In the House of God: A Diary of the Hajj

(The following was written after trips to Mecca in 2004 and 2005 as Reuters correspondent sent to cover hajj)

One of the jewels in the crown of the Saudi-Wahhabi state is its control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. When Abdulaziz assumed full sovereignty after his Ikhwan stormed into its cities, he added ‘King of the Hejaz’ to his list of titles. Pilgrim revenue, mainly from the hajj season, became the major domestic source of income for the nascent Saudi state, though the Najd-run entity still relied on foreign handouts to survive.(1) The state took control of pilgrim tour operations as part of the wider process of severing Hejazi autonomy and tying its political and economic life to Riyadh.(2) As the country moved into the era of modern communications then entered the petrodollar era in the 1970s, significantly larger numbers of pilgrims were able to visit, but the hajj they were to experience was a hajj with a very specific Saudi and Wahhabi stamp. Processing the world’s Muslims through Saudi-Wahhabi pilgrimage became a vast industry, a major preoccupation of the state and a key element in its self-legitimising rhetoric. Petrodollars are of vastly greater importance to state and princely finances, but, raking in some $24 billion a year in tourist receipts mainly linked to Mecca and Medina, hajj remains a major earner for Saudi Arabia.(3) It is also a monopolistic practice – there is little Saudi Arabia can do to compete with Shi’ite pilgrimage centres such as Najaf and Kerbala, but Jerusalem, which contains the Al-Aqsa mosque, the site towards which Islamic tradition says the first Muslims turned in prayer, is accorded little significance in Saudi media or Wahhabi religious discourse, whether it was under Jordanian or Israeli control. It is a rival to the prestige and revenue of the Saudi-Wahhabi state.(4) Continue reading In the House of God: A Diary of the Hajj