The generosity of social networkers has led to a seriously sick woman's dream of performing the pilgrimage being realised. But Haj, one of Islam's pillars, has become difficult for many to undertake.
Hearts reach out for Haj pilgrim
Mariam Hashem prayed with all her heart for a miracle this year.
After four years of chemotherapy and facing difficult surgery on a liver tumour, Mrs Hashem felt this year could be her last chance to visit the "House of Allah".
"I prayed and prayed and prayed, 'Please Allah, help me find a way to visit you, to visit Mecca. To perform Haj and cleanse my body and my cancer away with the holy water of Zamzam'," she said.
With the costs for the annual pilgrim steadily rising every year, at an estimated 10 to 15 per cent, Haj packages today range from about Dh20,000 to more than Dh100,000.
After being forced to give up work as a beautician because of her illness, and with her husband's limited salary, Mrs Hashem had no hope of raising the money needed.
"Haj is now for the rich. I said to myself, 'there is no chance for a person like me'."
But help came through the power of social media. Mrs Hashem, in her 40s and from Sri Lanka, converted to Islam when her Indian husband introduced her to it more than 18 years ago. She has lived in Abu Dhabi for most of her life.
She told a friend that she had dreamt of going to Haj ever since her conversion and how, with the onset of her illness, it had become more urgent to go.
So after a series of emails and pleas on Twitter and Facebook, private citizens across the UAE pitched in and raised more than Dh42,000 to send Mrs Hashem to Haj this year.
"So kind," she said. "I never met any of the people who helped me. Bless each and every person who donated or who forwarded my cause.
"I pray Allah opens windows and doors for them and their loved ones in heaven."
Speaking in Arabic between bouts of tears, Mrs Hashem said she already felt better, as if she has been given a break from her cancer.
"I don't feel the pain any more, it is like the power of kindness has lifted the pain and giving me the strength needed to go to Mecca. Thank you all, thank you."
She will be going with a group of women on a tour organised by the Haj operator Al Farooq, whose owner also donated over Dh5,000. Her husband cannot afford to join her.
One of the women who helped Mrs Hashem's cause said they had decided to put her up in a hotel close to Masjid Al Haram, or the Grand Mosque that houses the holy Kaaba, as she is too ill to walk.
"We raised the money within a week. There are many kind people out there," said the woman, who has asked to remain anonymous.
"We should be taking humanitarian efforts out of the donation box by reaching out to the needy people directly," said Mrs Hashem's benefactor, who also raised funds for a widow from Egypt living in Ajman to go to Haj.
"The prices to do Haj have become ridiculously expensive and so there are many who sympathise with those who can't afford it."
Various agents say four to five-star packages for the "Haj Saree" or fast Haj, which lasts a week, can cost expatriates in the UAE between Dh47,000 and Dh50,000 each.
For Emiratis, the same package would cost Dh25,000 to Dh30,000 because of lower administrative costs.
"The costs of Haj for non-Gulf nationals is always more expensive, often double that for Gulf national because of the visa procedure costs," said an agent at an Abu Dhabi Haj operator.
The Saudi Haj ministry says the Haj visa is free but operators and travel agents charge fees for processing and legalising documents.
Costs vary depending on the number of days, mode of transport, hotel rating and proximity to the holy sites. Flight prices also vary, between Dh1,500 and Dh2,000 in the Haj season.
For the "Haj Shamel", which lasts two weeks, agents say expatriates can expect to spend more than Dh83,000 compared with Dh63,000 last year, and nationals about Dh68,000.
For VIP packages, it is between Dh100,000 and Dh130,000 a person.
"The greatest costs are in the hotels," said Adnan Ansari, who since 2002 has taken hundreds of Pakistani pilgrims through his family's Haj and Umrah Tour operator Safeenah Tul Hujjaj, (pilgrim ship). "They have demolished all the old hotels and apartment buildings that were rented out at more reasonable prices."
As someone who has performed Haj seven times, first in 1994, and whose father has gone 28 times, Mr Ansari has seen great transformation of the holy city and the landscape around it.
"Less mountains, almost no trace of the old traditional homes with the wooden roofs and Islamic architecture, it is a modern city overshadowed by towers," he said.
Mr Ansari said major construction in Mecca started in 2006.
Six years ago a two to three-star hotel would cost about Dh476 for 10 days.
Today, the same grade of hotel, much further from the Grand Mosque, will charge more than Dh1,300 for the same period.
"It has become more organised and safer in terms of less cases of stampede and injuries, but it all comes at a high price," Mr Ansari said.
As much as it costs pilgrims, it has cost Saudi Arabia billions to expand and transform Mecca.
A multibillion-dollar expansion in 2008 of the Jamarat Bridge in Mecca helped to reduce crowding during the stoning of the pillars.
Stampedes at the ritual have led to losses of life, particularly in 2006 when at least 345 pilgrims died and hundreds were injured at the foot of the bridge. One of the deadliest years was in 1990 when 1,426 were killed in a tunnel leading to the holy sites.
Hundreds stopped in the middle of the 450-metre air-conditioned tunnel to escape the 44°C heat outside and were caught in the crush of hundreds of others trying to get in.
Another important investment has been the Mecca Metro that links Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah with Mecca. The first part opened in 2010, and authorities say the automated metro can now transport half a million pilgrims every six hours.
"It is very convenient and does help pilgrims reach their destination faster and safer," said Mr Ansari, whose company has taken pilgrims on the metro.
Despite the rising costs and the difficulty of performing Haj, Mr Ansari can't wait to go back himself. His father, who is in his 70s, is going again this year.
"Every Haj feels like it is the first time for me to be visiting the house of Allah," he said, who will be going next year. "It is one of the toughest trips of any Muslim's life, even if it has been done it before.
"It is like going to stand in front of your father the Creator and be judged for your actions since the last visit. So it is quite intimidating."