Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has inaugurated a high-speed rail link between the two holiest cities in Islam, part of efforts to boost tourism as the country seeks to shed dependence on oil exports.
The 280-mile (450-km) Haramain railway connecting Mecca and Medina with the Red Sea city of Jeddah cost £6bn ($7.87bn) and is one of the largest transport projects in the Middle East, targeting nearly 60 million passengers annually. Commercial operations are due to begin next week.
“The journey between the Haramain (two holy mosques) is now shorter and easier than at any time before,” the Saudi transport minister, Nabil al-Amoudi, told dignitaries gathered at the Jeddah station. “The project highlights the kingdom’s commitment to serving Islam and Muslims.”
Pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under economic reforms announced two years ago by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify the economy. The hajj, a journey every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must perform once in a lifetime, can be a profound experience.
It is also big business for Saudi Arabia. The hajj and the year-round lesser pilgrimage, umrah, generate billions of dollars in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, gifts, food and fees.
The new rail link was built by a Spanish-led consortium and financed by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund. It halves travel time between Mecca, the spiritual heart of Islam, and Medina, its second most sacred site. Read more