Tens of thousands of Muslims’ plans for Hajj 2022 have been thrown into an untimely disarray after a change in the way Hajj operates for those from Western Countries (United Kingdom, Europe, Americas, Canada and Australia) was implemented. Whilst many other pilgrims have already arrived in Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj or due to depart shortly, those from Western Countries are still unsure on whether they will even get to go, whilst waiting on the outcomes of an electronic draw. With only 2 weeks left to the start of the blessed month of Dhul Hijjah, and just 3 weeks to the actual start of Hajj itself, this has caused considerable stress and uncertainty to those wishing to perform Hajj this year from those countries.
How Did Hajj Operate For Pilgrims From Western Countries Previously?
There used to be a variety of Hajj tour operators in each country that had a select number of Hajj visas. It was these visas and allocation that gave them the huge responsibility and trust of facilitating the journey of a lifetime for their fellow countrymen.
Unlike all Muslim-majority nations, Muslim minorities in the West are not restricted to a Hajj quota of 1,000 pilgrims per million of population. Relatively prosperous, literate and increasingly socially mobile, they are generally free to perform the pilgrimage at a time of their choosing. Pilgrims in the West are also often younger than those in the rest of the Muslim world. The number of British Muslims performing Hajj each year rose from 759 in 1968 to around 25,000 by the mid-2000s.
Typically the Hajj operators were either a local Islamic mosque or organization, a Muslim owned and operated travel agent business, or a combination/partnership between a travel agent and Islamic scholar(s). Through these different Hajj operators they were able to provide a wide range of choices and packages taking into account the differing needs and preferences of pilgrims. There were groups that were known to cater for the elderly, other groups targeted students or reverts/first timers, yet others targeted at business leaders or those looking for a convenience/luxury experience. Groups catered to a specific madhab, while others just focused on making it a life changing/spiritual uplifting experience, and some aimed at a combination of all of the above.
Over the years, through word of mouth, advertisements, research, and convenience, Muslims from Western Countries would choose their preferred Hajj package with a Hajj operator. They would prepare months in advance, attend seminars, pack and repack their bags multiple times with an extra item every time an elderly aunty or uncle would tell them they can’t go to Hajj without this item or that item. They would share in the nerves and excitement with others, from the moment they put their name down with a Hajj Operator. They would then hold their breath when they handed their passport in and wait for confirmation of their Hajj visa being issued and the historically unknown complicated process that goes along with getting one. They would attend Hajj prep classes together and meet others in their group, forming life long friendships.
Profit Over Pilgrimage
Over the years as the prices increased for Hajj for those from Western countries, there have been criticisms about Hajj being more about “Profit” than “Pilgrimage”.
The price of Hajj for those from many Western Countries has almost doubled between 2010 – 2019. There are many contributing factors behind this:
- A VAT tax in Saudi Arabia previously didn’t exist and has been introduced in recent times which initially started at 5% and is now at 15% – automatically adding to the cost incurred.
- Exchange rates fluctuations – for example in Australia the exchange rate to Saudi Riyal at one stage during this period reached 1AUD = 4SAR. It currently now is 1AUD = 2.6 SAR. This also represents a 35% increase in the cost incurred over this period simply due to the exchange rate.
- Airline ticket prices have increased by 30% or 10% of the overall cost of a Hajj Package during this period.
- Half way during this period all hotel accommodation contracts started requiring food options of breakfast and dinner and in some instances even lunch! Previously this was optional. Hotels charge premium prices for these mandatory inclusions (up to 300SAR per person every night for dinner alone during peak times). This has added substantially to the costs of packages also during this period.
- Inflation in Saudi Arabia has led to rising costs across the board over the years.
- Last but not least, licensed operators in Saudi Arabia responsible for Hajj services that were provided to pilgrims including transportation and the services in Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat has increased prices. Amongst many other issues it was “the lack of professionalism and compliance among some Saudi-licensed Hajj organizers is exacerbated by inconsistent approaches to regulation and enforcement” as quoted by Sean McLoughlin, University of Leeds, that led to costs increasing for these services without any real balance or checks.
