Four Saudi women won a hackathon to make the Hajj safer

August 21, 2018

Hacking the Hajj

The Hajj is a huge feat of logistics. In 2018, an estimated 1.5 million people will take part in the annual Islamic pilgrimage to holy sites in and around Mecca, Saudi Arabia. About 1.3 million of them will come from abroad, according to Arab News. For many, it will be a once in a lifetime experience.

Accommodating this massive influx of pilgrims requires a vast transportation network, medical infrastructure, and a pop-up air-conditioned tent city that holds 160,000 people. Still, due to the large crowds, the Hajj remains dangerous. Over 2,400 people were killed in a stampede in 2015. Though this was a particularly large tragedy, stampedes killing hundreds are not unusual. Also, like any large gathering, crime is a concern.

To address some of the Hajj’s problems, the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones took on a distinctly modern approach: it put on a hackathon. The Hajj Hackathon took place over three days in early August, in Jeddah. Participants were charged with coming up with technological solutions tailored to the Hajj’s challenges, such as crowd management, public health, and financial transactions. Two million Saudi riyals (worth about $530,000) in equity investment was awarded to winners.

With nearly 3,000 participants from across the world, the event broke the Guinness World Record for most participants in a hackathon. It was a star-studded affair. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak acted as a judge, while Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales was also in attendance.

The winners were an all-female Saudi Arabian team that designed an app, called Turjuman, for translating signs around Mecca without internet access. The hope is that if non-Arabic speakers could easily understand signage, it would lead to less confusion among attendees and reduce the chance of a stampede. Scannable QR codes would have be installed on signs for the app to work, which would also have a voice feature for those unable to read. The runner-up was a team of men from Egypt that designed a electronic payment system for Hajj pilgrims, which would reduce the likelihood of cash being stolen.

Unlike many events in Saudi Arabia, there was no gender segregation at the hackathon; about one-third of the attendees were women. “We managed to destroy the impossible and prove that Saudi women can achieve anything,” said Bayan al-Ghamdi, a member of the winning team, according to the Financial Times (paywall). This video captured the suspense—and elation—of the women’s victory when it was announced at the the award ceremony:

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Hajj pilgrims in Saudi holy city outnumber last year

August 21, 2018

Number of Hajj pilgrims in the Saudi holy city of Makkah has already exceeded last year, according to the country’s General Authority for Statistics

Muslim worshippers circumambulate around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah. (AHMAD ALRUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

The number of Hajj pilgrims in the Saudi holy city of Makkah has already exceeded last year, according to the country’s General Authority for Statistics.

Pilgrims from every corner of the globe marked the second day of Hajj on Monday, the high point of the pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah, Islam’s holiest city. It is considered to be the largest annual religious gathering in the world.

According to the official figures, the number of international and domestic pilgrims who arrived in Makkah by August 20 reached 2,368,873, of whom 237,160 pilgrims are Saudis or residents of the kingdom.

The authority said the numbers have already surpassed last year’s, when more than 2.35 million pilgrims performed Hajj, with more pilgrims yet to arrive.

The biggest overseas contingents are from Egypt, Iran, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, Sudan and Jordan, it added.

It was a sea of white at Mount Arafat on Monday. After a night of heavy rains Sunday night, the multitudes of pilgrims, donning Ihram white special garments for men, started to move to Arafat, the high point of the pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah, Islam’s holiest city.

Once at Mount Arafat – where Prophet Mohammed delivered his last sermon – the pilgrims stood in contemplation, praying and asking God for forgiveness of their sins and listening to clerics delivering sermons near Jabal Al-Rahmah.

Known as “standing before God,” this segment of the second day’s ritual is one of the most solemn of the pilgrimage.

The pilgrims also performed prayers which were attended by Prince Khalid Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz, Advisor to King Salman bin Abdulaziz and governor of Makkah region; and Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s Grand Mufti and president of Council of Senior Scholars and General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta.

Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, who is also chairman of Hajj Central Committee, said 10 projects had been executed at the holy sites including the expansion of roads and the separating of routes for pedestrians from those of the buses, adding that more than 1.8 million pilgrims will be transported by 18,000 buses.

On Tuesday, Muslims observe the first day of Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, which marks the end of the hajj.

Muslims traditionally slaughter sheep for the three-day Eid al-Adha, a tribute to the prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb after God spared Ishmael, his son.

