TBY talks to Osama Al-Bar, Mayor of Makkah, on major new infrastructure projects, religious tourism, and smart city initiatives.

Osama Al-Bar
Osama Al-Bar has been Mayor of Makkah since 1997. He has a PhD in environmental physics from Nottingham and a master’s degree in meteorology, as well as a bachelor of science degree from the College of Science, King Abdulaziz University, in Jeddah. He was earlier Dean of the Institute of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for Hajj Research and Director General Designate of Hajj Research Center, UMAU. Al-Bar is Vice President of the Hajj Media Council and sits on the Higher Board of Makkah Development, the Hajj Central Committee, and the Execution Committee of the Higher Board of Makkah Development.

What were some of the highlights in Makkah this year, both in terms of visitors for Hajj and Umrah, and also from an organizational perspective?

As part of Vision 2030, it was announced that the Hajj and Umrah would become a source of economic generation in the country. One of the pillars of the Vision is to increase the number of visitors coming to Makkah to 20 million by 2020, and 30 million by 2030. The infrastructure in Makkah is prepared for such an increase, especially after finishing the expansion project of Masjid Al-Haram, the Great Mosque. The roads, particularly the ring roads, have also been improved, and the Makkah-Madinah high-speed railway is expected to be finished by the end of this year. This will be commissioning tests in the first half of 2017, and will hopefully begin to transport people by the end of 2017. All these improvements are set to transform Makkah and we hope that these developments will go through. In addition to more than 20 four and five-star hotels, there are mega housing projects, including the Jabal Omar complex, which has just been completed.

What is your outlook regarding the completion of major infrastructure projects in Makkah?

Although there is a small chance of delay due to the financial crisis, there should not be any risks concerning the completion of these projects themselves. They will go well, especially the ones that need to be in service for the pilgrimage and visitors to Makkah and Madinah. We expect a substantial increase in the numbers this year. Last year, we had about 12 million visitors, mostly during Umrah. The Hajj attracted about 2.3 million people in 2016, 1.3 million of whom were visitors from outside of Saudi Arabia. One of the megaprojects that we hope will be started in 2017 is the development of the Mashair, the areas for performance of the Hajj, especially Mina and Arafat, which will increase the capacity of the Hajj. The capacity in the Mashair is currently limited to fewer than 2 million people, but once we start this project, it will accommodate about 4 million pilgrims a year.

A big part of Vision 2030 is religious tourism. What would you also like to see from the governmental side in terms of easing the procedure for international visitors to Makkah?

There is a regulation that has already eased the process for businessmen who travel to Saudi Arabia. It will be a multiple-entry visa lasting from one to three years. Vision 2030 will facilitate visa issuance to visitors. One of the pillars of the Vision is to increase non-oil income.

You feel strongly about turning Makkah into a smart city, to work with innovation and renewable sources of energy. What is your reasoning for this?

If we go through with the plans for making Makkah a smart city, it will first serve the visitors coming from the Islamic world, so they will know everything about the city, its hotels, and services. It will also act as a model for other cities in the Islamic world. We have made considerable progress regarding connectivity. As far as the internet and applications are concerned, there is a new company now established by Umm al-Qura University called Wadi Makkah. This young company with innovative ideas is working on applications especially designed for Masjid Al-Haram and Mina. For instance, there is an indoor navigation system of the Grand Mosque called Al-Maqsad. At the moment, we are working on an application for parking lots in Makkah, and another one for city cleaning and smart systems to collect garbage and optimize the journey for collecting it. There is a trend in Saudi Arabia in terms of solar or renewable energy, since the central government has established a city called King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy. There are plans for having different sources of energy other than the traditional use of petroleum.