Home WORLD-NEWS Smart cards and robots: Saudi Arabia’s ‘digital hajj’

Smart cards and robots: Saudi Arabia’s ‘digital hajj’

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MECCA: Thirty years ago, it took Egyptian pilgrim Ibrahim Siam several hours to locate his children when they went missing in crowds of worshipers during the Hajj in Saudi Arabia.
Fast forward to the modern day and things are much simpler, meaning Siam, now 64, doesn’t have to worry about losing track of his family and friends thanks to new technologies.
For this year’s hajj, the second to be held in the shadow of the Covid pandemic, Saudi authorities have rolled out electronic “hajj cards” that allow contactless access to religious sites, accommodation and transportation.
“During the hajj of 1993, I lost my children and couldn’t find them for seven hours,” Siam said, waving a yellow chip card. “Today I’m not worried about losing my wife and the others who are with me.”
His fellow pilgrim Hazem Rihan, a 43-year-old veterinarian, had a similar experience at an earlier hajj.
“I was once lost in Mina and couldn’t describe where I had been,” he said. “All the camps looked the same. I asked the organizers, but they couldn’t help me.”
The plastic cards are available in green, red, yellow and blue. The colors correspond to markings on the ground that guide pilgrims through the different stages of the Hajj.
The digital system also allows authorities to supervise the tens of thousands of people who attend the annual event, which has sometimes been marred by deadly stampedes and accidents in recent years.
Each card contains basic information about each pilgrim, including their registration number, the exact location of their accommodation, mobile phone number and their guide’s ID number.
This year, only 60,000 vaccinated Saudis and foreigners living in the kingdom were allowed to participate in the pilgrimage.
About 2.5 million people took part in the last pre-covid hajj, in 2019.
This year, Hajj candidates had to apply online and get special permission.
“Things used to be very different. We were lost on the way to prayer or we arrived late…all our efforts were in vain,” said Ahmed Achour, an Egyptian pharmacist who lives in Jeddah.
“From the moment I submitted my Hajj request online, everything went smoothly. I made the application, it was accepted, I paid and then I printed the authorization.”
This year’s hajj took place against the background of growing concerns about new variants of the coronavirus.
Saudi Arabia has reported more than 510,000 cases, including 8,089 deaths.
Amro al-Maddah, undersecretary of the Hajj ministry, said at the launch of the Hajj cards that he expected “all transactions in the future would be contactless”, with the cards eventually serving as virtual wallets for payments.
King Salman also praised the “digital hajj system” during a speech at the state-run Al-Ekhbariya, saying the aim was to “reduce the personnel needed to deliver the hajj while ensuring the safety of pilgrims.” to ensure”.
The pilgrimage, usually one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, has been seen as a potential Covid super-spreader and its organization is a major logistical feat every year.
Deputy Minister of Hajj Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat said the organizers had tried to “use technology to serve pilgrims”.
This year, instead of communal water dispensers, an army of robots was deployed to distribute holy water to the faithful.
“Bottled Zamzam water is much better. There are fewer people and you don’t have to queue,” Pakistani-American Aneela, 37, told AFP.
The Egyptian pilgrim Siam said the new technologies meant that the Hajj “keeps up with the times”.

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