilians.”

Israeli airstrikes killed more than 60 Palestinians in southern and central Gaza overnight and into Tuesday, including one that struck an Israeli-declared “safe zone” crowded with thousands of displaced people.

Tuesday’s deadliest strike hit a main street lined with market stalls outside the southern city of Khan Younis in Muwasi, at the heart of the zone that is packed with tent camps. Officials at Khan Younis’ Nasser Hospital said 17 people were killed.

Saudi Arabia renewed its categorical rejection of the continuation of Israeli genocidal crimes, and demanded an immediate ceasefire and ensuring the protection of civilians, relief facilities and their workers.

“The Kingdom holds the Israeli occupation forces fully responsible for their continued violation of all international and humanitarian norms and laws,” the statement read.

Saudi Arabia also reiterated the legal, humanitarian and moral responsibility placed on the international community to put an end to these ongoing violations of international law and international legitimacy resolutions by the Israeli forces.

The Kingdom said the failure to do so “not only reflects the inability and weakness of the international community institutions, but also portends consequences that go beyond this crisis and affect the foundations of international legitimacy and credibility, and the extent of our ability to maintain regional and international security and stability in the future.”

-With AP


Saudi crown prince, Macron discuss Gaza, Russia-Ukraine war 

Saudi crown prince, Macron discuss Gaza, Russia-Ukraine war 
Updated 18 July 2024
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Saudi crown prince, Macron discuss Gaza, Russia-Ukraine war 

Saudi crown prince, Macron discuss Gaza, Russia-Ukraine war 

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received a call on Wednesday from French President Emmanuel Macron, the Saudi Press Agency said.

During the call  they discussed the situation in Gaza and the Russia-Ukraine war, in addition to efforts aimed at achieving security and stability.

The pair also reviewed bilateral relations and cooperation, as well as the latest regional and international developments.