How Is Hajj Operating This Year For Western Countries – The Current Situation
- Pilgrims from Western Countries were informed that they would only be able to apply individually through an online portal called Motawif through an expression of interest process.
- They will then await the outcome of the electronic draw which was now apparently due to be communicated between 15-18 June 2022.
- If a pilgrim is selected from the electronic draw, they will have 48 hours to confirm their place by making full payment for the package selected.
- If payment is not made within 48 hours of being notified of selection, they will forfeit their spot and their place will be given to someone else (randomly it is assumed).
- Once payment is made they will receive their Hajj visa electronically and will need to make arrangements accordingly with regards to the package that has been chosen.
- They will need to have a negative PCR test 72 hours before arrival into Saudi Arabia.
- The website is run by a company with ties to India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, leading to concerns about security breaches and outrage over treatment of Indian Muslims as well as the insult on Prophet Muhammad .
Further information explaining the process is available here.There have been some positive sentiments about this change from both pilgrims and Hajj operators alike whilst others have questioned the timing of the decision or said it’s too early to tell.
“I am sure it will make it easier and hopefully cheaper, because right now agents have been charging an arm and a leg. But one month before Hajj? They should have done this months before. Or they could have saved this website for next year. What if our name isn’t chosen from the lottery?”– Amina Suleiman
“Honestly, it’s really hard to be upset with this news. I was going to bring my parents to Allah’s house. Allah is the one who gets to choose if He wants us invited. If it’s not meant to be, then it’s not meant to be,” Ismail said. “We should always hope for the best. Maybe this lottery system will be great in the long run.” – Huzaifa Ismail1
Imam Rajab Zandolu, from Hisar Tours in Clifton New Jersey, said it was still too early to pass judgement on the new system. “I believe there could be some advantages and disadvantages, but we are still awaiting more details,” he said. Zandolu said the old system benefited the companies that were in the business for many years and it was difficult for new companies to break in and access Hajj quotas. He says perhaps the new system will alter this balance and allow companies to provide other types of services2.
Issues For Pilgrims Now
There have been many issues raised by Pilgrims with regards to the new process as it currently stands including:
- Many had previously registered and paid deposits with Hajj agents
- Many had been waiting since 2020 when they originally registered to go on a first come first serve basis
- What is the experience of the guides assisting people with Hajj? Who will tell them what they need to know before leaving their countries? What to pack? How to perform Hajj? The meaning behind what they do & why they do it? If they fly into Jeddah, should they be in Ihram on the plane?
- Spiritual guides are so important to provide lessons, guidance and motivation on the entire journey not just Hajj days. This is a pillar of faith. Accepted Hajj = Jannah. Pilgrims want to go with spiritual guides they know and trust, who will be with them every step of the way.
- Previously Hajj operators would also take care of the elderly and disabled and have dedicated people to assist those with special needs. Now elderly or disabled pilgrims have been told to have a family member with them to push their wheelchair otherwise they have to pay extra for it. However, there is no guarantee that the family member will be selected with them.
- Preference will be given to people going on Hajj for the first time. Who will guide them given its their 1st time? Who will tell them and prepare them to get into the state of ihram on a plane if flying to Jeddah? Who will them how to make the intention? Who will guide them on how to perform Umrah?
- Saudi Airlines doesn’t fly to certain countries. Flights are included in the current packages and must be with Saudi Airlines. How will that work?
- There has been no transparency or communication from Hajj Ministry. No response to emails, tweets or contact via website. There is no time left to act. People have saved all their lives and waited 3 years since 2019 to go to Hajj!
- How can people plan, put in for leave from work and so on without knowing any information? Then they have to wait to see if they are selected. There is only 20 days to 1 Dhul Hijjah! Many are asking why now?
- How is it fair to pilgrims from these countries that pilgrims from other countries have already started arriving for Hajj and yet they still have no idea about costs, dates, packages, logistics? Less than 3 weeks to 1 Dhul Hijjah!
