Read the latest updates on the Hajj pilgrimage here
Every year, hundreds of volunteers and workers from various parts of Saudi Arabia help to care for pilgrims as they perform Hajj at the holy sites of Makkah, Madinah, Arafat and Mina.
From receiving pilgrims at airports to giving them meals and guiding them through Hajj, these people play a vital role in ensuring that the pilgrimage goes smoothly for all.
“Our job is to make sure we give the pilgrims memories they will cherish forever,” says Khalid Mahmoud, a Saudi Hajj guide in Jeddah.
Taking care of the pilgrims is a responsibility that continues "from the moment they arrive in the kingdom to when they depart to their countries or reach their homes locally”, he tells The National.
“We have to make sure all Hajjis, including children, women travelling in groups with mahram [male guardians] and older people are looked after to the best of our ability so they can have a safe and peaceful Hajj."
Amina Sharif, a Saudi woman, was given charge of tents housing 100 women in Mina during Hajj last year, when participation in the pilgrimage was greatly reduced and restricted to residents of the kingdom because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The experience was “unforgettable, in such a way that it brought us all as close as a family”, she says.
Her job was to make sure the women were safe, had meals served in their rooms and that everything was done hygienically to guard against Covid-19 infection.
"We had cleaning services day and night and we ensured all pilgrims were given care and attention during Hajj, as we had many elderly women in our accommodation, too,” she says.
This year, she is assisting pilgrims to board buses from Jeddah to Makkah.
Saudi Arabia has allowed one million pilgrims to perform Hajj this year, including more than 800,000 from around the world. Only people who received three Covid-19 vaccine doses have been allowed to take part.
Fatima Mohammed, an Indonesian, says working with pilgrims for the first time during Hajj last year was "something special", as volunteers "become part of your memory for a lifetime".
“We received fresh meals every day for pilgrims, which we had to give to them on time, so they could get nutrition before and after their pilgrimage rites," she says. "It was great to meet people from Indonesia, which also reminded me of home.
“We became like sisters, the pilgrims and those of us working there."
The Saudi monarch said “serving Hajj and Umrah pilgrims has been at the forefront of the kingdom’s priority since its establishment, and still is”.
Fatima, a Saudi volunteer, tells The National it is an honour to serve the pilgrims during this Hajj season.
"It’s been very busy, most of them are struggling with heat and we are assisting them with cold Zamzam water, umbrellas, medicines, finding them a shade or anything the require from us," she says.
A total of 100 scholars have been assigned to answer pilgrims' queries during Hajj and interactive robots with 21-inch touchscreens are stationed at the main entrances of the Mataf area ― the open-space around the Kaaba where the Tawaf circumambulation ritual takes place ― to help provide information.
The robots can communicate in 11 languages, including English, Urdu, Russian and Mandarin.
Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Sudais, president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, launched a campaign to welcome pilgrims in their own language.
One hundred guides speaking 23 languages were posted round the clock at the two Holy Mosques to assist pilgrims.
Only 1,000 pilgrims from within the kingdom were allowed to participate in the ritual in 2020 and that number was increased to 60,000 last year, with participating citizens or residents — who had to be fully vaccinated — chosen through an online ballot.
Hajj is one of the world's largest gatherings and about 2.5 million people performed the religious ritual in 2019.