Abdul Rahman al-Rashed writes:
The Kingdom knows for sure that the number of pilgrims will not increase, although it has increased the area to the extent that it has gone beyond Makkah and the holy sites. It has taken numerous steps to accommodate three million pilgrims in the holy city; to ensure their transportation to and from the holy sites and also to make sure that they perform Haj rituals easily and comfortably. There are no more steps left to be taken for Haj and not more than 3 million pilgrims will be able to perform this holy duty. Even if the capabilities were doubled it is impossible that their number will exceed four million.
Though much has been said about Umrah, little has been executed. Umrah is not the alternative to Haj, but a good solution if the Kingdom cannot come up with solutions to accommodate more pilgrims coming for Haj. With Umrah, the Kingdom can boost its capacity from 5 million pilgrims for Umrah to 50 million people.
Al-Rashed is of course not alone in calling for umrah to be more accessible, but there are no signs to suggest that the government is seriously considering this. For all the talk about developing tourism in the country by Sultan bin Salman and co., religious tourism is notably absent. Plus, many of the important historic sites that tourists could visit have already been, or are in the process of being, bulldozed. The house of the prophet’s first wife Khadijah, for example, was razed to make way for public toilets.
It is heartbreaking, especially for people like Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre who spent decades of his life researching and documenting the historic buildings of Makkah and Madinah. “They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment,” he told the Guardian recently.