Virtual Hajj is a Painful Interval—But Also Islam's Most Global Moment Yet

On Monday, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj announced that the annual pilgrimage will, despite the worst fears of billions of Muslims around the world, still go ahead this year. It will however only be open to pilgrims (of any nationality) already within Saudi Arabia's borders, which means that for most of the two million pilgrims planning their visit next month, Hajj will not be possible due to travel restrictions.

But this will also open the door to the transformational opportunity of a "virtual Hajj", where live feeds and social media allow more people than ever to participate in the event in some way. Many of those, despite the best efforts of all involved, struggle to afford the Hajj. This means that virtual participation is an important step in widening access to what is a religious obligation for approximately 2 billion Muslims.

But it is an expensive obligation. In Bangladesh, for example, the minimum cost of a Hajj package is 315,000 BDT, equivalent to about $3,700—nearly two years' income for the average Bangladeshi. This means that accessibility and democratization of online religious services is a lifeline for the spiritual lives of the world's poorest.

Many of this year's Hajjis will have saved for years and have had their plans heartbreakingly disrupted by the pandemic, but will ultimately be supportive of the decision. If Islam's holiest sites became breeding grounds for a new outbreak of the deadly disease, this would be a tragedy for all Muslims. And the decision is not unexpected - Saudi Arabia has been decisive in controlling the outbreak, restricting access to Mosques, shutting down the holy city of Mecca before a single life was lost, and implementing rolling curfews, while carefully protecting the wellbeing of those worst affected by the lockdowns.

At a time when many of the world's borders are still closed, flinging open the frontiers of a country at the heart of the Middle East to pilgrims from dozens of countries would be irresponsible at best, a death wish at worst.

Some will take solace that pilgrims already inside Saudi Arabia - who make up around a quarter of Hajjis each year - will still be able to perform the pilgrimage.

But it is the other three quarters that are particularly significant to Saudi Arabia: pilgrimage contributes $12 billion, or 20 percent of non-oil GDP, to the Kingdom. It is also an important source of soft power for Saudi Arabia: away from politics, pilgrimage allows the Muslim world to get to know Saudi Arabia up close, and be united with their brothers and sisters of faith who are sometimes divided by nation, race, sect and economic status.

Being the place that welcomes 'the guests of the Most Merciful God' is something Saudis are proud of - and I'm glad it is being preserved in some form, even during a pandemic.

The Kingdom has world-leading logistical experience in transport, housing, crowd control, and (crucially) health security that has been built up over decades of year-on-year growth in pilgrim numbers. Much of that logistical knowhow will go largely unused this year, but a growing area of Saudi expertise - tech - will be even more relevant than usual.

Tech is one of the highest growth sectors in the Saudi economy, and is a key part of the oft-mentioned Vision 2030 plan in the Kingdom. As well as Saudi consumers having the world's highest social media usage, the entire economy and government is increasingly digital as part of the current transformation of the Kingdom.

This means that this year's "Virtual Hajj" could be part of the new normal for the world's Muslims, most of whom struggle to afford the trip. In any case, it would take 581 years for all the Muslims alive today to visit due to the sheer numbers involved.

It looks like digital worship is here to stay, with the Muslim world leading the way but Europe and North America following suit. One in four Brits attended an online religious service during lockdown, including a third of 18 to 34 year olds. The younger generation want to Zoom to the Church or the Mosque, and our institutions are catching up.

Innovation and faith have always gone hand in hand—the Prophet's sayings and teachings, for example, were originally preserved and transmitted verbally. They were then written down on animal skin, then paper, and eventually distributed through printing presses in the 16th century.

Live streaming and social media participation has become commonplace since the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps particularly amongst Muslims, whose faith is inherently social. Prayers and Ramadan iftars have already gone digital. A virtual Hajj is a natural progression.

Perhaps one day, digital faith services will be as commonplace as printed books of Islamic teachings, and there could be billions of 'virtual Hajjis' each year, rather than just the 2 million physical ones.

Mohammed Alsherebi is a Saudi entrepreneur, philanthropist and advisor to global leaders.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​