Saudis Breathe Sigh of Relief at Hassle-Free 1995 Pilgrimage

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Saudis Breathe Sigh of Relief At Hassle-Free 1995 Pilgrimage

By Richard H. Curtiss

Five years ago, as the buildup in Saudi Arabia of half a million troops from 37 nations to expel Saddam Hussain's forces from Kuwait was underway, military logisticians marveled at the desert kingdom's ability to produce whatever the incoming troops needed. American soldiers each received a hamburger as they disembarked from their giant C-130 Starlifter military transports at airports in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

Soldiers from Asia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East also received appropriate food and beverages. When troops arrived at their duty stations, so did hundreds of thousands of bottles of drinking water in the transparent bluish plastic containers that became the common denominator in photos of Gulf war soldiers, from privates to generals, in the field.

When troops arrived by air ahead of their heavy equipment and vehicles coming by sea, fleets of rented cars, from limousines to container trucks, were made available to them by the Saudi government. And when a vast military supply operation was set up to transport men, munitions and equipment by truck from the Saudi Red Sea port of Yanbu across 1,000 miles of desert to their positions along the borders of Kuwait on the Persian Gulf, the Saudi service stations along the way always had adequate petroleum to keep the convoys moving on schedule.

Strangely, although all of these supplies were ordered and coordinated by the Saudi commanding general, Prince Khaled Bin Sultan Al Saud, to support troops under his own command and those under the parallel command of U.S. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, most of the goods were supplied by the extensive Saudi private sector. The ability of Saudi entrepreneurs to meet such vast and sudden logistical needs astonished and delighted the commanders of U.S. and European forces, but came as no surprise to the troops of the Muslim countries represented in the Desert Shield-Desert Storm buildup.

In fact, the requirements of an influx of 500,000 foreigners pale before those Saudi Arabia faces annually from some two million Muslims who arrive for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca within a strictly circumscribed five-day period. Many of these pilgrims also go on to visit Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad lived during much of his ministry, and where he is buried.

Veterans of Desert Storm may be surprised to know that this annual pilgrimage began normally in 1994, only weeks after most of them had left Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, and proceeded as usual, serviced by the same hundreds of Saudi contractors, entrepreneurs and manufacturers who had played such a vital role in the military operations of January and February.

In fact, the numbers of pilgrims coming to Saudi Arabia for the hajj (pilgrimage) over the Eid Al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) have increased geometrically with the improvements in international transportation that began with the end of World War II. One of the five pillars of Islam calls for Muslims who can afford it to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetimes. Many more can afford it now. Whereas at one time most pilgrims arrived by ship or overland by caravan, necessitating an absence of months from homes as distant as West Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines, now pilgrims arrive in hundreds of charter flights using Saudi airport facilities specially constructed to handle the influx. The pilgrims may be back in homes as distant as North and South America within a week or two of leaving.

Saudi Arabia has devoted a very large share of its petroleum revenues to preparing facilities to handle this annual influx from around the globe, on which more than one billion Muslims--a fifth of humanity--reside. This involved constructing the largest airport in the world at Jeddah and expanding that city's port, modernizing and increasing the size of airports elsewhere in the country, and also providing a network of superhighways connecting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina with the expanded ports and airports. …