Smart cards and robots: Saudi Arabia's 'digital Haj'

Worshippers pray around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand mosque in the holy Saudi city of Mecca, on the first day of the al-Adha feast celebrated by Muslims worldwide, on July 20, 2021. - The Eid al-Adha, or “Feast of Sacrifice”, marks the end of the annual pilgrimage or Hajj to the Saudi holy city of Mecca and is celebrated in remembrance of Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son to God. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP)
The digital system allows authorities to guide thousands of pilgrims who attend Haj, which has seen deadly accidents in the past.
Updated 21 Jul 2021

Thirty years ago, it took Egyptian pilgrim Ibrahim Siam several hours to track down his children when they went missing in crowds of worshippers during the Haj in Saudi Arabia.

Fast forward to the modern day and things are far simpler, meaning Siam, now 64, need not worry about losing track of his family and friends thanks to new technologies.

For this year's Haj, the second to be staged under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, Saudi authorities have rolled out electronic “Haj cards” allowing contactless access to religious sites, accommodation and transport.

“During the 1993 hajj I lost my children and couldn't find them for seven hours,” said Siam, brandishing a yellow smart 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 a previous Haj.

“Once I got lost in Mina and wasn't able to describe where I had been,” he recounted. “All of the camps looked the same. I asked the organisers but they couldn't help me.”

The plastic cards are available in green, red, yellow and blue. The colours correspond to markings on the ground guiding pilgrims through the different stages of the Haj.

A Saudi member of staff scans a pilgrim's Haj card, allowing contactless access to religious sites, accommodation and transport, at a reception centre in Mecca on July 18, 2021. The plastic cards are available in green, red, yellow or blue, with the colour corresponding to markings on the ground guiding pilgrims through the different stages of Haj. Each card contains basic information about each pilgrim including their registration number, exact location of their accommodation, mobile phone number and the ID number of their guide. — AFP
A Saudi member of staff scans a pilgrim's Haj card, allowing contactless access to religious sites, accommodation and transport, at a reception centre in Mecca on July 18, 2021. The plastic cards are available in green, red, yellow or blue, with the colour corresponding to markings on the ground guiding pilgrims through the different stages of Haj. Each card contains basic information about each pilgrim including their registration number, exact location of their accommodation, mobile phone number and the ID number of their guide. — AFP

The digital system also allows the authorities to guide the tens of thousands who attend the annual event, which in years past has at times been marred by deadly stampedes and accidents.

Pandemic-era pilgrimage

Each card contains basic information about each pilgrim including their registration number, exact location of their accommodation, mobile phone number and the ID number of their guide.

This year, just 60,000 vaccinated Saudis and foreigners who reside in the Kingdom have been permitted to participate in the pilgrimage.

In the last pre-Covid Haj, in 2019, some 2.5 million people participated. This year, Haj hopefuls had to apply online and obtain special permission.

A Saudi member of staff scans a pilgrim's Haj card, allowing contactless access to religious sites, accommodation and transport, at a reception centre in Mecca on July 18, 2021. — AFP
A Saudi member of staff scans a pilgrim's Haj card, allowing contactless access to religious sites, accommodation and transport, at a reception centre in Mecca on July 18, 2021. — AFP

“Things were completely different before, we got lost on our way for prayers or we arrived late ... all of our efforts were in vain,” said Ahmed Achour, an Egyptian pharmacist living in Jeddah.

“From the moment I submitted my hajj request online, everything was smooth. I made the application, it was accepted, I paid and then I printed the authorisation.” This year's Haj has been held against the backdrop of mounting concern about new variants of the coronavirus.

Saudi Arabia has reported more than 510,000 cases including 8,089 deaths.

'Keeping up with the times'

Amro al-Maddah, under-secretary at the Haj ministry, said at the launch of the Haj cards that he expected “all transactions to be contactless” in the future, with the cards eventually serving as virtual wallets for payments.

A Saudi staff works on a smart sterilising robot at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, during the yearly Haj pilgrimage amid the Covid-19 pandemic on July 20, 2021. — AFP
A Saudi staff works on a smart sterilising robot at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, during the yearly Haj pilgrimage amid the Covid-19 pandemic on July 20, 2021. — AFP

King Salman too lauded the “digital Haj system” during an address on state-run Al-Ekhbariya, saying it was intended “reduce the personnel required to deliver Haj while assuring the safety of pilgrims”.

Deputy Haj minister Abdulfattah bin Sulaiman Mashat said organisers had sought to “use technology to serve pilgrims”.

Picture shows a smart robot used for the first time at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, supplying worshippers with bottles of Zamzam water to reduce direct contact with staff as a measure to prevent Covid-19 infections during the yearly Haj pilgrimage. — AFP/File
Picture shows a smart robot used for the first time at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca, supplying worshippers with bottles of Zamzam water to reduce direct contact with staff as a measure to prevent Covid-19 infections during the yearly Haj pilgrimage. — AFP/File

This year, instead of communal water dispensers, an army of robots was deployed to distribute sacred water to the faithful.

“Bottled zamzam water is much better. There are fewer people and there's no need to queue,” Pakistani-American Aneela, 37, told AFP.

Egyptian pilgrim Siam said the new technologies meant the Haj was “keeping up with the times”.


Header image: Worshippers pray around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand mosque in the holy Saudi city of Mecca, on the first day of Eidul Azha on July 20, 2021. — AFP