With his head in his hands, Sajjad Malik looks evicted. That taxi booking office is empty near Masjid al-Haram, Mecca’s iconic Grand Mosque. “There is no work, no salary, nothing,” he says.
“Usually these two or three months after the hajj (annual pilgrimage) I and the drivers get to earn enough money for the rest of the year. But now nothing.”
One of their drivers, Samir Rahman, part of Saudi Arabia’s largely foreign private staff, sends office status updates from the streets around the popular Mecca Clock Tower. The sea of pilgrims is missing – they usually line the streets, dressed in white, umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching heat.
Today the drivers are minus the people-carrying passengers and the city looks like a ghost town. Sajjad’s drivers send him videos of pigeons filling the streets.
Sajjad says, “My drivers don’t have food and now they are sleeping four or five rooms per room,”
I ask them if they are getting any government help. “No, no help, nothing. I have savings, which we are spending. But I have a lot of employees – over 50 people were working with me – and they are suffering.
“A friend of mine called me yesterday, ‘Please I need some work, I don’t even care how much you want to pay me.” Trust me, people are crying. ”
There are severe restrictions in place for this year’s Hajj. Saudi Arabia has seen one of the largest outbreaks of coronoviruses in the Middle East, saying that two million pilgrims who normally come to Mecca from around the world in a bid to limit the spread of Kovid-19 Will not be allowed to do. .
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Only those already in the country will be allowed to perform Haj – taking the number down to just 1,000.
Pilgrims will not be able to drink freely from the holy well of Jamjam, water will all have to be bottled individually. And when it comes to the stone of the three pillars in Mina, the pebble has to be made fruitless, symbolizing Satan’s rejection.
From Saudi Arabia itself, the huge income of hungry pilgrims usually leads to attractive import orders for livestock from neighboring countries such as Kenya – many of whose farmers now have herds of unsold cattle.
Patrick Kimani of the Kenya Livestock Producers Association says, “The livestock subgroup in Kenya is large. It is the mainstay for most households in the country, and a way of life for most farmers, especially during the hajj.”
They say that on average, their members export 5,000 animals for Hajj to Saudi Arabia. “Farmers are now diversifying into cold storage and local markets.
“We are concerned that this may reduce the prices of local cattle as additional price cuts for local buyers may be made for a quick sale.”
The Hajj is associated with the life of Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago and has some such limitations in its history.
What is Hajj?
Making pilgrimage at least once is one of the five pillars of Islam – the five obligations that every Muslim, who is in good health and can afford it, must satisfy to live a good and responsible life according to Islam .
Pilgrims gather in Mecca to stand before the structure known as the Kaaba, praising Allah (God) together.
They also perform other acts of worship, renewing their sense of purpose in the world.
The shock of the sudden withdrawal of an old source of income has also left many tour companies struggling.
Last year, Pakistan sent the most foreign pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. But today in Karachi, Shahzad Tajaz says that his firm, Cheap Hajj and Umrah, is on the verge of breaking the deal.
“Basically, business is zero. There were not even other travel-related activities going on. Such as flights, logistics, deliveries – so there was nothing to sell. We obviously, for that, completely Were not ready.
“We had to at least outnumber our employees. Time has now forced us to sell our property, cars, and some property, just to get through this phase at least. I am looking for emergency funds. Help some of my team together, but that’s all. ” Can offer for now. ”
This year the restrictions are putting a major financial hole in the cities of Mecca and Medina, receiving billions of dollars of trade from pilgrims who travel.
“While most of the cost to the Saudi government to host the Hajj will be saved this year, Mecca and Medina will go out of business around $ 9bn- $ 12 billion (£ 7bn- £ 9bn),” says Mazaz Al Sudairi Head of Research at financial services firm Al-Raji Capital in Riyadh.
Mr. Al-Sudairi says the government has stepped in to help. “It may be that small and medium enterprises were suffering, but the Saudi central bank is trying to support this segment to relieve them of their debts for two or three months ahead.”
“We believe we are facing a recovery period – we feel that the worst is behind us.”
More than 80% of Saudi Arabia’s national income comes from oil, but prices have fallen, causing the country to diversify. According to Alexander Pergesi of the 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 government fees, as well as value-added tax, for three months. [But] This is not going to prevent a slowdown in the non-oil sector of the economy – we think it will contract by about 4%, ”he says.
In Mecca, Sajjad Malik does not want to return to his native Pakistan, despite the empty booking screen in front of him.
Saudi Arabia has served as an economic last chance saloon for those in neighboring countries who were struggling to earn enough.
“Working in Saudi for over eight years has allowed me to provide my children and family back home. We receive free medical benefits, and when there is Hajj, a good earning,” he says.
“Labor communities are struggling now. But this country is still number one for me, praise God.”