They will consume some of the meat and give the rest to poor people unable to buy food.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam which every Muslim is required to complete at least once in their lifetime if they are healthy enough and have the means to do so.

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Saudi King Salman arrives in Mina to oversee Hajj pilgrims’ comfort

August 20, 2018

Saudi King Salman at Mina to ensure of pilgrims’ comfort during the Hajj. (SPA)

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman arrived in Mina on the outskirts of Mecca on Monday to get reassured of pilgrims’ comfort through a package of services being provided to them by the Hajj authorities of the Saudi government to help them perform their rituals in ease, tranquility and security.

Upon arrival at Mina palace, the king was received by Prince Saud bin Abdulmohsen bin Abdulaziz, Special Advisor to the King; Prince Dr. Khalid bin Faisal bin Turki, Undersecretary of the Ministry of National Guard for the western sector; Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Fahd bin Abdulaziz, Consultant at the Royal Court; Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Naif bin Abdulaziz, Minister of Interior, who is also Chairman of the Hajj Higher Committee; Prince Abdullah bin Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Consultant at the Royal Court; and a number of officials.

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2 million gigabytes: how Saudi hajj pilgrims stay in touch

August 20, 2018

Saudi authorities announce initiative to provide a total of two million gigabytes for the two million pilgrims performing Hajj this week

Muslim worshippers circumambulate around the Kaaba Islams holiest shrine at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Makkah. (AHMAD ALRUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and the Communications and Information Technology Commission have announced an initiative to provide a total of two million gigabytes for the two million pilgrims performing Hajj this year.

The initiative is in partnership with mobile operators Saudi Telecom, Etihad Etisalat (Mobily), Mobile Telecommunication Company Saudi Arabia (Zain), Virgin Mobile, and Etihad Jawraa (Lebara).

A statement said that the initiative was in accordance with the directives of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “to do everything possible to make it easy for pilgrims to perform the rituals of Hajj”.

The gift is for those who have opted to use packages – Sawa Ziyara, AlZowar, Noor, Hajj & Umrah and Iman – provided by the kingdom’s mobile operators. Each user of these subscribers will have access to one gigabyte for 48 hours.

The initiative intends to allow pilgrims to communicate with their families and enable them to access the digital services available in the Smart Hajj initiative in order to enhance their experience and allow them to take advantage of enhanced communication services.

Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage, runs until Friday.

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Saudi Arabia: 95 million meals and drinks provided for Hajj pilgrims in 5 days

August 20, 2018

Trade and investment officials supervised the entry of supply vehicles and refrigerators loaded with the products. (SPA)

The Saudi Ministry of Trade and Investment has directed the entry of food items to the holy sites of Mina, Arafa and Muzdalifah amid the influx of Hajj pilgrims to Mina.

Over the past five days, 43 million containers of bottled water, 35 million bottles of refreshments, juices, and milk, 13 million loaves of bread and pastries, and 4 million meals were provided.

Trade and investment officials supervised the entry of supply vehicles and refrigerators loaded with the products that were distributed in the holy sites, “ensuring there was adequate stock to meet the requirements of the pilgrims,” according to a Saudi Press Agency statement.

The Ministry of Trade and Investment stressed on the penalties to be imposed on all those who endanger the health and safety of consumers and pilgrims, offering a local helpline (1900 – dialed from within Saudi Arabia) for anyone wanting to report health and safety breaches.

This article was first published in  Alarabiya

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Ever wondered how they clean the floor around the Kaaba during Hajj? Quickly

August 19, 2018

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will circumambulate the Kaaba during Hajj, so how do they clean it? (AFP)

Machineries and equipment used to clean the Harram. (@ReasahAlharmain)

  • Hundreds of thousands of people walk around the Kaaba during Hajj
  • The process of cleaning the floor is a well rehearsed task that takes minutes

DUBAI- With millions of people currently attending Makkah as they perform the Hajj pilgrimage, which includes circumambulating the Kaaba, it is no wonder that things need to be cleaned.

