Saudi Arabia is expected to scale back or call off this year’s hajj pilgrimage for the first time in its modern history, observers say, a perilous decision as coronavirus cases spike.
Muslim nations are pressing Riyadh to give its much-delayed decision on whether the annual ritual will go ahead as scheduled in late July.
But as the kingdom negotiates a call fraught with political and economic risks in a tinderbox region, time is running out to organise logistics for one of the world’s largest mass gatherings.
A full-scale hajj, which last year drew about 2.5 million pilgrims, appears increasingly unlikely after authorities advised Muslims in late March to defer preparations due to the fast-spreading disease.
“It’s a toss-up between holding a nominal hajj and scrapping it entirely,” a South Asian official in contact with Saudi hajj authorities told AFP.
A Saudi official told AFP: “The decision will soon be made and announced.”
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, withdrew from the pilgrimage this month after pressing Riyadh for clarity, with a minister calling it a “very bitter and difficult decision”.
Malaysia, Senegal and Singapore followed suit with similar announcements.
Many other countries with Muslim populations — from Egypt and Morocco to Turkey, Lebanon and Bulgaria — have said they are still awaiting Riyadh’s decision.
In countries like France, faith leaders have urged Muslims to “postpone” their pilgrimage plans until next year due to the prevailing risks.
The hajj, a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, represents a major potential source of contagion as it packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites.
But any decision to limit or cancel the event risks annoying Muslim hardliners for whom religion trumps health concerns.
It could also trigger renewed scrutiny of the Saudi custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites — the kingdom’s most powerful source of political legitimacy.
A series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom’s management of the hajj.
“Saudi Arabia is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Umar Karim, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told AFP.
“The delay in announcing its decision shows it understands the political consequences of cancelling the hajj or reducing its scale.”
The kingdom is “buying time” as it treads cautiously, the South Asian official said.
“At the last minute if Saudi says ‘we are ready to do a full hajj’, (logistically) many countries will not be in a position” to participate, he said.
Amid an ongoing suspension of international flights, a reduced hajj with only local residents is a likely scenario, the official added.
A decision to cancel the hajj would be a first since the kingdom was founded in 1932.
Saudi Arabia managed to hold the pilgrimage during previous outbreaks of Ebola and MERS.
But it is struggling to contain the virus amid a serious spike in daily cases and deaths since authorities began easing a nationwide lockdown in late May.
In Saudi hospitals, sources say intensive care beds are fast filling up and a growing number of health workers are contracting the virus as the total number of cases has topped 130,000. Deaths surpassed 1,000 on Monday.
To counter the spike, authorities this month tightened lockdown restrictions in the city of Jeddah, gateway to the pilgrimage city of Mecca.
“The hajj is the most important spiritual journey in the life of any Muslim, but if Saudi Arabia proceeds in this scenario it will not only exert pressure on its own health system,” said Yasmine Farouk from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It could also be widely held responsible for fanning the pandemic.”
A cancelled or watered-down hajj would represent a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, which is already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.
The smaller year-round umrah pilgrimage was already suspended in March.
Together, they add $12 billion to the Saudi economy every year, according to government figures.
A negative decision would likely disappoint millions of Muslim pilgrims around the world who often invest their life savings and endure long waiting lists to make the trip.
“I can’t help but be heartbroken — I’ve been waiting for years,” Indonesian civil servant Ria Taurisnawati, 37, told AFP as she sobbed.
“All my preparations were done, the clothes were ready and I got the necessary vaccination. But God has another plan.”
Reporting and photos: AFP
Emirates undertakes largest known fleet retrofit project
Emirates has kick-started its plans to upgrade the entire interior cabins of 120 Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 aircraft – two of the largest commercial aircraft types in service today.
This ambitious project, representing a multi-billion dollar investment to ensure Emirates’ customers “fly better” for the coming years, officially commences in November and is managed entirely by Emirates’ Engineering team.
The target is to completely retrofit four Emirates aircraft from start to finish every month, continuously for over 2 years. Once the 67 earmarked A380s are refreshed and back in service, 53 777s will undergo their facelift. This will see nearly 4,000 brand new Premium Economy seats installed, 728 First Class suites refurbished and over 5,000 Business Class seats upgraded to a new style and design when the project is complete in April 2025.
In addition, carpets and stairs will be upgraded, and cabin interior panels refreshed with new tones and design motifs including the iconic ghaf trees which are native to the UAE.
No other airline has handled a retrofit of this magnitude in-house, and there’s no blueprint for such an undertaking. Therefore Emirates Engineering teams have been planning and testing extensively, to establish and streamline processes, and identify and address any possible snags.
Trials began on an A380 in July, where experienced engineers literally took each cabin apart piece-by-piece and logged every step. From removing seats and panelling to bolts and screws, every action was tested, timed and mapped out. Potential impediments to completing the installation of Emirates’ new Premium Economy Class or the retrofit of the remaining three cabins in just 16 days were flagged and documented for expert teams to review and address.
