Mecca – It is a plain, two-by-two-metre room in a portacabin dug into the sand and fitted with two beds and a small cabinet – with a price tag of $3,500 for each person a night.
The room is in the barren Mecca neighbourhood of Mina, an area central to the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, the first day of Hajj, hundreds of thousands of people started flooding the largest tent city in the world. Mina is completely deserted all year round, except for the Hajj period, when more than a million people spend a few nights there – a required part of the pilgrimage.
Everyone in Mina becomes a wayfarer. Pilgrims from all over the world leave behind the comforts of civilisation and dissolve class and cultural distinctions.
But their experience during these three to four nights depends on how much money they spend.
The majority of pilgrims stay in the tent city, where more than 100,000 white tents are built side-by-side in the low-lying valley. The majority of these tents can accommodate about 50 people, and the average price for each pilgrim is $500.
This year, the $7,000 VIP room in the encampment, owned by Saudi businessman Saad Qurashi, has been reserved by a Jordanian minister. Despite the hefty price, it does not look even close to a five-star hotel room, with its faded, white-panelled walls and tiny toilet.
This is as luxurious as Hajj can get this year. The Saudi Ministry of Hajj banned the flourishing luxury camps industry after some developers took the VIP experience to a new level, installing jacuzzis in camps and providing laundry service and a 24-hour open buffet – all at a cost of about $10,000 for each pilgrim.
The government tried for a long time to preserve the nature of Mina, but it's becoming more and more impossible.
The ministry says these camps “defied the spirit of the Hajj”, which is supposed to be about endurance and submission to God.
The VIP camps were also taking up space much needed to fit the million and a half pilgrims. Mina covers an area of about 20 square kilometres – or less than two square metres for each pilgrim.
Some encampment owners are still trying to get around the ban by constructing temporary walls within the camps to give their privileged customers the privacy and exclusivity they demand.
“This is very dangerous and defies the regulations of the Saudi civil defence,” one worker at a camp in Mina told Al Jazeera. “In case there is a fire, walls will obstruct the water from sprinklers installed around Mina.”
The 1997 fire that erupted in the camps, setting ablaze cloth tents and killing hundreds, continues to haunt the authorities. They have since replaced the old tents with ones made up of fibreglass coated with Teflon and a heat-sensitive water sprinkler.
Near the tents and between the rocky mountains of the neighbourhood, the government recently erected six identical towers to accommodate the soaring numbers of pilgrims.
“The government tried for a long time to preserve the nature of Mina, but it’s becoming more and more impossible,” Qurashi said.
The 48-year-old business tycoon is renting all the towers, each with a capacity of 1,500 pilgrims, for more than $16m a year, and subletting them during Hajj time. A tower room costs a minimum of $3,000.
In the past, Mina was a real neighbourhood occupied by residents and bustling with markets and cafes. For hundreds of years, pilgrims camped out within the neighbourhood’s vicinity and among the residents of Mina.
But a decade ago, the neighbourhood was completely demolished, making way for a tent city with bridges, pedestrian walkways, elevated train stations and health facilities. The house of Qurashi himself was demolished 15 years ago.
Despite all the fortunes bestowed on him as a result of the area’s development, he still reminisces over the old Mina, when it was a lively neighbourhood with markets and cafes. This history has all but vanished.
When Qurashi’s home was destroyed, he felt “uprooted”, but he still believes it was a sacrifice worth accepting.
“It’s all for the sake of the pilgrims’ comfort.”