Ten thousand people from the UAE took part in haj this year with all but two making it back safely, an official said yesterday. The two pilgrims, one woman and one man, were killed in separate car accidents. "It was a great success with no major incidents," said Hamad Yusuf Mualla, the deputy chairman of the UAE Haj Mission. "It was unfortunate about the loss of the two pilgrims but compared to previous years, almost all pilgrims were able to perform their haj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia safely."
The official UAE haj quota for 2008 was initially 6,228 people, down from 17,000 the previous year. However after official requests the quota was increased to 10,000, including 2,000 expatriates. "The Saudi authorities were very co-operative and assisted the UAE pilgrims throughout to complete all the necessary rituals in haj," said Mr Mualla. Mr Mualla also noted there were no major health problems at the haj this year. He added that a campaign to advertise telephone hotlines offering religious counselling and health advice was a great success.
Respiratory diseases and influenza are the most common illnesses among pilgrims during haj, as millions of people descend on Mecca from scores of countries. Saudi authorities require that all pilgrims receive a set of vaccinations before they enter the kingdom. The only problems the UAE pilgrims faced, said Mr Mualla, were some delays at King Abdulaziz International airport in Jeddah. "There were massive crowds in the airport and with some pilgrims arriving late from Mecca, some of the flights ended up being delayed for a couple of hours. But that is to be expected in every haj season."
The only UAE pilgrims still in Saudi Arabia are a handful of Asian expatriates who are visiting Medina and are expected to return before the end of the year. Medina was visited by more than 350,000 pilgrims following the end of haj. Mecca is a sacred meeting point for millions of Muslims during the haj, the annual major pilgrimage, and umrah, a minor pilgrimage that can be performed any time. Three million people performed haj this year, out of which 1.7m were from abroad, which Saudi authorities said was a record.
A multibillion-dollar expansion of the Jamarat Bridge in Mecca also reduced crowding this year during the ritual known as the stoning of the pillars that represent the devil. Stampedes have occurred occasionally in previous years, and in 2006 at least 345 pilgrims died and hundreds were injured during the ritual at the foot of the bridge. Saudi authorities have said that next year's haj will be in late November, and that they will announce the actual date closer to the time of the pilgrimage.
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