While the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been felt globally, to a greater or lesser extent by every member of the human race, it appears that the scaling down of Hajj 2020, has had very specific repercussions for those intimately involved in the smooth running of the pilgrimage, annually.
The taxi booking office managed by Sajjad Malik is empty. The seemingly endless flood of pilgrims, usually lining the streets of Makkah during Hajj season, dressed in white, with umbrellas to protect themselves from the intense heat, is absent. The taxis stand devoid of passengers. Malik says, “There’s no work, no salary, nothing.” He adds, “Usually two or three months before the Hajj, me and the drivers make enough money to last for the rest of the year. But now nothing.”
The BBC reports that Malik is getting by on his savings. He says, “But I have a lot of staff – more than 50 people were working with me – and they are suffering.”
In an effort bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus, severe restrictions had been implemented by Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj. The two million plus pilgrims who normally flock to Makkah from around the world, have this year been barred. The 1000 pilgrims participating in this year’s Hajj had already been residing in the Kingdom. They too face restrictions. Pilgrims will not be able to freely drink from the holy well of Zamzam. The blessed water has been bottled. Even the pebbles that will be used for the stoning of the three pillars in Mina will be sterilised. The Hajjis will not be going to Muzdalifah to spend the night, following their day of worship on the plains of Arafaat on Thursday. Muzdalifah is usually where the pebbles are collected for the symbolic stoning of the devil. But Hajj 2020 will not see pilgrims sleeping at Muzdalifah. They are to return to Mina from Arafaat.
Tour companies have also been left reeling. Pakistan had in 2019 sent the most pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. Shahzad Tajj, whose firm ‘Cheap Hajj and Umrah Deals’ is based in Karachi, says it is on the brink of collapse. The BBC reports that Tajj said he has been forced to sell property and other assets to survive. He said, “Basically, business is zero. Even other travel-related activities weren’t going on, like flights, logistics, deliveries. We were not, frankly, totally prepared for this.” Tajj revealed he has had to assist some of his team members with emergency funds.
Meanwhile, the huge flood of pilgrims who have to be fed, leads to profitable orders of livestock from countries such as Kenya. Farmers in these countries now have herds of unsold cattle, as the Hajj has only a fraction of the mouths it usually has to feed. According to the BBC, 5,000 head of cattle, from Kenya alone, are usually exported to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. Patrick Kimani from the Kenya Livestock Producers Association says, “We are concerned that it could decimate local cattle prices because all that extra produce could be dumped at cut price to local buyers for a quick sell.”
Back in the Kingdom, Mazen Al Sudairi, head of research at the financial services firm, Al-Rajhi Capital, in Riyadh, says, “Although most of the cost to the Saudi government of hosting the Hajj will be saved this year, Makkah and Madinah will lose out on around the $9bn-$12bn worth of business.” Al-Sudairi says the Saudi government has stepped in to help small and medium enterprises in the Holy Cities. Positive in his outlook, he says, “We think the worst is behind us.”
In Makkah, Sajjad Malik says he will not be returning to his native Pakistan, despite the empty bookings screen in front of him. Malik says, “The labouring community are struggling now. But this country is still number one for me, praise be to Allah.”
Umm Muhammed Umar