10/26/2010, 00.00
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Saudi beggars rush to Makkah for Hajj

The great annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest places is set to take place in mid-November, but gangs of professional beggars are already taking over the best locations near the city’s Grand Mosque. The authorities are embarrassed and the Grand Mufti has spoken out against the practice.

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Hajj, the great pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites, is expected to fall between 14 and 18 November this year. “Professional” beggars are setting off from all over Saudi Arabia to come to Makkah for the occasion to get the best spots outside and near the Grand Mosque.

Aisha, a Somali beggar, told an Arab paper that it was not merely a case of individual beggars coming to the holy city and asking randomly for money. Begging, she said, has developed into a business with the aim of raking in as much cash as possible.

Local beggars have a head start. They have already taken over the “most valuable and sought after places to beg,” including “the mosque courtyard, as well as roads leading to it and outside nearby hotels and markets,” she said.

She explained that begging gangs have developed, taking over entire areas such as parking lots and other open areas to pull in more cash.

“After a typical night’s ‘work,’ some gangs split up the money among its members and go their separate ways, while others stay together throughout the entire month and travel back to Jeddah much happier than when they first came,” she said. Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s beggar capital because of its commercial and tourist sectors.

Ramadan and Hajj are peak seasons for the professionals. But the authorities are not amused. Beggar gangs have grown in size and number in recent years, and have become an outright embarrassment to the kingdom.

In an effort to curb the trend, the Grand Mufti has spoken out against begging, advising pilgrims and others not to give money to beggars on the street.

In addition, the local traffic police’s anti-beggary division has been arresting beggars and increased security patrols to help tackle the problem.

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