Riyadh — Ever since the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina were captured from the Sherif of Mecca in the 1920s, the annual Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, has become an integral part of both the domestic and foreign policies of the House of Saud.
Every year Saudi Arabia hosts between 1 and 2 million pilgrims as they fulfill their obligations to God as set forth by the prophet Muhammad. (This year's Haj ends this week.)
These ''guests of God'' who flock to Saudi Arabia from all over the world are the beneficiaries of the enormous expense and effort Saudi Arabia expends on the Haj from the mammoth Haj air terminal at Jiddah to the ice carted to the holy sites.
Symbolically, the Haj is enormously important to the House of Saud because it has assumed the role of guardian of Mecca. For a country with vast oil reserves, inadequately defended borders, and such a small population, the prestige attached to being head of the ''Islamic nation'' can pay important dividends.
The Sauds have wrapped the mantle of Islam tightly around themselves and have embraced the Haj as the ultimate symbol of the power and the universality of Islam.
The month of the Haj - Dhu al Hijjah - begins each year with the king or a high-ranking member of the royal family ceremonially washing the Ka'bah, the simple stone structure at Mecca to which all Muslims turn to pray.
Every king with the exception of Saud has been identified with some aspect of the Haj. Just as King Faisal expanded the Grand Mosque at Mecca and King Khalid presided over its completion, the present king, Fahd, has announced plans for a major renovation and enlargement of the Prophet's Mosque at Medina, where Muhammad is buried.
The minister of pilgrimage and endowments, Abdel Wahhab Ahmad Abdel Wasi, holds the same Cabinet rank as the minister of petroleum or the foreign minister. Every year the ministry oversees the spending of more than $50 million for the Haj.
This year Saudi Arabia is completing expenditures of $1.72 billion on facilities for the Haj. These include the construction of 19 tunnels for cars and pedestrians, the leveling of 6 million square meters of hill peaks to accommodate the tents of the pilgrims, the provision of an electricity meter for every tent, and two new large water tanks to alleviate last year's water shortages.
Public transportation to take pilgrims from collection points in and around Mecca to the other sites prescribed in the ritual of the Haj has been expanded.
Some 200 additional pay phones have been installed in Mecca. A booth with five international lines has been put in the tent camp at Pilgrim's City and direct telegraph circuits using space satellites and microwave links has been installed to enable pilgrims to communicate with their families who did not make the Haj.
Expenses for the Haj are also borne by the private sector. A group of Saudi businessmen, as part of Islam's teachings regarding zakat (alms), has donated almost $210,000 to help cover the cost of transporting ice to the Haj area. Other donations will help defray the expenses of drinking water in the pilgrimage sites and the bottling of 3,500 cans of the important Zamzam water.
Zamzam is the well designated by tradition as having saved Hagar and her son Ishmael - the Muslims' link to Abraham - when they were exiled into the desert at the insistence of Abraham's wife, Sarah.
On the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, following prayers at Arafat, the Feast of Sacrifice takes place. As part of the Haj ritual, every pilgrim who can afford it sacrifices an animal.
With hundreds of thousands of animals slain each year, it has been impossible to consume the meat. Half-eaten carcasses are buried in the desert and abandoned following the feast.
This year in a joint project with the Islamic Development Bank, the Haj Research Council and the Al-Mukairish Establishment, pilgrims can buy a coupon for $86 which entitles them to choose their sacrifice from over 300,000 head of sheep imported for the id celebration. Any meat not eaten will be frozen at a plant on the site and packaged for shipment to the poor of Muslim countries.