For the first time Saudi women stand guard in Makkah for Hajj
‘This is a huge accomplishment for us. It is the biggest pride to be in the service of religion, the country and the guests of God, the most merciful,’ says Samar
Inspired by her late father’s career, Mona decided to join the military and the first group of Saudi women soldiers to work in Islam’s holiest sites, where they are helping secure the Hajj annual pilgrimage.
Since April, dozens of female soldiers have become part of the security services that monitor pilgrims in the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, the birth places of Islam.
Dressed in a military khaki uniform, with a hip-length jacket, loose trousers and a black beret over a veil covering her hair, Mona spends her shits roaming in the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
“I am following the steps of my late father to complete his journey, standing here at the Grand mosque in Makkah, the holiest place. To serve the worshippers is a very noble and honourable task,” said Mona, who declined to give her family name.
Samar, another soldier watching pilgrims near the Kaaba, said she was encouraged by her family to join the military, ater psychology studies.
“This is a huge accomplishment for us and it is the biggest pride to be in the service of religion, the country and the guests of God, the most merciful,” she said.
Thirty years ago, it took Egyptian pilgrim Ibrahim Siam several hours to track down his children when they went missing in crowds of worshippers during the Hajj in Saudi Arabia.
For this year’s Hajj, Saudi authorities have rolled out electronic “Hajj cards” allowing contactless access to religious sites, accommodation and transport.
“During the 1993 Hajj I lost my children and couldn’t find them for seven hours,” said Siam, brandishing a yellow smart card. “Today I’m not worried about losing my wife and the others who are with me.”
Siam said the new technologies meant the Hajj was “keeping up with the times.”
His fellow pilgrim Hazem Rihan, a 43-yearold veterinarian, had a similar experience at a previous Hajj.
“Once I got lost in Mina and wasn’t able to describe where I had been,” he recounted.
“All of the camps looked the same. I asked the organisers but they couldn’t help me.”
The plastic cards are available in green, red, yellow and blue. The colours correspond to markings on the ground guiding pilgrims through the different stages of the Hajj.
The digital system also allows the authorities to guide the tens of thousands who atend the annual event.
Each card contains basic information about each pilgrim including their registration number, exact location of their accommodation, mobile phone number and the ID number of their guide.
Hajj hopefuls had to apply online and obtain special permission for this year’s Hajj.
“Things were completely different before, we got lost on our way for prayers or we arrived late, all of our efforts were in vain,” said Ahmed Achour, an Egyptian pharmacist living in Jeddah.
“From the moment I submited my Hajj request online, everything was smooth. I made the application, it was accepted, I paid and then I printed the authorisation.”
Amro Al Maddah, under-secretary at the Hajj ministry, said at the launch of the Hajj cards that he expected “all transactions to be contactless” in the future, with the cards eventually serving as virtual wallets for payments.
Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud too lauded the “digital Hajj system” during an address on state-run Al Ekhbariya, saying it was intended “reduce the personnel required to deliver Hajj while assuring the safety of pilgrims.”
Deputy Hajj minister Abdulfatah Bin Sulaiman Mashat said organisers had sought to “use technology to serve pilgrims.”
This year instead of water dispensers, an army of robots was deployed to distribute sacred water to the faithful.
“Botled zamzam water is much beter. There are fewer people and there’s no need to queue,” Pakistani-american Aneela, 37, said.
This year just 60,000 vaccinated Saudis and foreigners who reside in the country have been permited to participate in the pilgrimage.
In 2019, some 2.5 million people participated.