x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Haj brings life to border town

Trade affected at Ghweifat town as fewer pilgrims use crossing due to switch from road to air travel and the use of luxury tours.

Travellers halt at businesses on the Saudi border to break their journey on the way to the Haj. This year, 16,259 pilgrims passed through the border town.
Travellers halt at businesses on the Saudi border to break their journey on the way to the Haj. This year, 16,259 pilgrims passed through the border town.

ABU DHABI // For 11 months a year, the only landmark at the Saudi Arabian border town of Ghweifat is a sign in an empty patch of sand that reads: "Relaxation for Gents Hajjis".

But for the other month, billowing government tents that can hold 400 people rise behind it.

There, travellers are provided with medical treatment, immigration help, food and drink before they leave the UAE on the final leg of their pilgrimage to Mecca.

The crooked board is a sign of the times for Ghweifat. With the advent of direct flights and luxury tours, the annual Haj traffic has slowed since 2009.

"This year there's no work for Haj," said Salah Salem, 38, a Yemeni waiter at The Star of Adhen Mandi Restaurant. "Ten years ago there were a lot, a lot of people. The markets were full. Everybody goes by plane now."

Mr Salem's business from Hajjis has dropped by two thirds.

Ghweifat, however, remains the gateway for pilgrims who seek an affordable alternative to Haj tours that can cost up to Dh25,000. Between October 10 and 21, a day before the tents closed for Eid, 16,259 people and 588 vehicles passed through. The tents will reopen on Sunday for the journey home.

Last year, 3.5 million passengers crossed the border, including 20,100 pilgrims.

Ghweifat is 350 kilometres east of Abu Dhabi and 1,250km west of Mecca. The town is a collection of mechanic shops, spotless restaurants without cutlery, and a mosque with intricate lattice work.

"Life in Ghweifat?" asked Dr Emad Hamdy, a government doctor who works at the Haj tents. "Most probably you will not find anyone who is living here."

Dr Hamdy's most difficult task is convincing pilgrims to acknowledge when their health is in danger. "People are very passionate to go to Haj, so even the people who are very sick, they are denying they are sick," he said.

Sometimes, he has the difficult job of turning back the elderly who are too ill to travel.

"It's the same as you're telling them they will die today," said Dr Hamdy. "You have a lot of people saving many years to go to Haj and they have only one gate to go, and you tell them they have to go back. It is not easy, really."

When the bus schedules coincide with prayer times, the mosque fills with hundreds of worshippers.

Umm Rashed, a teacher from Ajman, arrived with 12 family members in a convoy of four vehicles for asr prayer. "But when we go to pray, we are together," she said.

The trip to Mecca takes two days. The family saves time by performing two prayers at once.

"I don't sleep. My thoughts are in Mecca," said Aisha Hassani, Umm Rashed's aunt. "Every place brings us closer to Mecca."

Umm Rashed's family has come from across the UAE but many others at the border are Omani. Shops fear they will lose most of their Haj business when the motorway from Oman to Saudi Arabia opens.

On Google Maps, the Oman section of the road from the Saudi border to Ibri is shown as almost complete, but there is a large gap across the Empty Quarter before the next completed section connects to the Riyadh and Qatar motorways.

For this year, businesses in Ghweifat hope for financial redemption when the pilgrims begin their return on Tuesday.

And even when the motorway does open, the town's economic health does not solely depend on the annual pilgrimage.

"The borders are not only for Haj," said the Customs officer Khamis Mohammed, who has worked at the crossing for about 20 years. "Thousands of Saudi Arabian people come on weekends."

Mr Salem, the waiter, does not want to wait for business to decrease. He hopes to leave. For all his years here, he is in transit. "We don't know what will happen," he said. "But in five years maybe Yemen will be good and I can return."