This sped-up video footage, that has been shared on social media, shows how teams of cleaners enter the Mataf (the circumambulation area around the Kaaba), while a line of security stop the pilgrims entering the area which is being cleaned with a long line of rope.  The process is well rehearsed, so the teams of cleaners take little time to ensure the area is ready in a short time, so that pilgrims can continue.Here’s the video:

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Hajj through history: A 1,400-year spiritual odyssey

August 19, 2018

Comparing a pilgrim’s Hajj journey in the past with today, the hardships have been greatly reduced as the advancements of the Saudi government in technology, logistics, hospitality, and security have considerably eased the burdens on pilgrims and their families. (Supplied)

Comparing a pilgrim’s Hajj journey in the past with today, the hardships have been greatly reduced as the advancements of the Saudi government in technology, logistics, hospitality, and security have considerably eased the burdens on pilgrims and their families. (Supplied)

  • The railway was built on the order of the Ottoman Empire, financed by Deutsche Bank, and strongly supported by the then-German Empire
  • Modern transportation in the form of aircraft effectively began after World War II, with the Kingdom establishing the Arabian Transport Company in 1946

JEDDAH: The annual Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj is an Islamic practice more than 1,400 years old that holds an incomparable spiritual value for Muslims when performed during their lifetime.
It is one of the five pillars of Islam, and a journey that every Muslim must embark on at least once in their lifetime (so long as they are financially and physically able). It is a physically taxing five-day voyage that begins in Makkah, and has pilgrims trekking more than 50 kilometers by foot. Comparing a pilgrim’s Hajj journey in the past with today, the hardships have been greatly reduced as the advancements of the Saudi government in technology, logistics, hospitality, and security have considerably eased the burdens on pilgrims and their families.

Rocky road for pilgrims
Before the Saudi state was founded and the current monarchy formed, the Arabian Peninsula consisted of many small tribes and sheikhdom-governed territories. This frequently led to constant states of chaos and instability within the region, and often the most prone to this violence were often defenseless Hajj pilgrims making their way through unfamiliar territories. At the turn of the 19th century, the security conditions en route to Makkah were unforgiving. When pilgrim began their Hajj journey, most had full knowledge that they were indeed risking their very lives while leaving worried families behind, putting their faith to the ultimate test.
Nomadic Bedouin tribes would often attack convoys, pillaging vital food and supplies. Those who resisted would often pay the ultimate price. Others would be left with insufficient supplies to stay properly hydrated. The unforgiving weather conditions would naturally claim additional casualties.
The beginning of the 20th century saw additional advancements in transit methods with the Hejaz Railway opening in 1908, running from Damascus to Madinah.
The railway was built on the order of the Ottoman Empire, financed by Deutsche Bank, and strongly supported by the then-German Empire. Seemingly from one Hajj season to the next, a pilgrim’s journey to Makkah was now drastically reduced from weeks by steamboat to only four days by train.

King ushers in era of security
By the late 1920s King Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s founder-to-be, was consolidating his power having overrun most of the central Arabian Peninsula. After capturing the holy city of Makkah in 1925 from Sharif Hussein, he ended more than 700 years of Hashemite rule. Prominent figures from Makkah, Madinah, and Jeddah now acknowledged King Abdul Aziz as the King of Hejaz. Najd was soon elevated to a monarchy as well in 1927, and for the next five years King Abdul Aziz ran a dual Kingdom of Hejaz and Najd, operating them as separate territories but both firmly under his control. In 1929, King Abdul Aziz would formally unite Hejaz and Najd into what we now recognize as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in 1932.
Not long after that, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938 by American geologists working for the Standard Oil Company partnered with Saudi officials. King Abdul Aziz’s tremendous influence over the region had increased exponentially. Rather than use this tremendous power to conquer additional territories, King Abdul Aziz used this heavy influence to promote peace and stability across his newfound Kingdom, forcing Bedouins to abandon intertribal conflicts that frequently involved Hajj pilgrims. For King Abdul Aziz, establishing the safety and security of Hajj pilgrims was of paramount importance.
Modern transportation in the form of aircraft effectively began after World War II, with the Kingdom establishing the Arabian Transport Company in 1946 and the Bakhashab Transport Company in 1948. Although the first official air transit contract for Hajj pilgrims was established between the Saudi government and Misr Airlines of Egypt in 1937, the airline frequently experienced engine trouble that disrupted the transport flow of pilgrims. This, coinciding with the impending WWII from 1939 to 1945, had Hajj pilgrim numbers decrease greatly. Once the war ended, though, traveling by plane proved highly effective for the pilgrims. By 1950, the use of camels as a means of transport during Hajj virtually ended.

Comfort, guidance for all
Today’s Hajj pilgrimage, in many ways, bears little resemblance to its early 20th-century counterpart. Aircraft have, for the most part, replaced sea and rail travel, and in doing so, have transformed Hajj from a months-long multi-site journey into a much more rapid, safe, and fairly direct voyage to Makkah.


