The Gulf kingdom will welcome a million Muslims for the great annual pilgrimage, including 850,000 from abroad, for the first time since 2019.

“It’s absolute happiness,” Abdel Qader Kheder, a Sudanese pilgrim, told AFP. “I almost can’t believe I’m here. I’m enjoying every moment.”

In 2021, to limit the spread of the virus, only 60,000 residents of Saudi Arabia had been authorized to make the pilgrimage and barely a thousand the previous year – compared to 2.5 million Muslims around the world in 2019.

The return of foreign pilgrims this year is a delight for hoteliers, restaurateurs and traders in the region, deprived of income for two seasons.

Banners welcoming them were deployed on the main arteries of the city in the west of the country, squared by the security forces.

One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj is a five-day series of rites to be performed in Mecca and the surrounding area by all Muslims who can afford it, at least once in their lifetime. .

– Prestige and legitimacy –

The reception of the two main Muslim pilgrimages, the hajj and the Umrah, normally brings in some 12 billion dollars (10.2 billion euros) per year to Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.

It also confers prestige and legitimacy on its leaders.

The hajj will be an opportunity this year for the crown prince who de facto leads the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, to highlight his management of the country, ten days before the first visit of American President Joe Biden.

Accused by Americans of condoning the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and criticized for his human rights record, the young prince has introduced significant change in the conservative kingdom in recent years.

Far from the concerts of Riyadh and the mixed beaches of Jeddah, in Mecca, women were allowed last year to make the pilgrimage without being accompanied by a male relative.

– Prayers under the sun –

While cases of Covid-19 contamination are skyrocketing around the world, especially in the Middle East, the gathering of a million people is not without risk.

Saudi authorities, who announced in June the abandonment of mask-wearing in most closed spaces, clarified that it would still be required in the Grand Mosque of Mecca surrounding the Kaaba, a black cubic structure towards which Muslims go to pray.

The hajj this year is reserved for vaccinated people under the age of 65.

Pilgrims coming from abroad must also show a negative Covid-19 PCR test result taken within 72 hours of travel.

The Grand Mosque will be “washed 10 times a day, by more than 4,000 workers, and more than 130,000 liters of disinfectant will be used in each operation,” authorities said.

Since the start of the pandemic, Arabia has recorded more than 795,000 cases of coronavirus, and 9,000 deaths, for a population of some 34 million inhabitants.

Another challenge: the scorching summer sun in one of the hottest and driest regions of the world.

With the season just beginning, temperatures have already crossed 50 degrees Celsius in parts of Saudi Arabia which, like its Gulf neighbors, is suffering the consequences of climate change.

But for Ahmed Abdul-Hassan, an Iraqi pilgrim, the heat won’t stop him from performing his rituals.

“I’m 60, it’s normal if I’m tired because of the heat. But I’m in a state of serenity, and that’s all that matters to me,” he told AFP.