Home Islam As COVID-19 shutdown lifts, Mecca pilgrims revive Islam’s holiest city

As COVID-19 shutdown lifts, Mecca pilgrims revive Islam’s holiest city

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MECCA, Saudi Arabia (RNS) – Mariam sips a box of juice as she sits on the steps outside a hotel not far from the Grand Mosque in this holiest city for Muslims. Mariam first says she’s 10, but then decides she’s 8.

Her mother, in a veiled black abaya, sits a few steps away on the sidewalk, selling scarves to a group of pilgrims.

It’s 6.30am and dozens of pilgrims stop by as they walk back to their hotels after playing fajrmorning prayer at the Grand Mosque.

Mariam’s mother is one of many vendors who sell an assortment of items to passing pilgrims. This is the first time in over two years that they have been able to do so, after Saudi Arabia recently relaxed most COVID-19 restrictions.


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“She’ll be done soon and then we’ll go home and sleep,” Mariam said, her eyes glued to her mother the whole time. “It’s going to be too hot to be outside anyway.”

An hour later, Mariam’s mother packs up the few scarves she couldn’t sell and is ready to go home.

Umrah pilgrims walk towards the Grand Mosque one morning during Ramadan in mid-April 2022, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. A Grand Mosque expansion project can be seen in the background. Photo by Rabiya Jaffery

“It was very difficult for two years,” she says politely, despite an obvious reluctance to speak to a stranger. Mariam and her mother, who declined to be named for security reasons, are of Somali descent and are among the 5 million undocumented migrants living in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s not much easier now for us either. We just make ends meet until we are arrested and deported. But alhamdulillah” – glory be to God – “we had at least a normal Ramadan again. Hopefully we will also have the hajj before being expelled.

For two years, as COVID-19 raged around the world, the Saudi government, guardian of the holy sites in Mecca, closed the country to foreigners, banning those who come to make the Umrah pilgrimage during Ramadan and the more than 2.5 million pilgrims who, in a normal year, make the required visit to Mecca, or hajj.

Along with spiritual deprivation, the shutdown has severely shaken the country’s gross domestic product and pinched traders such as Mariam’s mother who depended on pilgrims.

But the worst may be over: the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has announced that the limits for this year’s hajj, which begins in July, have been relaxed to one million pilgrims – more than the 50,000 authorized in 2021 and the 1,000 in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Occupancy rates at major hotels in Makkah have already increased to 95% in the first week of Ramadan.

Hundreds of Muslim pilgrims surround the Kaaba, the cubic building of the Grand Mosque, as they observe social distancing to protect against the coronavirus, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 29, 2020. During the first rites of hajj, Muslims circle the Kaaba seven times counter-clockwise while reciting supplications to God, then walk between two hills where Ibrahim's wife, Hagar, is said to have ran as she fetched water for her dying son before God caused a well to flow to that day.  (AP Photo)

Hundreds of Muslim pilgrims surround the Kaaba, the cubic building of the Grand Mosque, as they observe social distancing to protect against the coronavirus, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 29, 2020. (AP Photo)

But there are still difficulties for street vendors. For many years the government had an unspoken policy of tolerance towards these communities, but deportations increased dramatically a few years ago. In 2017, a campaign called “Nation Without Violators” was launched as part of a new economic agenda.

Mariam’s mother, who has been selling scarves to pilgrims for 15 years, says it has become increasingly risky since then.

“We would sometimes leave our things and run away if we saw the police coming to check,” she said. “It’s always been illegal to sell if you don’t have a real store. But if you are illegal yourself, you don’t just get fined. You go to jail and then you are sent back to your own country.

The risk was worth it during the Ramadan and hajj seasons, especially when the millions of pilgrims brought many blessings, she said. Then the pandemic arrived and everything changed.

“For the past two years, I have returned home. I couldn’t make any money at all,” she said. “But no one else either. Not even large companies and markets. It’s as if God cursed them for making it so difficult for us.

Many businesses in the city have never recovered from months of confinement and no pilgrims and have closed permanently.

A closed market remains idle during the month of Ramadan in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in April 2022. Pandemic travel restrictions have deeply damaged the tourism industry.  Photo by Rabiya Jaffery

A closed market remains idle during the month of Ramadan in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in April 2022. Pandemic travel restrictions have deeply damaged the tourism industry. Photo by Rabiya Jaffery

Khaleel Rehman, one of the most 11 million legal immigrants in the country, has a small shop not far from where Mariam and her mum were sitting where he sells rosaries, henna and a wide selection of toys and souvenirs. After closing the store for almost two years, he is selling the stock he put away in 2020 when the first lockdown started.

Rehman, born in southern India, has worked in Saudi Arabia for 23 years, 20 of them managing his store. But before the pilgrims returned, he took odd jobs, such as driving for the local wealthy.

Like others in the city, he hopes the pilgrimage industry will finally fully recover as restrictions ease. “Before, we earned more in hajj two weeks than in regular three months combined. Ramadan is also three times a normal month. I hope it will be possible again.”

Abdulrehman Kuraishi, a 21-year-old Saudi, said the hospitality of the pilgrimage runs in his blood. His grandfather owned a date farm and for years pilgrims brought dates home as gifts. Her father is now a distributor of imported food products to grocery chains in Makkah. During Ramadan and the hajj, the son says, “wWe collect the dates and distribute them free of charge to pilgrims and the poorest neighborhoods. I don’t think the Ramadan spirit is back overall, but it’s much better than 2020.”

He is currently on an internship with his father’s company as they prepare for the one million extra people who will be buying food for the two-week hajj.


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But like his father, Kuraishi hopes to leave the family business to seize the opportunity in the growing demands for technology in saudi arabia pilgrimage sector.

“I think the way to meet the needs of pilgrims evolves over time, but the people of Makkah will always find prosperity,” he said.My mother says Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) prayed that Makkah would always be blessed. I believe that to be true.”

But often for migrants from Makkah, like Mariam and Rehman’s mother, the city’s blessings are a little harder to reap.