Holy month: Kingdom provides unique flavor

Ramadan in Saudi Arabia provides a unique flavor of the holy month experienced nowhere else in the world.
In fact, what may be called Ramadan flavor is in evidence everywhere — on the roads, inside shops and hypermarkets, in mosques and adjacent tents erected for breaking fast as well as offices and at homes.
This signals the start of the night life, which acquires a new meaning completely different from what is generally understood everywhere.
Restaurants along the roads seem to be empty of life as no one eats, drinks or smokes.
Shops are deserted during the day, but overflow with visitors at night. Mosques throng with devotees, who are engaged either in prayers or recitation of the Holy Qura’n.
Office environment also changes with employees attending to both official and religious duties. 
At home, the faithful remain engrossed in supplications and prayers till Ishaa, which is rounded off with Taraweeh led by the Imam.
No wonder, pilgrims, both domestic and international, choose this holy month for the performance of Umrah, although it goes on throughout the year.
“The number of pilgrims coming for Umrah this year will be 700,000 more than last year’s figure,” Haj Minister Bandar Al-Hajar said earlier this year.
“Praying in the Grand Mosque is equivalent to a 100,000 prayers’ reward; praying in my mosque is equivalent to a 1,000 prayers’ reward and in the Al-Aqsa Mosque is like 500 prayers’ reward,” said Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Many Umrah packages are, therefore, organized during Ramadan, when the faithful desire to visit either of the two holy mosques in the Kingdom.
Their next step after performing Umrah in Makkah is to visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah before returning home.
The volume of visitors sees a dramatic surge during the holy month every year. This year also the trend in terms of the number of pilgrims is showing an upswing.
Most pilgrims look for hotels near the Prophet’s Mosque because they provide them with a rare view of the imposing mosque.
They can also hear the call to prayer and the prayer itself, which is broadcast live for the benefit of the millions of devotees.
Others switch on the TV channels and watch them live.
The Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah offers a kind of spiritual experience, which can be felt but cannot be described.  
It has marked a turning point for many by bringing down the curtain on their past and opening a new chapter in their lives.
For these reasons, Muslims from around the world choose the holy month for performing Umrah.
Since a majority of the pilgrims belong to the middle income group, they find it difficult to find accommodation near the Prophet’s Mosque, where upscale accommodation facilities have come up.
A new development this time is that expatriates would be allowed to lead prayers in Ramadan at mosques in the Kingdom after a year-long ban, according to a recent announcement of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
Salman Al-Atawi, spokesman for the ministry in Tabuk, said the ministry has decided to allow expatriates to conduct prayers during Ramadan provided that they are employees of the Charitable Society for the Memorization of the Holy Qur’an.
Such activities in mosques throughout the Kingdom would be subject to strict regulations of the Ministries of Islamic Affairs, Interior and Social Affairs.
The ministry had slapped a ban on foreigners leading prayers last year, but allowed some muezzins and imams to delegate their duties to expatriates through subcontracts, in return for part of their monthly salary.
 In a related development fit for the Guinness Book of World Records, more than 1,300 volunteers will offer their services during the holy month to serve food on a plastic trail extending four kilometers along the ground of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
The table will be laid out with coffee and dates to feed the throngs of pilgrims and visitors from within the Kingdom and abroad.
The administration at the Grand Mosque has also offered to supply around 100,000 kgs of de-pulped dates in 1,922,160 containers, with coffee on the side.
This giant table serves thousands of pilgrims from different nationalities, languages and age groups. This table showcases the highest degree of hospitality witnessed every year during the holy month, said Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Musleh, secretary-general of the Muslim World League for the Scientific Miracles in the Qur’an.
According to Saleh bin Muhammad Al-Taleb, imam and preacher at the Grand Mosque, more than 1,300,000 meals will be distributed among pilgrims during Ramadan.
The total length of the trail stretches across 129 km.
Mansour bin Amer, chairman of the Hadiyat Al-Haj wal Mu’tamir Charitable Society, says his society is the first of its kind in serving more than 15 million pilgrims every year.
 Apart from the spiritual aspect, the month of Ramadan also witnesses revival of many traditions, especially on the culinary front.
One of these favorite dishes that are highly popular among the local residents of Makkah is baleelah (a cumin chickpeas dish).
It is a ‘must’ item on the menu of Makkawis, who have inherited this popular dish from their ancestors.
Baleelah is sold in almost all districts of the holy city.
The sale begins after Isha prayers and continues until the time of suhoor at dawn.
Saeed Barashi, the 60-year-old baleelah vendor, has said that he sells more than four tons of baleelah throughout the Ramadan.
Barashi launched his outfit 33 years ago and continues the tradition every year during Ramadan. Besides baleelah, a shopping item fancied by every pilgrim is Medina dates available in every shop, big or small.
There are many stalls that sell various types of rosaries and oriental perfumes, including incense, garments, prayer rugs, abayas and Qur’anic plates with various verses (especially the verse of the throne).
Other items in demand include religious pamphlets containing special prayers, dates, bottles of Zamzam water, copies of the Qur’an, children’s accessories, Qur’an audio cassettes, religious books, and several items of precious stones, such as carnelian and amber.
Sabir Shakir, an Umrah pilgrim from Pakistan, says that he is keen on buying memorabilia that reminds him of Madinah.
“I also bought dates and some ancient rosaries and copies of the Holy Qur’an, in addition to a number of prayer rugs and presents for family and friends.”
Business soars dramatically in the last 10 days of Ramadan.
As for low-income pilgrims, they tend to patronize 10-riyal stores.
Many visitors from Pakistan, India and Iran also shop at these stores in view of their low prices, which get inflated in most shops during Ramadan.
A visit to the stores around the Prophet’s mosque disclosed that many foreign women like to buy the black Saudi abaya (cloak).
The Madinah rosary is another popular item thanks to its light weight and sentimental value.
Suhailah Akhtar, a Pakistani visitor, says she likes the Madinah rosary “which comes in various shapes and types. I purchase the carnelian and amber rosaries instead of gold. I can’t afford to buy gold for gift, so I bought many cheaper items from around the Prophet’s Mosque.”
Inayat Ahmad, an Egyptian visitor, buys local toys for children, which have been around for years.
The shopping extravaganza in the holy cities has created job opportunities for Saudi saleswomen, especially in lingerie and abaya shops.
However, they seem to be finding it difficult to cope with the Ramadan rush.
They complain that most employers do not comply with Ministry of Labor regulations, including fixed working hours and weekly off.

