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Haj draws millions to Mecca

Saudi officials say almost two million pilgrims have arrived from abroad for the annual haj.

The pilgrimage, which starts officially on Wednesday, is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey.

Is safety an issue?

Yes. The world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims has, in the past, seen numerous deadly stampedes, fires and riots. The authorities have been preparing for months to handle any violence, disease or a crush like the one that killed hundreds in 2015.

The National Operations Centre in Mecca launched two years ago. It is the first in the kingdom to unify government response services. There are plans for similar sites in Riyadh, Medina and the Eastern Province.

It fields 65,000 calls a day during the haj – fifty percent more than usual.

30,000 health workers are on hand and 5,000 hospital beds are available.

What happened in 2015?

Hundreds of worshippers died in a stampede.

Riyadh says almost 800 died, although this figure has been disputed by other countries who say the final death toll was nearer 2,000.

A role for women

Seven women have been taken on to field distress calls from across Mecca ahead of the annual pilgrimage.

It is a first for Saudi Arabia, which is trying to expand participation in the workforce.

The group are the first female section of an emergency call centre in the conservative kingdom, and analysts are describing it as a big shift.

The women all speak English and received training before starting their jobs in recent weeks. Dozens of men sit in a separate room doing the same work.

This is the first year the women’s section will operate during the haj, which is expected to attract around two million Muslims from around the world for a week of sacred rituals starting on Wednesday.

What is life like for women in Saudi Arabia?

The country adheres to strict interpretations of Islamic law and tribal custom. Women are required to have male guardians and obey a modest dress code. They are barred from driving.

However, the Saudi government has begun introducing gradual reforms to open new job opportunities for women as part of a vision to wean the country off oil and transform its society.

What they are saying

“Saudi women are present in multiple fields, so they can also be present in the security sector,” – 31-year-old student Baara al-Shuwaibi told reporters.

“We consider the women’s section a step forward to demonstrate that women can work in any place and in any field,” – Major General Abdel Rahman al-Saleh runs the operations centre.

“Women are now present in the security sector and, God willing, they will continue to advance,” – Hassa al-Badi, women’s section manager, says female callers sometimes ask to speak to another woman due to the sensitivity of their request.

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