Today, the Makkah Metro is expected to shuttle more than 350,000 pilgrims from Mina to Arafat and back to Mina. That is more than two million pilgrims every day. There are electronic maps equipped with multiple languages to accommodate the diversity of pilgrims, and water supply has improved considerably, as well as waste management, with more than 36,000 restrooms readily available. Thousands of government security officials, emergency services, and volunteers constantly guide pilgrims at every stage of their journey.
New medical equipment is regularly updated to adapt to the wide range of illnesses and changing environmental factors. Free medical care is provided with more than 100 ICU ambulances, each equipped with a physician, a nurse, and the latest technology on board.

While many aspects of Hajj have evolved with the times, some traditions have stood the test of time. Pilgrims used to pray on open fields on their Hajj journey, and likewise today, people do not hesitate to pray on the open path. The means of transport may have changed but the commitment to the punctuality of prayer has always endured. While larger in numbers, and many tents are now equipped with air-conditioning, Saudi Arabia has maintained this aspect of Islamic heritage. During Hajj, the “Kiswa,” made of pure silk with gold and silver threads that drape over the Kaaba, is annually replaced and folded up about 10 feet to protect it from harsh weather conditions, as well as overcrowding during the peak days of Hajj. To this day, this practice is maintained to prevent the cover of Kaaba from suffering any damage.
Throughout the 20th century, and still to this day, Makkah is constantly going through changes. The biggest is the expansion of the Holy Mosque itself, but many advancements have been made in the form of logistics, hospitality, security, and medical care. Some traditions and methods, however, have remained the same. A balance of tradition and progression that has the Saudi government recognizing Islamic customs while taking into consideration pilgrims’ primary needs of safety and security.

This article was first published in  ARAB NEWS

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Hajj 2018: More than 2 million pilgrims begin journey of a lifetime

August 19, 2018

Muslim pilgrims walk on a street in the holy city of Makkah on August 18, 2018, ahead of the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

A man pushes the wheelchair of a fellow pilgrim in a street in Makkah on August 18, 2018, ahead of the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)
A pilgrim is pushed in a wheelchair on their way to offer prayers in the Grand Mosque in Makkah Aug. 18, 2018, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
A pilgrim is pushed in a wheelchair on their way to offer prayers in the Grand Mosque in Makkah Aug. 18, 2018, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
  • Massive safety and security operation swings into action as annual Hajj begins
  • The Hajj is an unparalleled logistical operation, with statistics to match. The Saudi Ministry of Health alone has employed nearly 30,000 physicians, pharmacists, nurses and technicians to provide health care to the pilgrims

MAKKAH- The number of pilgrims in Saudi Arabia passed two million on Saturday, Saudi security chiefs said, as the country finished preparations for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to begin on Sunday.

A final tally will be announced at the beginning of Eid Al-Adha on Tuesday, said Interior Ministry security spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki.

The pilgrims have flown in from almost every country in the world, but all had a similar story to tell — this is the experience of a lifetime.

“This is the first time I have seen the Grand Mosque and the Kaaba. It is the best feeling of my life to be able to perform the Hajj,” said Hisham Mostafa, 50, an accountant from Aleppo who fled the war in Syria five years ago and now lives in Turkey.

Nayef Ahmed, 37, from Yemen, sold a plot of land to be able to afford to travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj. “Because of the war the cost was very high. But being here I feel comfort and peace and I pray to God for the war to end,” he said.

Najwa, 59, from Tunisia, said: “I came for Umrah in 2007 and today after 10 years of registering and waiting, I am here. I cannot describe the feeling. I cry every day.”

Over the next few days the pilgrims will retrace the steps of the Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago — and their safety and security are a Saudi priority.

“We will prevent any actions that are not part of the Hajj ritual and any act that may impact the safety of pilgrims or their ability to perform the rite,” Al-Turki said.

To ensure their safety, pilgrims will wear electronic identification bracelets, connected to GPS. “There is a comprehensive electronic agenda for every pilgrim and we have provided many apps that offer guidance,” said the Minister of Haj and Umrah, Mohammed Salih Bentin.

“We have a fleet of more than 18,000 buses, all of them linked to a control system that tracks their path.”

The Hajj is an unparalleled logistical operation, with statistics to match. The Saudi Ministry of Health alone has employed nearly 30,000 physicians, pharmacists, nurses and technicians to provide health care to the pilgrims.

