For many unemployed Saudis, the holy month of Ramadan comes as a blessing thanks to Umrah pilgrimage traffic hitting its peak. They rake in cash ferrying pilgrims, albeit unauthorized, between Jeddah and Mecca using their private vehicles. In fact, many of them will be SR10,000 richer by the end of the month.
Most Umrah pilgrims gather at the Kilo 8 station in Jeddah where Saudi drivers are stationed. Each car can take between four to eight people per trip and pilgrims have no choice but to cough up SR50 ($13) for a one-way trip. Yet most of these drivers do not possess licenses to operate such trips.
Pilgrims complain that these cab drivers do not have sturdy cars that can transport them safely to Mecca or Jeddah. Moreover, they don’t go through maintenance checks before leaving on the trip, which can lead to breakdowns on the way.
Many families on Umrah are also apprehensive about dealing with Saudi drivers since they are independent drivers not affiliated with any transportation company.
“I have been transporting Umrah pilgrims between Mecca and Jeddah for the past three years, but my earnings are highest during Ramadan when the number of pilgrims increases dramatically. That is when most Saudi drivers increase their rates by 50 percent,” Ali Dawood, a Saudi driver, told Arab News.
The situation takes a turn for the worse for pilgrims when drivers demand double the regular price.
“I have been walking around the Holy Mosque for three hours after performing Umrah looking for a cab to take me to Jeddah, but they all demand at least SR100 ($26) for their service,” Khaled Saleh, an Eritrean Umrah visitor who lives in Jeddah, told Arab News.
The transportation sector is the most crucial during the Umrah and Hajj seasons. Transport companies have requested the Ministry of Labor to issue them seasonal visas for bus drivers during the Umrah season, stating that there is a severe shortage of drivers during this period.