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.

 


Deputy governor of Makkah washes the Holy Kaaba on behalf of King Salman

Deputy governor of Makkah washes the Holy Kaaba on behalf of King Salman
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Deputy governor of Makkah washes the Holy Kaaba on behalf of King Salman

Deputy governor of Makkah washes the Holy Kaaba on behalf of King Salman
  • Upon his arrival, the deputy governor washed the interior of the Holy Kaaba with Zamzam water mixed with rose water

Makkah: The washing ceremony of the Holy Kaaba was carried out on Sunday by Deputy Gov. of Makkah Prince Saud bin Mishal bin Abdulaziz on behalf of King Salman, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Upon his arrival at the Grand Mosque, he was received by Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, minister of Hajj and Umrah and chairman of the board of directors of the General Authority for the Care of the Two Holy Mosques, along with Sheikh Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Sudais, president of religious affairs at the Grand Mosque and Prophet’s Mosque.

Upon his arrival, the deputy governor washed the interior of the Holy Kaaba with Zamzam water mixed with rose water. Afterward, he performed two rak’ahs of Tawaf.

Al-Sudais said that washing the Holy Kaaba is an Islamic tradition, a prophetic Sunnah, and a reflection of Saudi leadership on the global stage.

He added: “God has blessed this country with the honor of serving and caring for the Two Holy Mosques and their visitors, establishing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the leader in this noble duty.

“This occasion is cherished by Muslims and the people of our country, as God has honored the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its leadership, and its citizens with this privilege.”

He expressed his gratitude to the king and crown prince on the occasion and commended their provision of comprehensive services to worshipers and Umrah pilgrims.

Dr. Fawaz Al-Dahas, history professor at Umm Al-Qura University, told Arab News that “washing the Kaaba is a great honor that the Kingdom’s government performs every year. This exceptional event is an unparalleled honor, showcasing the Kingdom’s dedication and reverence for the holiest site on Earth.”

He explained that during this event, the outer covering, or kiswa, of the Kaaba is removed, and the inner walls are cleaned using Zamzam water mixed with rose water from Taif, along with the finest perfumes. Pieces of white cloth moistened with this mixture are used to wipe the inner walls and floor. After the cleaning process is completed, the Kaaba is covered again.

Dr. Ayed Al-Zahrani, professor of Islamic history, told Arab News that washing the Kaaba is a sacred Islamic tradition carried out annually in the month of Muharram.

He noted that the event is attended by senior state officials, including the governor of Makkah or his representative, along with prominent Islamic figures from around the world.

“The ceremony holds symbolic significance, representing moral and spiritual cleansing in preparation for the Umrah season, ensuring that pilgrims are received in a clean and purified environment,” he said.


Saudi designers win big at Tanween Challenge

Saudi designers win big at Tanween Challenge
Updated 26 min 40 sec ago
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Saudi designers win big at Tanween Challenge

Saudi designers win big at Tanween Challenge

DHAHRAN: Three projects from Saudi Arabia and one from Bahrain were selected recently as recipients of the annual Tanween Challenge, hosted by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra).

At the six-day creative competition last week competitors displayed their final group projects at the Dhahran headquarters before a judging panel. Each project tried to solve a nature-related problem, in four categories: pavilion design; graphic design; furniture design; and fashion design. The four award-winning projects will be developed for commercial production.
Winners were selected from 80 participants who answered an open call for designers from the Middle East and North Africa. Tanween, Ithra’s flagship program since 2019, has become an integral part of fostering the thriving creative community in the region.
Sultan Al-Badran, creative programs developer at Ithra’s Ideas Lab said: “The winning projects today will receive support for the next couple of months by Tanween Challenges’ production partners to further develop the winners’ innovative ideas into real solutions. 
“The winning projects are a reflection of the individual capabilities and talent of each of the winners, who will now take their projects to market,” Al-Badran said. “Guided by knowledge partners Vanina, NYXO, LEAD, and Data is Beautiful, who provided support throughout the six-day event, all participants are creatives with immense potential who can continue their path of learning and challenge themselves to further develop their projects.”
Winning projects
Graphic Design Challenge: The project “Eyes Wide Open” won in this category. The team collected air pollution-related death figures between 1990 and 2021, and used two digital eyes to demonstrate the data — one representing the past and the other representing the present.
“The eyes were assembled to be facing each other, emphasizing the continuous influence of generational knowledge, values, and actions for future generations. The project aims to show that everyone’s contribution has effects on the environment,” Zahra Mansour, Deema Albuolayan and Fatima Bukhamseen said of their award-winning project.
Pavilion Design Challenge: “The project ‘The Determinal’ uses a steel structure in an artistic way to represent a deconstructed airport, applying the architectural school of deconstructionism,” said project winners Mohamed Alghoneimy, Turki Aljandal, Muzun bin Rubayan and Mahmood Alkawi, said.
The winning participants gathered different movement paths that take place simultaneously at airports — including the movements of people and aircraft — for the purpose of displaying the experience of movement that occurs in airports.

