Voices from the Arab press: A Saudi overhaul of the pilgrimage process

A selection of stories from the Arab press this week.

THE GREAT Mosque during Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 2007 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE GREAT Mosque during Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 2007
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Asharq al-Awsat, London, June 4
I recently returned to London from a trip to Saudi Arabia. As I was leaving Jeddah Airport, I noticed thousands of Muslim pilgrims, from all corners of the world, who came to perform the Umrah in Mecca during Ramadan.
There was a lot of disorder, long queues and general dismay among those leaving the kingdom. These are Muslims from a vast array of backgrounds and nationalities who all gathered in Saudi Arabia to fulfill their religious duty of making the Islamic pilgrimage.
To help improve the situation, King Salman bin Abdulaziz recently commissioned a group whose findings and recommendations, which stress the need to modernize Mecca’s infrastructure, will be released to the public in a few weeks.
Historically, government investments in Mecca have gone toward building “hard” infrastructure that helps accommodate over 30 million Muslims who visit Saudi Arabia each year. This has included the construction of roads, hotels and, of course, the expansion of the Great Mosque to become the largest in the world.
However, throughout the process, investment in “soft” infrastructure has been neglected.
The bureaucratic process to obtain a pilgrimage visa, for example, has become longer than ever. Tourism services are still difficult to obtain from outside the country, ahead of one’s visit. And the hospitality industries in Mecca are lagging behind.
The real question, therefore, is how can we turn the experience of traveling to Mecca into an enjoyable one like visiting Paris or Rome? How can we leverage the massive influx of people into the kingdom, expected to grow in the coming years, in order to cultivate Saudi talent and improve the services offered to those who are visiting?
How can we make the hajj more accessible to our Muslim brothers and sisters around the world who lack financial means? How can we decrease the congestion on the streets of Mecca by using more effective public transportation solutions?
To date, Saudi authorities have considered a hajj season successful if injuries and and deaths were limited. However, this metric falls short of what we aspire to. Instead, Saudi Arabia should offer each and every pilgrim, those performing either the Umrah or the hajj, the experience of a lifetime – one that is streamlined, efficient and, most importantly, pleasing from start to finish.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Okaz, Saudi Arabia, June 3
Efforts to curb terrorism have become such an integral part of our daily lives that counterterrorism has been turned into a formal field of study. Police academies, defense colleges and even public universities now teach the discipline to their students.
These efforts are laudable, and it is by no means my intention to dismiss them. Yet we must also remember two important facts. First, terrorism is not a temporary problem that only recently emerged. Second, terrorism cannot be eradicated uniquely with force.
Yes, it is true that recent operations against Islamic State have cost that organization dearly and forced its remaining fighters to retreat from Syria and Iraq. It is also true that the Muslim Brotherhood has gone underground in various Gulf states, limiting its public activity compared to years prior. But this is also the nature of such movements: that is, when they are confronted and repressed, they go into hiding. And when the opportunity arises, they resurface again.
Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces inspect weapons and munitions recovered at the former positions of the Islamic State militants inside a building in Raqqa, Syria October 7, 2017. (Reuters)
Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces inspect weapons and munitions recovered at the former positions of the Islamic State militants inside a building in Raqqa, Syria October 7, 2017. (Reuters)
Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that their ideological agendas never completely vanish, thereby perpetuating a never-ending cycle of radicalism and fanaticism.
Thus, fighting terrorism requires not only the use of the sword, but also the brain. Intellectually, we must understand the principles that guide these movements and inspire young men and women to join them.
Concurrently, we must claim back the religious institutions that have been hijacked from us by extremists. We must stand behind the clerics and spiritual leaders who speak against radicalization. We must tackle school curricula and establish a firm stance against any misinterpretation of our religion. We must encourage the media to combat hate speech. We must monitor social media platforms and eradicate extremist ideologies disseminated through them.
This is a long and painful process, but it is the only way to make our world a better place. There is no simple solution to this problem, but the use of force alone will not get us very far.
Fahed Sliman al-Shaqiran
Almada, Iraq, June 2
A few hundred dollars is the cost of a parliamentary seat in Iraq. I’m obviously not talking about the leather itself but about the right to be elected into the Iraqi legislature, as the recent vote so clearly demonstrated.
Take, for example, Muhammad Ali Saleh al-Zayni, who holds a doctorate from Colorado State University and served as the vice president of a major American corporation. Despite spending most of his life outside of Iraq, Zayni decided that he is the patriot that the Iraqi people needs – and now he will preside over parliament’s first session next week.
He achieved this by spending a few hundred dollars on pamphlets and propaganda materials and hired a local team to distribute them among the residents of a few small provinces on the outskirts of Baghdad. Zayni promised them money, to develop their area and to fight corruption.
With the 7,300 votes he managed to garner – equivalent to less than one ten-thousandth of the total Iraqi electorate – Zayni entered into parliament.
Similarly, some 230 other Iraqi businessmen bought their seats in the legislature.
As history has taught us, joining the Iraqi parliament is a lucrative business.
The several hundred dollars spent by these individuals will yield a worthwhile return, as soon as they are sworn in, given that bribes in the millions of dollars are nothing but the cost of doing business in Iraq.
In a recent televised interview, for example, a former parliamentarian admitted to receiving $1 million in cash to settle a matter in one of Iraq’s provinces.
He did not even try to defend his actions, claiming that all members of parliament charge a “commission” for their services.
This is the shameful and dismal reality we must face. How can we ever expect true freedom in our country, when those claiming to represent us have turned our political institutions into a prize to be won by the highest bidder?
Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Al-Watan, Qatar, June 4
On the night of November 8, 2016, as it became clear that Donald Trump would be the next American president, Ben Rhodes sat alone in his office and could not believe what he was witnessing. Rhodes, one of then-US leader Barack Obama’s closest confidants, had no way of explaining what was happening. Like many of his Democratic counterparts in the White House and among the public at large, he was stunned. And it took him weeks to overcome this shock.
In a book set to be released next week, Rhodes finally divulges some of the stories about the days that followed the election. He reveals, for example, that Obama was personally outraged that the American public reacted to his policies by electing a clown-like figure who questioned the very legitimacy of his presidency. In one instance, Rhodes recollects Obama’s final meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which the latter supposedly “shed a tear.” Obama later told Rhodes that she was concerned about being the last standing Western leader who defends the values of freedom and democracy.
While these stories are captivating and provide a fascinating look into the former administration’s reaction to Trump’s election, one cannot help but come to the realization that Obama was living under an illusion. Obama sought to reform American society, but has endured a massive backlash against the legacy he left behind. He thought of himself as a visionary who understood his people, but he received support only from a limited base that was disconnected from the masses.
Most importantly, he left many of his allies, including his close friend Merkel, dealing with problematic issues such as the Iranian nuclear deal and the horrible situation in Syria.
If this book teaches us anything, it is that Obama’s intentions were never malicious.
He truly cared about America and the world. But like many leaders before him, he, too, was self-centered and arrogant. And like many other leaders, Obama failed to grasp that he does not hold the singular solution to the world’s many problems.
Mamduh al-Miheni