While many of them have to put in extra working hours during the holy month, some are apprehensive about working during Eid.
Huda Al-Suwailem, a Saudi saleswoman in an abaya shop, says that her job, which she had taken up at the advent of Ramadan, requires long working hours.
“I just landed this job. I find it very difficult to work during the holy month, and it will be virtually impossible to do so during Eid,” she said, adding that shop owners have been ignoring the Labor Ministry’s requirement of giving a weekly off to the employees.
Ramadan is also an occasion when, according to the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), a majority of foreigners visit the Kingdom for religious purposes and tourism, while only about 20 percent of them come here for business.
Tariq Al-Essa, business tourism project manager at the SCTA, said: “The government is keen to position Saudi Arabia as a major destination for conventions.”
Such a move is expected to boost the Kingdom’s economy in terms of business and job opportunities by 2025.
“This is a vital industry in generating tourism activities and promoting a positive impact on social, cultural and environmental initiatives,” said Al-Essa.
The SCTA has enough financial resources to ensure that infrastructure and other facilities are developed in the Kingdom to make it a global destination both for leisure and business.
In this context, Prince Sultan bin Salman, SCTA president, observed: “The alliance between tourism and air transportation is inseparable and it is very important to focus on aligning these two sectors to make destinations more accessible and affordable.”
It was within this framework that the seventh edition of the Saudi Travel and Tourism Investment Market (STTIM 2014) held in Riyadh in April with the support of the SCTA.

STTIM 2014 was a great success.
Its goal was to bring together a large number of Arabic and international companies engaged in tourism investment and services.
This will eventually help to expand facilities for the growing number of Umrah and Haj pilgrims.
The Kingdom is currently investing substantial resources in infrastructure, including the construction of sea ports, hotels, residence and commercial buildings, two holy sites, roads, airports, meeting halls, conference and exhibition centers and heritage sites, among others, to boost the economy and business sector.
The SCTA is a vital source of the Kingdom’s development process and responsible for promoting the economic, social, environmental and cultural values.
On regional level also, Ramadan is celebrated with great fervor and religious spirit in Gulf countries.  Realizing the market potential for pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah and overall Islamic tourism, the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Dubai Chamber), in partnership with Thomson Reuters, had organized the first Global Islamic Economy Summit in Dubai on Nov. 25-26 last year.
The summit was in line with the launch of “Dubai: Capital of Islamic Economy” by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.
The event was held with his support. The summit brought together leading thinkers, policy makers and stakeholders from around the world for a discussion on the future of the $4 trillion Islamic economy.
They also dwelt on ways of tapping a consumer market of 1.6 billion Muslims, many of whom live in the GCC.
From these developments it has become clear that Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, not only promotes spiritual growth but also yields multi-dimensional benefits in terms of health care, Islamic tourism, infrastructure development, hotel accommodation and employment opportunities.
It has a positive impact on the economy of the Kingdom and the Gulf states, setting in motion a virtuous cycle of growth and development.

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