Centered around the concept of air as a communal lifeline, the “City Breathe” challenge asks: How can we repurpose industrial waste to construct a pavilion that purifies urban air to revitalize local communities and ecologies?

“This pavilion is envisioned as a nomadic structure, designed to be easily mounted and dismounted in various urban areas. Beyond its primary function as an air purifier, the pavilion aims to activate public space and foster interaction between city dwellers — both human and non-human. Constructed from industrial waste, it challenges us to rethink our relationship with materials and the environment,” they said in a statement. 
Furniture Design Challenge: The bench design “Bloom” was created with nature in mind — and as its muse. The design uses an organic shape and includes a shaded seating area and a space in which birds and cats can drink and feed. Abdullah Nasser Al-Battat, Ahmed Al-Arqan, Nader Al-Metairi, Nawaf Al-Ghamdi and Mohammed Al-Bayyabi were the winners of the challenge.
“Using additive manufacturing technology and locally sourced waste-based materials, participants are asked to craft provocative solutions that activate public spaces, while fostering co-habitation between human and non-human urban inhabitants. Through the power of design and innovation, we aim to create public interventions that enrich the lives of all species that call our cities home,” is how Ithra described the challenge criteria. 
Fashion Design Challenge: Inspired by the Arabian Gulf coast, the project “MRG” won this category, using sea salt and fish scales as their materials. The biodegradable bag “reflects the clarity of the sea, which is cherished not only for its beauty, but also for the stories it carries, reminding us of the deep connection we have to the sea and the importance of protecting it,” said winners Ghayda Al-Nasser, Ebaa Al-Taweel and Rawan Al-Salem of their project.
“Our goal is to turn them (the projects) into solutions that may have a positive impact on our relationship with nature, with the opportunity to display them in Ithra’s Tanween Conference in November,” Al-Badran concluded.
The Tanween Conference is at Ithra headquarters from Nov. 1-4, 2024.


KSrelief distributes hygiene kits in Sudan, Syria 

KSrelief distributes hygiene kits in Sudan, Syria 
Updated 21 July 2024
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KSrelief distributes hygiene kits in Sudan, Syria 

KSrelief distributes hygiene kits in Sudan, Syria 

RIYADH: The Saudi aid agency KSrelief has distributed hygiene kits to displaced and needy families in Sudan and Syria, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

The aid group gave out 620 kits to the needy in Sudan’s Sinar State, benefiting 3,100 people. The agency also handed out 435 shelter kits to 2,175 people in River Nile State, Sudan. 

KSrelief distributes 435 shelter bags in Sudan. (SPA)


In Syria, the group secured 796 hygiene kits in Idlib Governorate for 4,614 individuals from 769 families affected by last year’s earthquake.
The families in Idlib also received 769 food parcels.

KSrelief distributes 1,538 food parcels in Syria’s Idlib. (SPA)

 


Strawberry picking in Taif serves up a sweet summer escape

Strawberry picking in Taif serves up a sweet summer escape
Updated 20 July 2024
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Strawberry picking in Taif serves up a sweet summer escape

Strawberry picking in Taif serves up a sweet summer escape
  • Locations help create jobs during the summer season

TAIF: A strawberry farm in the rugged mountains of Al-Hada in Taif has emerged as a popular spot for visitors looking to escape the summer heat and appreciate the beauty of nature away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Arab News recently visited the Al-Hada strawberry farm to see how it captures the essence of the region’s natural beauty and vibrant culture.

At Al-Hada farm in Taif, visitors can pick ripe strawberries and feed wildlife such as ducks, geese and parrots to the soothing sound of a nearby waterfall. (Supplied)

Located high in Al-Hada’s tourist area, the strawberry farm welcomes visitors all year round. The experience allows visitors to pick fresh berries and feed wildlife such as ducks, geese and parrots to the soothing sound of a nearby waterfall.

Along with a modest garden for birds and a lake for ducks and turtles, the space includes stalls selling ice cream, hot drinks and strawberry juice, among other refreshments. It also features seating areas and a cottage.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Turki Al-Ahmadi, Al-Hada farm’s founder, told Arab News that he had designed the farm in a way that draws visitors beyond harvest season from April to June.

• Entry to the farm in Al-Hada costs SR35 ($9).

Turki Al-Ahmadi, the farm’s founder, told Arab News that he had designed the farm in a way that draws visitors beyond harvest season from April to June. Various facilities to provide fun and relaxation in nature have been installed to this end.

At Al-Hada farm in Taif, visitors can pick ripe strawberries and feed wildlife such as ducks, geese and parrots to the soothing sound of a nearby waterfall. (Supplied)

His son, Bandar Al-Ahmadi, said that beside picking strawberries and enjoying the fresh fruit, the family are keen to make the farm a space where adults and children can learn about various types of trees.

The farm showcases models of trees including pomegranate, fig, tangerine, quince, apple and mulberry, with information about their habitat, method of irrigation, places of cultivation, and other key details about their lifespan.

