The new 485-metre-high clocktower in Mecca stands as a symbol of changing times in the holy city. Haj visitors descending on Mecca in the last few days would have been greeted by an unrecognisably modern metropolis. And it's all for their convenience.
Earlier this year, the 213-suite Raffles Makkah Palace hotel, overlooking the Grand Mosque and Kaaba, opened at the Abraj Al Bait complex. The new Fairmont Hotel, located in the same $3 billion complex, also had some of it rooms readied for the Haj.
"Everybody is looking for a better operational environment this year," said Chiheb ben Mahmoud, the senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels in the MENA region. "It's not like the uncertainty of last year."
Last year, the number of pilgrims were down from previous years due to travel restrictions brought about by the spread of swine flu. This year, the numbers are up again. Meanwhile, the city's new light railway should considerably ease congestion on dangerous roads and make transportation between the holy sites far easier.
The onset of innovation might, to some, seem anachronistic to the traditionally austere landscape in Mecca, but any developments that will cut down the risk of disease and accidents are welcome. Accidents are sometimes inevitable, but to ignore their causes would be irresponsible.
It remains to be seen how successful these new developments will be, but Saudi Arabia deserves credit for its efforts to make the Haj pilgrimage as convenient and safe as possible.