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Saudi Arabia prepares for hajj as Gulf tensions simmer

China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-08-08 14:57

Pilgrims touch the golden door of the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday. AMR NABIL/AP

MECCA, Saudi Arabia - More than 2.5 million Muslims on Friday will begin the hajj pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, against a backdrop of tensions in the Gulf.

Crowds of worshippers have already begun to gather in Mecca in the days ahead of the hajj, the annual focal point of the Islamic calendar.

"It's the first time I've felt something so strongly - It's striking," said 40-year-old Indonesian pilgrim Sobar in rudimentary Arabic.

More than 1.8 million visitors had arrived by midday local time on Tuesday, authorities said.

The faithful from across the world wore flowing white robes as they descended on the holy city located in the west of Saudi Arabia.

The pilgrims will undertake religious rites that have remained unchanged since the founding of Islam 14 centuries ago.

"Islam united us. We are all together, ... so that's why I'm very happy," said Leku Abibu, 46, a Ugandan mechanic who wore a beige salwar kameez, an outfit of loosefitting pants and tunic.

"I'm enjoying it here."

This year's hajj takes place amid strains in the Gulf region exacerbated by a series of attacks on oil tankers, drone strikes and interceptions of maritime traffic on the high seas.

Saudi, the Gulf's leading power, and its ally Washington accuse Iran of being behind the attacks and sabotage operations against commercial shipping. Teheran has repeatedly denied those accusations.

Despite the tensions in the region, around 88,550 Iranian pilgrims are due to take part in the hajj this year, according to Iran's Tasnim News Agency.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and Muslims must perform it at least once in their lives if they can afford to.

"There are all nations of the world, all languages. There are no differences between us," said Nurul Jamal, a 61-year-old pilgrim from India.

While waiting for the beginning of the hajj, worshippers roam the esplanade or pray in the mosque in stifling heat.

Temperatures can surpass 40 C and some pilgrims carry sun shades.

Large misting machines installed at the holy sites help to make the heat more bearable.

Guards in khaki fastidiously lead worshippers to their five daily prayers.

Traffic in the city is extremely heavy and the air quality is poor.

The odor of exhaust fumes mixes with the smell of bitumen emitted by the heated road surface. Many pilgrims wear face masks.

Away from prayers, many of the faithful visit the innumerable shops that speckle the holy city. Even though the hajj lasts only five days, many pilgrims arrive weeks before and linger in the city.

Religious tourism brings in revenues worth billions of dollars.

But the vast gathering also presents major logistical and safety challenges.

In 2015, about 2,300 worshippers were killed in the worst stampede in the history of the hajj.

Since then, Saudi Arabia has sought to reassure pilgrims, deploying tens of thousands of security officers and installing cameras to oversee every corner of the holy sites.

The total number of arrivals is limited, however, as each Muslim country receives a pilgrim quota.

Some worshippers have spent years on waiting lists - sometimes as long as a decade - just to perform their religious duty.

Agence France-Presse

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