We were told by many relatives who visited the strawberry farm in Al-Hada that their trip to Taif governorate would not be complete if they did not (go for) a strawberry-picking activity.

Hamid Al-Subhi, Visitor

“We were told by many relatives who visited the strawberry farm in Al-Hada that their trip to Taif governorate would not be complete if they did not (go for) a strawberry-picking activity,” Hamid Al- Subhi told Arab News during his visit recently.

At Al-Hada farm in Taif, visitors can pick ripe strawberries and feed wildlife such as ducks, geese and parrots to the soothing sound of a nearby waterfall. (Supplied)

Al-Subhi, who drove from Makkah with his family, was fascinated by the farm’s facilities: “Picking your own strawberries at the farm is really something … my kids really enjoyed it and being on the top of the mountain with such a cool weather really makes our visit more enjoyable.”

Abdul Mohsin Al-Qadi, a visitor from Jeddah, said that the strawberry-picking experience was hugely rewarding for him and his family.

“It is a must-visit destination and a breathtaking view,” he said. “This is our first time visiting this farm and we really enjoyed all activities, from handpicking our strawberries to other family-friendly activities at the small garden for birds and the lake of ducks and turtles,” he said. “It is a great way to enjoy the beauty of the area while also learning about local culture and heritage.”

Entry to the farm in Al-Hada costs SR35 ($9). Strawberry farms can also be found in Abha, Hail and Qatif.

 

 


Heritage meets urban arts at Asir’s Al-Asabila Palaces

The heritage palaces in Asir boost economic activity by creating job opportunities during the summer season. (SPA)
The heritage palaces in Asir boost economic activity by creating job opportunities during the summer season. (SPA)
Updated 21 July 2024
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Heritage meets urban arts at Asir’s Al-Asabila Palaces

The heritage palaces in Asir boost economic activity by creating job opportunities during the summer season. (SPA)
  • Locations help create jobs during the summer season

RIYADH: The famous heritage palaces in the Asir region have become tourist destinations, offering a rich blend of history and culture.

The Saudi Press Agency reported that these sites also boost economic activity by creating job opportunities during the summer season.

The heritage palaces in Asir boost economic activity by creating job opportunities during the summer season. (SPA)

The Al-Asabila Palaces, which are situated in Al-Namas Governorate some 150 km south of Abha, have become a major attraction. Situated in the heart of Al-Namas, these palaces now draw hundreds of visitors daily, both tourists and locals, according to the SPA. Their popularity has surged following their inauguration by Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz, chairman of the Asir Development Authority.

Visitors begin their tour of the palaces by shopping in areas dedicated to traditional fashions, antiques, and gifts that showcase the heritage and arts of the Asir region.

The heritage palaces in Asir boost economic activity by creating job opportunities during the summer season. (SPA)

They can then relax with coffee and hot drinks before exploring the Abs Palace, which has been restored to welcome guests.

Tourist guide Saleh Al-Shehri told the SPA: “At the beginning of the Saudi era the palaces served as the headquarters for various government agencies, including the court, and as venues for national events.”

FASTFACTS

• Al-Asabila Palaces are situated in Al-Namas governorate some 150 km south of Abha.

• These palaces now draw hundreds of visitors daily, both tourists and locals, Saudi Press Agency reports.

• The initiative to restore the palaces was taken by their owners and helped transform them into a tourist and cultural attraction, says tour guide.

He added that the initiative to restore the palaces was taken by their owners and helped transform them into a tourist and cultural attraction. This effort aligned with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, which aims to revitalize the area and boost domestic tourism.

The heritage palaces in Asir boost economic activity by creating job opportunities during the summer season. (SPA)

Historian Amr bin Gharamah Al-Amrawi says that Al-Namas was established in 1363-1364. However, it only received the name Al-Namas about 150 years ago, being previously known as Al-Waad village.

It was later named after the trees in the surrounding areas and the adjacent valley, while the presence of a well called Al-Namasa also contributed to the village being renamed Al-Namas.

The heritage palaces in Asir boost economic activity by creating job opportunities during the summer season. (SPA)

The heritage site features several palaces, including Abs, Mishref, Turban, and Kharif. These structures, which range from two to three floors in height, are examples of the traditional construction style of the Asir region.

The palaces contain 60 rooms and span a total area of about 5,000 sq. meters. The exteriors are of white limestone, extracted from white quartz stone, while the roofs feature wood, leaves, and juniper. The interiors are finished with plaster mixed with clay.

The heritage palaces in Asir boost economic activity by creating job opportunities during the summer season. (SPA)

According to the SPA, the area is home to numerous archaeological sites from various periods, the most famous location being Al-Jahwah village, mentioned by the traveler Al-Hamdani, which is located east of the present-day Al-Namas Governorate.

Al-Amrawi added that the governorate contains Islamic inscriptions in mountains known as Al-Sijin, Al-Gharamah, Dhul-Ain, Ajama, and Qarn Al-Ghala.