As part of the Saudi government plans to diversify the economy, the kingdom’s authorities hope to increase the number of visitors to the country, including Muslim pilgrims who come to see the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
While hajj is limited by the fact that it has to happen at a specific time and confined to a small geographic area, officials see a huge potential in umrah —known as the lesser pilgrimage— which can be performed any time of the year.
The government’s Vision 2030 plan calls for increasing the number of umrah pilgrims from its current levels of 6.8 million annually to more than double that in 2020 and ultimately to 30 million by 2030.
Achieving these numbers will require logistical upgrades (hardware) and many policy changes (software). The last few years saw expansion projects in Mecca, as well as building a new airport in Jeddah and a high-speed train connecting the holy sites. On the policy front, the government is working on several initiatives and plans under the umbrella of a new program that has not been made public yet.
My latest story for the Financial Times shows that a wider use of technology is major part of these plans that, in addition to increasing the number of pilgrims, aim to enrich their experience and offer better services to visitors.
One area where officials see potential for technology to make an impact is safety: How can you prevent deadly accidents like the stampede that left hundreds of pilgrims dead in 2015? Among the ideas being discussed is developing a system powered by artificial intelligence to fully control crowd management.
“It will take years to develop but would solve the most difficult challenge because it will allow you to avoid human errors,” said a persona familiar with the matter. Another idea is to develop a driverless transport system in the congested zone around the Grand Mosque in Mecca, he added.
The government is also working on an online platform to make umrah more accessible to individual Muslims who now find themselves forced to depend on tour operators in their countries and can only come as part of groups at specific times chosen by these companies. By removing the middleman, officials hope more visitors would be encouraged to make the trip any time they want.
Finally, the government wants open up the market of hajj and umrah local tour operators to Saudi and foreign investors. This step is likely to be controversial as the business sector has been controlled by a small band of Meccan families for hundreds of years, but officials say disrupting this market would lead to better services and more choices for pilgrims.
“The challenges are unique and you can’t compare them with anything that exists. There are many problems but it’s a huge opportunity for innovation,” the person briefed on the plans said.