Hajj Diary (2): Inflation and the End of Charity as We Know It – By: Fatima DAMAGUM

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NOTNo matter how much Nigerians like 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 stubbornly entrenched inflation in countries around the world. Additionally, China’s policy of locking down areas where there are COVID-19 outbreaks has exacerbated the problem.

As with other economies around the world, the performance of the Saudi economy in 2020 has been affected by COVID-19. The immediate socio-economic impacts can be seen in the decline in gross national product, balance of payments, rising unemployment, falling incomes, reduction in savings, sharp increase in the cost of living, rising crime and falling standards of living in large parts of the country. The annual inflation rate in Saudi Arabia rose to 2.3% in April 2022 from 2.0% the previous month, beating market expectations of a 2.2% rise.

For those who remember Saudi Arabia in the 80s and 90s, “abundance” was the word that best described the country. The country was blessed with almost everything in abundance – food, gold, employment and income. For many Muslims, traveling to Saudi Arabia was their first contact with such abundance and so they returned with exaggerated stories of gold lining the streets of Mecca. Many pilgrims also engaged in trade: bringing things to sell to Saudi Arabia and returning to Nigeria with more things to sell. It was therefore not uncommon to hear of Nigerians who annually traveled for Umrah or Hajj thanks to profits made the previous year.

Alas! Those days are over. The numerous gold shops that lined the many streets of Masjid Haram have been replaced by provision shops and the few that are still present are sparsely populated. Remember how the gold shops were so full you had to fight to get in? Well, not only are they empty, but they also have a man posted outside shouting “Hajji, Hajji” to pilgrims as if they were selling cheap trinkets. These are shops that only opened once a year, during the Hajj season, because of the huge profits they enjoyed. Now they are reduced to begging for customers.

As for the “2 Riyals” or “Riyalyn” shops which sell toys, souvenirs, etc., they have now become “three riyals” shops. Fortunately, the affluence is still present in these shops.

Another disheartening sight that further accentuates Saudi Arabia’s worsening economic situation are the signs in front of prominent hotels. Giant hotels like Jabal Omar, Darul Tawheed and ZamZam now have “vacant rooms available” posted at the entrance. They are multi-million dollar businesses that have provided an indispensable service to pilgrims from all over the world; yet they too suffer. Once upon a time, you had to book months in advance to be able to book rooms that cost between $5,000 and $10,000/day. Kings, presidents, prime ministers and of course corrupt politicians have competed to book rooms in these luxury hotels. Alas! This is no longer the case.

In Islam, the first ten days of the month of Dhul Hijja are the best days of the whole year and therefore Muslims usually try to increase their good deeds during these days by fasting and doing charity. I dare say that Saudi citizens are among the most charitable Muslims in the world. Even on ordinary days, the government and ordinary citizens donate food, fruits, zamzam water and drink to pilgrims as charity. It is not impossible to come for Hajj or Umrah and not spend a penny on food because everywhere you turn people are offering food to pilgrims. In these blessed days, it is not uncommon to see food trucks parked in the streets distributing Shinkafa Kaza to random people.

During Ramadan, there are so many choices of free food that pilgrims even had to choose. “Oh look! Coming! Laban and croissants are given there! What about over there? It’s rice and chicken. More chicken? I’m sick of their tasteless chicken. Every time ‘shinkafa kaza’. Why can’t these people throw fish or lamb at us for a change? Oh look! Chocolates!”

I remember a funny incident during Hajj 2018; My friend and I were returning from Masjid Al-Haram, hungry and tired, when we saw a parked car and people gathered around. After investigation, we realized that it was Sabil and the food packet handed out was delicious with rice and chicken, juice boxes and dates. We debated whether to join the queue to receive the charity. What if someone saw us? How could I, a doctor in my own right, be seen in line to collect charity food? However, Nigerians’ hunger and love for scaredwon and soon we were jostling with Indians and Yemenis on the Sabil waiting line. Luckily we weren’t seen by any Nigerians! Hunger is indeed a great equalizer.

This year, food trucks have drastically decreased. The Sabil that we take for granted are rare. Free shinkafa-kaza has become even more bland and not readily available. Instead, on our way from Jeddah airport, the government was handing out water. Nothing else. No fruit and no food packs at each stop. I was shocked and appalled.

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused significant business, economic and psychosocial disruption around the world. Living conditions have changed around the world due to COVID-19. In the short term, it has negatively affected the global economy, which has led to many misfortunes and can have serious long-term consequences. Additionally, the outbreak has had a massive economic and social impact on Muslim pilgrimages – because these gatherings could lead to widespread exposures and possible spread of COVID-19 to every corner of the world, this has forced the Kingdom to Saudi Arabia to cancel Umrah in March 2020. And since the pilgrimage is a major source of income for the country, the socio-economic impact of the pandemic has been twofold.

No one with a heart can afford not to be discouraged by the economic decline of a country that holds a special place in Islam. Our only consolation is that Saudi Arabia is not alone in this. Global inflation, unfortunately, is expected to rise. Therefore, charity as we know it, in the land of plenty, has effectively come to an end. One day we will tell our children about this beautiful country. Until then, we will manage the ZamZam food courts.

Allah Sarki Shinkafa Kaza!

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