With his head in his hands, Sajad Malik sounds contemptuous. The taxi booking he drives near the iconic Grand Mosque of Mecca, Masjid al-Haram, is empty. “No job, no salary, nothing,”; he says.
“Usually these two or three months before the hajj (annual pilgrimage) me and the drivers earn enough money to last for the rest of the year. But now nothing.”
One of its drivers, Samiur Rahman, who is part of Saudi Arabia’s foreign private workers, is sending an office update from the roads around the popular Meccan tower in Mecca. There is no sea of pilgrims – they usually line the streets, dressed in white, with umbrellas to protect themselves from the heat.
Today, people carrying drivers are losing passengers, and the city looks like a ghost town. Sajaj’s drivers instead send him videos of pigeons filling the roads.
“My drivers have no food, and now they sleep four or five per room, in rooms for two,” says Sajad.
I ask him if he is getting any help from the government. “No, no help, nothing. I have savings that we spend. But I have a lot of employees – more than 50 people worked with me – and they suffer.
“One of my friends called me yesterday, saying, ‘Please, I need a job, I don’t even care how much you want to pay me.’ Believe me, people are crying. ‘
There are strict restrictions for this year’s Hajj. Saudi Arabia has seen one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the Middle East and said two million pilgrims, who typically come to Mecca from around the world, will not be allowed to do so in an attempt to limit the spread of Covid-19.
- Saudi Arabia conducts international Hajj pilgrims
- The travel agency is facing a struggle among the pilgrimage ban
Only those who already live in the country will be allowed to perform the Hajj – reducing the number to 1000.
Pilgrims will not be able to drink freely from the holy well of Zamzam, water will have to be poured separately. And if we are talking about the stones of the three pillars in the Mini, symbolizing the rejection of the devil, the stones will have to be sterilized.
Far from Saudi Arabia itself, a huge influx of hungry pilgrims usually leads to lucrative orders to import livestock from neighboring countries such as Kenya – many farmers now have herds of unsold cattle.
“Kenya’s livestock subsector is large. It is the basis for most households in the country and the way of life of most farmers, especially during the Hajj,” said Patrick Kimani of the Kenya Livestock Association.
On average, its members export 5,000 head of cattle to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, he said. “Farmers are now diversifying into cold storage and local markets.
“We are concerned that this may lower cattle prices, as all this additional product may be dumped at a low price to local buyers for quick sale.”
The Hajj dates back to the life of the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago, and there have been few such restrictions in its history.
What is Hajj?
Pilgrimage at least once is one of the Five Pillars of Islam – the five obligations that every Muslim who is healthy and can afford to live a good and responsible life according to Islam must fulfill.
Pilgrims gather in Mecca to stand in front of a building known as the Kaaba, praising Allah (God) together.
They perform other worship, renewing their sense of purpose in the world.
The shock of the sudden withdrawal of an age-old source of income is also forcing many travel agencies to struggle.
Last year, Pakistan sent the largest number of foreign pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. But today in Karachi, Shahzad Tajj says his firm’s “Cheap Hajj and Minds” deal is on the verge of collapse.
“Basically, business is zero. Even other travel-related activities did not last. Like flights, logistics, deliveries – so there was nothing to sell. We were not, to be honest, completely ready for that.
“We had to cut staff to a minimum. Now is the time for us to sell our assets, cars and some assets just to get through this stage at least. I’m helping some of my team with emergency funds, but that’s all I can offer for now.”
This year, the restrictions put a big financial hole in the cities of Mecca and Medina, which receive millions of dollars in business from itinerant pilgrims.
“While much of the Saudi government’s spending on saving the Hajj will be saved this year, Mecca and Medina will lose about $ 9 million – $ 12 billion,” said Mazen Al Sudairi, head of research at financial services firm. Al-Rajhi Capital in Riyadh.
Mr Al-Sudairi says the government has come to the rescue. “Small and medium-sized enterprises may have suffered, but the Central Bank of Saudi Arabia is trying to support this segment and help them by postponing loans for the next two or three months.
“We believe that we are in danger of a recovery period – we believe that the worst is behind us.”
More than 80% of Saudi Arabia’s national income comes from oil, but prices have fallen, forcing the country to diversify. But according to Alexander Peressi of Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group, things are not going so well.
“The government announced in March 2020 that it would postpone the collection of various state fees, as well as value added tax for three months. [But] it will not prevent a downturn in the non-oil sector of the economy – we think it will be reduced by about 4%, “he said.
In Mecca, despite the blank booking screen in front of him, Sajad Malik does not want to return to his native Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia has served as a last resort economic opportunity for neighboring countries that are trying to earn enough.
“Having worked in Saudi Arabia for more than eight years, I have allowed myself to provide for my children and family at home. We receive free medical benefits, and when the Hajj happens, there is a lot to earn,” he said.
“The labor community is struggling now. But this country is still number one for me, thank God.”