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Hajj Diaries (2): Inflation and The End of Charity as We Know It

No matter how Nigerians love to blame President Muhammadu Buhari for all our problems, the fact remains that Inflation is global. According to the latest…

No matter how Nigerians love to blame President Muhammadu Buhari for all our problems, the fact remains that Inflation is global. According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual inflation rate in May was 8.6%, its highest level since 1981, as measured by the consumer price index. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused inflation to become stubbornly entrenched in countries around the globe. Additionally, China’s policy of locking down areas where there are COVID-19 outbreaks has exacerbated the problem.

As with other economies around the globe, the performance of the Saudi economy in 2020 was adversely affected by COVID-19. The immediate socio-economic impacts can be seen in falling gross national product, balance of payments, rising unemployment, falling income, reduced savings, sharp increases in the cost of living, increased crime, and lower living standards for large sections of the country. The annual inflation rate in Saudi Arabia climbed to 2.3% in April of 2022 from 2.0% in the previous month, beating market expectations of a 2.2% rise.

For those who remember Saudi Arabia in the 80’s and 90’s, ‘abundance’ was the word that most described the country. The country was blessed with almost everything in abundance—food, gold, employment and revenue. For a lot of Muslims, travelling to KSA was their first contact with such abundance and so they came back with exaggerated tales of gold lining the streets of Makkah. A lot of pilgrims also engaged in trade: bring things to sell in KSA and returning to Nigeria with more things to sell. It was therefore not uncommon to hear of Nigerians who travelled annually for Umrah or Hajj from the profits made the previous year.

Alas! Those days are over. The numerous gold shops that lined the many streets to Masjid Haram have been replaced by provision shops and the few that are still present are sparsely populated. Remember how the gold shops used to be so full that one had to fight to enter? Well, not only are they empty, but they also have a man stationed outside calling out to pilgrims ‘Hajji, Hajji’ as if they are selling cheap trinkets. These are shops that used to open only once a year, during Hajj season, because of the enormous profits they enjoyed. Now, they are reduced to begging for customers.

As for those ‘2 Riyals’ or ‘Riyalyn’ shops that sell toys, souvenirs and such, they have now become ‘three riyals’ shops. Fortunately, the crowds are still much in these shops.

Another disheartening sight that further emphasises the worsening economic plight of KSA, are the signs in front of prominent hotels. Giant hotels like Jabal Omar, Darul Tawheed and ZamZam now have ‘Vacant Rooms Available’ displayed at the entrance. These are multimillion-dollar businesses that provided a much-needed service to pilgrims coming from all over the world; yet, they too are suffering. Once upon a time, you needed to book months in advance to be able to secure rooms that cost $5000-10,000/day. Kings, presidents, prime ministers and of course corrupt politicians competed with each other to book rooms in these luxury hotels. Alas! That is no more the case.

In Islam, the first ten days of the month of Dhul Hijja are the best days in the entire year and so Muslims usually try to increase their good deeds during these days by fasting and giving charity. I dare say that the citizens of Saudi Arabia are among the most charitable Muslims in the world. Even on ordinary days, the government and ordinary citizens give food, fruits, zamzam water and drinks to pilgrims as charity. It is not impossible to come for Hajj or Umrah and not spend a dime on food as everywhere you turn, people are gifting out food to pilgrims. On these blessed days, it is common to see food trucks parked on the streets distributing Shinkafa kaza to random people.

During Ramadan, there is so much choice of free food that pilgrims even had to select. “Oh look! Come over! Laban and croissants are been given there! What about over there? It is Rice and Chicken. Chicken again? I am tired of their tasteless chicken. Every time ‘shinkafa kaza’. Why can’t these people dash us fish or lamb for a change? Oh look! Chocolates!”

I remember a funny incident during 2018 Hajj; my friend and I were returning from Masjid Al-Haram, hungry and tired, when we saw a car parked and people gathered around it. On investigation, we realised that it was sabil and the food package being distributed was delicious looking rice and chicken, juice boxes and dates. We debated whether to join the queue receiving charity. What if someone sighted us? How could I, a whole doctor, be seen on the queue collecting charity food? However, hunger and the Nigerian love of awoof, won and soon we were jostling along with Indians and Yemenis on the sabil queue. Thankfully, we were not seen by any Nigerian! Hunger is indeed a great equalizer.

This year, the food trucks have reduced drastically. The sabil that we took for granted are sparse. The free shinkafa kaza has become even more bland and is not readily available. Instead, on our way from Jeddah airport, the government was distributing water. Nothing else. No fruits and no food packs at every stop. I was shocked and dismayed.

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused considerable business, economic, and psycho-social disruptions worldwide.  Living conditions have changed around the globe as a result of COVID-19. In the short term, it has negatively affected the world economy, which has led to many misfortunes and which may have grave consequences in the long run. Additionally, the outbreak has had a massive economic and social impact on pilgrimages for Muslims – because these gatherings could lead to widespread exposures and possible spread of COVID-19 to every corner of the world, it forced the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to cancel Umrah in March 2020. And since pilgrimage is a major source of revenue for the country, the socio-economic impact of the pandemic has been two-fold.

Nobody with a heart can afford not to be disheartened by the economic decline in a country that holds a special place in Islam. Our only consolation is that Saudi Arabia is not in this alone. Global Inflation, sadly, has been predicted to increase. Therefore, charity as we know it, in the land of abundance, has effectively come to an end. Someday, we will tell our children about this magnificent country. Until then, we will manage the food courts at ZamZam.

Allah Sarki Shinkafa Kaza!

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