MECCA (Saudi Arabia) • More than two million Muslims from around the globe yesterday started the haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's largest annual gatherings in a country undergoing unprecedented change.
The ultra-conservative kingdom - where religion remains a guiding force amid dramatic social and economic reforms - has mobilised vast resources for the six-day journey, one of the five pillars of Islam.
"It's the dream of every Muslim to come here to Mecca," Frenchman Soliman Ben Mohri, 53, said.
Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed for the pilgrimage, which was struck by its worst disaster three years ago when about 2,300 worshippers were crushed to death in a stampede.
This year, the Saudis have launched a "smart haj" initiative, with apps to help pilgrims with everything from travel plans to medical care.
Wearing the simple white garb of the pilgrim, most of the faithful began moving yesterday from Mecca to the nearby Mina Valley. They will spend the night there in fire-resistant tents in the desert, where temperatures top 40 deg C.
For the Muslim faithful, the haj retraces the last steps of Prophet Muhammad and also honours the prophets Abraham and Ishmael.
It ends with the Eid al-Adha feast, which is marked by the slaughter of sheep, a tribute to Abraham's sacrifice of a lamb after God spared Ishmael, his son.
The haj also comes more than a year into the worst political crisis to grip the Gulf, pitting Saudi Arabia against Qatar. Saudi Arabia - the world's largest exporter of oil - and its allies accuse Qatar of cosying up to both Sunni Islamist extremists and Shi'ite Iran, Riyadh's main rival.
They have cut all ties with Qatar - which denies the charges - and banned all flights to and from Doha.
Qatar said yesterday that its citizens were unable to take part in the haj because of the diplomatic dispute. Saudi authorities have said Qatari pilgrims are still allowed into the kingdom for the haj.