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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Hajj 2018: bringing technology to the millennia-old pilgrimage

The Saudi government is using technological advances to ease the pilgrimage for millions

Participants including Saudi women attend a hackathon in Jeddah on August 1, 2018, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. Around 3,000 participants attended the three-day "Hackathon event" in Jeddah, the government said, with the aim of exploring high-tech solutions to make Hajj pilgrimage more efficient and safe. / AFP PHOTO / Amer HILABI
Participants including Saudi women attend a hackathon in Jeddah on August 1, 2018, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. Around 3,000 participants attended the three-day "Hackathon event" in Jeddah, the government said, with the aim of exploring high-tech solutions to make Hajj pilgrimage more efficient and safe. / AFP PHOTO / Amer HILABI

History's most high-tech Hajj starts on Sunday in Makkah as almost two million people from around the world flock to Islam’s holiest site.

By Tuesday more than 1.4 million pilgrims had arrived by sea, land and air.

During Hajj pilgrims are required to perform a number of rituals between the Kaaba - a holy building at the centre of the Al Masjid Al Haram mosque - and Mount Arafat, the site of the Prophet Mohammed’s final sermon in 632 CE.

In a bid to ease the often arduous experience the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah launched this year a series of electronic services, including flight preclearance and digitalised health records, allowing Hajj authorities to scan pilgrims' medical backgrounds prior to their arrival in Saudi Arabia.

The Ministry of Communication's Smart Hajj initiative offers pilgrims phone apps to help them navigate the pilgrimage. The Manasikana app, launched by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah guides pilgrims through every step of the journey.

The authorities have also reinforced the internet infrastructure in and around Makkah by placing 3,000 mobile antennas to improve 4G reception. They have also worked to provide WI-FI coverage for pilgrims throughout the journey.

The towers will provide the visitors with undisrupted 4G mobile internet to maintain contact with their families and make use of the ministry’s online services.

“Saudi Arabia is moving to a new era with a huge ambition. We will open doors and combine minds to spread a message that serves Islam and technology,” Nouf Al Rakan, the chief executive of the Saudi Federation for Cyber Security, Programming and Drones.

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The app Asefny allows users to send health reports through their phones and request medical care in case of emergencies. The app tracks the location of pilgrims in order to provide them with services or assistance to those with special needs.

Available in eight different languages, it provides information that includes prayer times and flight schedules, the weather forecast for Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah, emergency numbers, the location of the nearest emergency centre and currency exchange rates.

More than 25 hospitals and 25,000 medical professionals will be on standby to ensure the safety of the pilgrims, as they travel between Makkah, where the Kaaba is located, and Mount Arafat, the site signifying the peak of the pilgrimage.

The ministry has placed security and health professionals along the 20 kilometre path between Mina and Muzdaliffah, both stopovers at the pilgrimage.

All pilgrims must get a number of vaccinations, namely meningitis and a flu vaccine, to avoid any epidemic outbreaks after the Hajj.

However, not all maladies can be prevented, and the Kingdom provides treatment for even the most serious of illnesses.

Before the start of Hajj, the Centre for Cardiac Diseases and Surgery in Madinah had already received 86 medical cases, including two open-heart surgeries. Most of those admitted have suffered heart attacks requiring emergency treatment.

The journey of Hajj traces back to Prophet Mohammed, when he performed the pilgrimage in 632 CE. Those accompanying the Prophet observed his every move and these steps are performed in the same sequence today.

It requires pilgrims travel from Makkah to Mount Arafat and back, with stops at Mina and Muzdallifah along the way.

Hajj represents a seminal moment in lives of Muslims as it is widely considered a return to purity, signified by the white robes worn by the pilgrims.

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