As part of the programme, new purpose-built workshops will be set up at Emirates Engineering to repaint, re-trim and re-upholster Business and Economy Class seats with new covers and cushioning. First Class suites will be carefully disassembled and sent to a specialised company to replace the leather, arm rests and other materials.
From the trials, Engineers discovered several unexpected solutions for instance: that existing food catering trucks could be easily repurposed to move parts destined for refurbishment from the aircraft to the workshop for their refresh, as these vehicles had doors of the right width and offer sufficient space.
Until the retrofit programme starts in earnest in November, a cross-disciplinary team has been assembled to regularly review the planning process, address any issues, and track updates on various aspects of the project such as procurement, staffing, and training.
Emirates’ new Premium Economy cabin class, which offers luxurious seats, more legroom, and a service to rival many airlines’ business offering, is currently available to Emirates customers travelling on popular A380 routes to London, Paris, Sydney. More customers will be able to experience the airline’s new Premium Economy cabins starting from year end, as the retrofit programme picks up momentum.
Eleanor helps over 30 Maldives hotels elevate guest services
Eleanor has been named as one of the top 10 concierge software providers globally.
Based on accurate, timely reviews from real users, the HotelTechAwards rank the world’s best hotel software firms and products and it also provides hoteliers direct access to a growing network of hotel technology professionals and decision-makers.
“The guest experience is the cornerstone of our platform. Our unified resort wide solution, Eleanor, has been built for resorts off the back of many years working in the industry and addresses the needs of both Sales and Marketing departments and perhaps just as importantly, the operational requirements of the team on the ground at the property. The days of resorts working with disjointed systems are now behind us,” says Darren Caple, co-founder and CEO.
“We are on a mission to make the guest’s resort experience as easy and as frictionless as possible. Whereas traditional providers in the market have come at this purely from a guest communication perspective, our background in resorts has allowed us to combine this basic requirement with the streamlining of operational processes. The result is truly a resort wide solution that removes the need for countless different systems to be deployed.
Eleanor allows resorts to deliver consistent, superior service levels to guests across all stages of their journey with contactless features helping to alleviate sensitive touch-points in the post pandemic period. More than 30 properties in the Maldives use our Eleanor platform to help butlers and guest services elevate the guest experience. These properties are seeing an increase in incremental revenue by over 30% and operational efficiencies of 600+ man hours per month. We are also beginning to roll out the platform in some Caribbean properties!”
Eleanor is making waves in the hospitality industry by pushing the conventional limits of what a resort guest app can achieve through its unique ability to facilitate direct bookings for services and activities. The traditional ‘request to book’ feature that is common amongst almost all other hotel apps is removed by a power booking and operational platform sitting at the heart of the solution that covers all the resorts’ departments. It’s this module which realises enormous operational benefits and insights for the resort.
“We, at Eleanor, are humbled and honoured that our clients have provided such positive reviews. Feedback from our clients, partners and hoteliers are incredibly valuable for us and we will continue to improve our offering and services”, said Caple.
To celebrate this success, Eleanor is currently offering resorts a free one month trial, together with free setup and training and discounted monthly fees.
Eleanor, founded in 2018 and has its headquarters in the United Kingdom. Created from over 15 years of hands-on expertise, Eleanor allows resorts to deliver consistent, superior service levels to its guests across all stages of their journey with contactless features helping to alleviate sensitive touch-points in the post pandemic period. Eleanor also helps to unlock operational efficiencies and boost incremental revenue and guest loyalty.
Hotel Tech Report’s Best Concierge Software 2022 Runner Up, reviewed as a preferred and reliable hotel software product by the global hotelier community.
For more information, visit www.eleanorapp.com.
Emirates’ recruiters scour the world for cabin crew talent with 30 city stops
Emirates, the world’s most global airline, is seeking talented people with a passion for service to join its award-winning cabin crew team.
As air travel returns with a vengeance, the airline’s recruiters are busy meeting and hiring candidates in 30 cities from now until the end of June. In this latest drive, Emirates’ teams will travel from Australia to the UK, and dozens of European cities in between, as well as Cairo, Algiers, Tunis and Bahrain.
Abdulaziz Al Ali, Emirates Group’s Executive Vice President for Human Resources said: “There’s no more exciting airline than Emirates for anyone interested in a flying career, and we’ve received tremendous interest since we began our recruitment drive for cabin crew in November.”
“While parts of the application process are done online, we always make the effort to meet our candidates in person whenever we can, and that is why our Talent Acquisition team is doing a whirlwind 30-city tour over the next 6 weeks to assess prospective candidates.”
Emirates’ truly global cabin crew team represent 160 nationalities, reflecting its customer mix and international operations in over 130 cities on six continents.
All Emirates crew are based in the exciting cosmopolitan city of Dubai, with company-provided accommodation, tax-free salary and more benefits.
Interested candidates can read more about the Emirates cabin crew role, and apply online at: https://www.emiratesgroupcareers.com/cabin-crew/
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