Saudi Arabia's custodianship of Mecca and Medina — Islam's two holiest sites — is seen as the kingdom's most powerful source of political legitimacy.
But a series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the Sunni kingdom's management of the hajj.
The holy sites are also a key revenue earner for Saudi Arabia.
The pilgrimages typically cost thousands of dollars for worshippers, who often save for years as well as endure long waiting lists for a chance to attend.
De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform plan seeks to decouple the economy of the kingdom — the world's top crude exporter — from oil dependency towards other sources of revenue, including religious tourism.
The government hopes to welcome 30 million pilgrims to the kingdom annually by 2030. (
Writer: BUR-AC/ADP, Agence France-Presse)
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