The Saudi Red Crescent is operating 127 emergency centers, 361 ambulance cars and 20 emergency motorcycles, with nearly 2,000 staff on duty in Makkah and Madinah.

There will be 22 operational hospitals in Madinah and the holy sites, and 15 temporary emergency centers, supported by a fleet of nearly 90 ambulances and more than 650 paramedics.

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Over 800 foreign journalists to cover Hajj

August 17, 2018

Muslim pilgrims circle around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah on Aug. 17, 2018, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. More than 800 journalists from all over the world are accredited to cover the annual Islamic pilgrimage this year. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

  • Facilities have been provided for 151 media institutions and 27 international networks
  • Six official broadcasts and broadcasts in 10 languages will provide news bulletins and daily programs on Hajj

JEDDAH- More than 800 foreign media workers will cover the Hajj rituals, Dr. Awwad bin Saleh Al-Awwad, Saudi minister of media, has announced.

In addition, facilities have been provided for 151 media institutions and 27 international networks, while six official broadcasts and broadcasts in 10 languages will provide news bulletins and daily programs on Hajj.

Al-Awwad thanked King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the government’s continuing efforts to provide the best services and security for Hajj pilgrims from around the world.

He said Saudi Arabia welcomes all Muslims to perform this religious rite, rejecting attempts to politicize or use Hajj for purposes other than worship.

Al-Awwad made his comments during a briefing on preparations for receiving local and international media representatives to cover the pilgrimage. He said the ministry has equipped seven media centers in Makkah and the holy sites to serve journalists and media personnel from inside and outside the Kingdom.

Sixteen digital channels will work around the clock to cover the Hajj season in six languages.

The ministry last year launched the Communication International Center and its account on Twitter @CICSaudi to enhance relations with the international media and pursue a more open policy to the global audience.

It also began to broadcast information and document data on events, facts and humanitarian works and services in the Kingdom in several languages, primarily English, French and German.

Al-Awwad said the ministry had contributed to the launch of a digital media platform documenting the creative work of government agencies, highlighting their efforts, disseminating the Kingdom’s media message locally and internationally, and presenting the governmental media work under one platform in a professional way.

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126,000 pilgrims from Bangladesh will perform Hajj 2018

August 17, 2018

Bangladeshi Hajj pilgrims arrive at Jeddah airport. (AFP)

  • Bangladeshi pilgrims were in a good condition and everything, from accommodation to treatment, was going well

DHAKA: The last Hajj flights from Bangladesh will leave for Saudi Arabia this morning.
About 125,000 Bangladeshi pilgrims have already reached the holy city Makkah, on special flights operated by Biman Bangladesh Airlines and Saudi Arabian Airlines
(Saudia).
The two operators will take the last batch of 1,400 pilgrims from Hazarat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, after which the Hajj flights will be closed until Aug. 27.
The Bangladesh government has made extensive efforts to cooperate with the Kingdom in arranging travel plans for pilgrims, said officials in Dhaka.
“Our Ministry of Religious Affairs is highly concerned about the well-being of the pilgrims,” Saiful Islam, director of the Hajj Office in Dhaka, told Arab News.
“About 250 Bangladesh officials, including the staff of the Bangladesh mission in Saudi Arabia, have been deployed at places that the pilgrims will visit while performing the rituals of Hajj,” he told Arab News.
Most of the staff of the Religious Affairs Ministry have been sent to Saudi Arabia to assist Bangladeshi pilgrims and provide them with emergency support, Islam said.
“Three medical camps have been established in Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah with 30 doctors and nurses to cater to pilgrims’ medical needs. In case of emergency, arrangements have been made to move a pilgrim in critical condition to specialized local hospitals,” he added.
“This year, so far, everything is under control and running very smoothly,” said M. Shahadat Hossain Taslim, secretary-general of the Hajj Agencies Association of Banglaesh (HAAB).
Speaking to Arab News from Makkah, Taslim expressed his gratitude to the Hajj Ministry of Saudi Arabia for its “better Hajj management this year.”
“Last year, many Bangladeshi pilgrims faced difficulty due to lack of transport in Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah,” he said. “But this year, we have addressed the issue well ahead of time and are not facing any problem in this regard.”
Bangladeshi pilgrims were in a good condition and everything, from accommodation to treatment, was going well, he added.
A total of 126,000 pilgrims from Bangladesh will perform Hajj this year.
The Hajj flights from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia will be closed after Friday and resume on Aug. 27 to bring the pilgrims back home.

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