Prayers outside the Grand Mosque ahead of Haj in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Image Credit: Reuters

Mina: With global oil prices flailing, Saudi Arabia is turning to another natural resource: billions of dollars gained from religious tourism as the kingdom hosts the annual haj pilgrimage.

Shops line the packed esplanade of the Great Mosque of Makkah, one of the holiest sites in Islam, lowering their awnings only at prayer time and re-opening their doors minutes after the mosque empties.

Saudi authorities have reported 2.35 million Muslims are participating in this year’s Haj, the pilgrimage to the western Saudi Arabian city of Makkah that forms one of the five pillars of Islam.

Of those, around 1.75 million pilgrims from 168 countries arrived from abroad, according to the state-run SPA news agency.

Even at the foothills of Mount Arafat, where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) delivered his last sermon, carpet merchants were scouting for customers among the faithful.

“The money spent by pilgrims this year could be from 20 to 25 billion riyals (5.3 to 6.7 billion dollars),” said Maher Jamal, head of Makkah’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry - an estimated 70 per cent increase from the previous year.

Jamal told AFP the jump in revenue stemmed from a 20 percent increase in the number of pilgrims compared with last year.

Each of them contributes on average thousands of dollars to the kingdom’s domestic economy, spending money on food, lodging, souvenirs and gifts.

The increase in numbers is no accident but rather part of the ambitious Vision 2030 plan aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy, which was dealt a serious blow after oil prices plummeted in 2014.

According to historian Luc Chantre, whose research focuses on Haj during colonial times, “even before the advent of Islam, Makkah was a place for merchants”.

“It was an area of international exchange, where religion and commerce were always linked,” Chantre told AFP.

“Until the discovery of oil, the Haj was Saudi Arabia’s primary source of revenue.”

Saudi Arabia - the world’s top crude oil exporter - has announced a plan to shift the kingdom’s economy away from oil dependency toward other sources of revenue, including religious tourism.

The Vision 2030 plan aims to draw six million pilgrims to Haj annually.

In addition, the kingdom hopes to attract 30 million pilgrims to umrah, a lesser pilgrimage that can be completed during the rest of the year.

Years before the 2030 targets were unveiled, work was already under way to expand the capacity to accommodate as many pilgrims as possible during the five-day Haj.