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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Saudi Arabia tests Japan-inspired 'nap pods' for Hajj

The free nap pods are part of new measures to modernise the centuries-old pilgrimage

A hajj pilgrim exits his capsule room in Mecca. EPA
A hajj pilgrim exits his capsule room in Mecca. EPA

Mansour Al Amer swipes a card to reveal a narrow sleep pod, reminiscent of Japan's famed capsule hotels. But this pod is in Saudi Arabia, where the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage begins Sunday.

The kingdom has plans to introduce capsule rooms in the western city of Mina in the coming days, as an estimated two million Muslim faithful gather for the six-day Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.

The free nap pods are part of new measures Saudi Arabia is introducing this year to modernise the centuries-old pilgrimage.

The government has also introduced apps for on-the-spot translation and emergency medical care.

Mr Al Amer is the head of a Saudi charity, the Hajji and Mutamer Gift Charitable Association, which is offering between 18 and 24 capsules in which pilgrims can nap for free in the coming days.

Each fibreglass pod - less than 3 metres long and more than 1 metre high - features a mattress, clean sheets, air conditioning and a large, well-lit mirror.

epa06955419 A hajj pilgrim adjusts his headgear in his capsule room in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 16 August 2018 (issued 18 August 2018). Hajj season pilgrims will be able to try out the latest mobile hotel capsules - sleeping units that offer hotel room services and facilities in the smallest possible space, Hadiyah, the Hajji and Mu’tamer’s Gift Charitable Association has announced. EPA/SEDAT SUNA
A hajj pilgrim adjusts his headgear in his capsule room in Makkah. EPA

The pods can be lined up horizontally or stacked vertically to save on space.

"We are always thinking about pilgrims and how to make them more comfortable during the rituals of Hajj," Mr Al Amer said.

The nap pods provide a solution for pilgrims of limited means who cannot afford to book hotels on site but need a quick rest during Hajj.

Each napper will have three hours of access to the pods, which are imported from Japan at cost of about $1,114 (Dh4,100) each.

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When the pilgrim wakes for prayer time, five times daily in Islam, workers will sterilise the pod before handing it over to the next pilgrim.

"The idea already exists globally, in Japan for example, and in several cities across the world," Mr Al Amer said.

"We believe it's extremely well-suited for crowded places in our holy sites and in Makkah."

But for Hajj, which takes pilgrims across Makkah and Mina - two cities in western Saudi Arabia home to the holiest sites of Islam - the pods were also inspired by the rising popularity of car and bike-sharing.

"The capsules work through a share economy, like bicycles that you can rent for an hour and then leave for someone else," Mr Al Amer said.

A trial run of 12 pods this year was a success, he said. Mr Al Amer estimates 60 people used each pod every day during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

The Hajj presents the Saudi authorities with major logistical challenges, as Islam is the world's fastest-growing religion, according to the Pew research centre.

This is the most technologically friendly pilgrimage, with apps and sleep pods part of a bid to modernise the centuries-old practice of Hajj. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
Saudi men are pictured inside sleep pods in Mekkah. AFP

Providing accommodation for two million pilgrims is no small feat, with travellers staying in anything from five-star hotels to tents pitched in empty lots.

Saudi authorities are pushing a "smart Hajj" initiative to meet the growing demands of Hajj, which coincide with the kingdom's unprecedented modernisation drive.

Saudi Arabia this year lifted a ban on women driving and has introduced reforms led by young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Every Muslim is required to complete the Hajj at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to do so.

The Muslim faithful gather in Makkah, all clad in white, to perform rituals around the black Kaaba.

The Hajj also features a symbolic stoning of the devil, marking the start of Eid Al Adha.

Eid Al Adha includes the slaughter of sheep, with the meat distributed to Muslims in need. The ritual symbolises Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ismail, on the order of God.

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