- An online petition even begun circulating in the USA to get the Ministry of Hajj to change the process that had been implemented that gained almost 7,000 signatures.
Issues With Online Registration Process
- A set date for commencement/completion of registrations was never communicated in advance, rather simply people had to register to be told once registrations were open.
- Once people submitted registrations to be notified of when they could submit their expression of interest, there was a data privacy breach with all participants receiving an unsolicited email from an organization named Keana saying “Welcome to our family”. In some cases the email was advertising Divine Beauty Skincare with inappropriate imaging considering the target market.
- Once registrations opened there was no communications as to when the registration period would end. Rather, pilgrims were initially told to submit their registrations ASAP as every day people would be selected at random until as such the quota had been allocated for each country. This further confused pilgrims and left them to question the process being implemented.
- Then a 12 hours notice was given to pilgrims that the registration period was closing as previously no registration end date had been communicated.
- During the registration process there were many issues encountered by pilgrims including but not limited to:
- not being able to progress or submit an application if they didn’t have a middle name
- not being able to select dates of COVID vaccination prior to early 2021
- having to supply a passport sized photo of less than 20kb
- the website crashing apparently due to demand although it could be said what else was to be expected given this was now the only way for people to go to Hajj this year from western countries.
- Pilgrims were recommended by authorities to submit separate applications for individuals wishing to travel together to “increase their chances of being successful in the draw”. Based on this advice, couples or families face anxiety over one application gets accepted in the lottery and the other(s) don’t.
Issues With Lack Of Information, Wrong Information, And Transparency
- Initially pilgrims were told and guaranteed that packages were all inclusive including but not limited to flights, accommodation, transportation and Hajj related services. Later it was conceded that for “logistical challenges” those from countries such as Canada and Australia were going to be responsible for booking their own flights so the packages were no longer all inclusive for all pilgrims. These logistical challenges are simply because they are only offering flights via Saudi Airlines and they do not happen to fly to countries such as Canada and Australia. As a result pilgrims from Canada, Australia and other countries where flights are not included will have to now book last minute flights if they are selected to perform Hajj. At the time of writing, these flights for example from Australia were close to $6,000 return economy class where when they had been booked through Hajj operators in advance they were normally $3,500 return economy class for a pilgrim. Due to the new process, pilgrims from these countries where flights are not included are having to pay almost double the price for airfares than ordinarily would be the case.
- No dates were provided for the trips and packages originally to allow people to plan accordingly. For those that have to book their own flights, this information was not even known to allow them to potentially investigate and lock in some flights in advance.
- Package information supplied was not exact and misleading although Motawif have continued to claim that there was full transparency. For example, in addition to the flights not being included for certain countries in what was supposed to be all inclusive packages, when pilgrims from Australia originally registered they were only given 1 package to choose from. This package did not include a stay in Madinah. In addition, the hotel supplied in the package in Makkah stated “Le Meridien Towers or similar” was a 3.4 kilometre walk from Masjid Al Haram. When these issues were further pressed by many concerned pilgrims, the response was that this was just a sample package and more complete and accurate information would then be provided if they were selected from the draw.
- After a couple of days and after the majority of people had already submitted their expression of interest, additional packages begun being available for viewing and confused and concerned pilgrims even further as they were unsure whether they had to register again in order to be able to select the new packages.
- Originally pilgrims were to be notified of the outcomes of the draw on 13 June, 2022 and this then subsequently changed to the period 15-18 June. At the time of writing this piece more than half a day into the 15th of June, no one had yet been notified whether they were successful in the draw or not.
- An apparent new rule was introduced that people who have not performed Hajj in the last 5 years would only be eligible to be entered into the draw. This meant that if a person was going to accompany their wife, other mehram, parents or someone with a disability or elderly and had completed Hajj in the past 5 years, they would not be able to accompany them.
- Motawif claimed that their prices were 35% cheaper than market rates, which is grossly incorrect. For example, the Gold 14 night/15 day package that was offered for Australians included a standard camp in Mina, no flights, no stay in Madinah and a hotel that was 3.4km away from Masjid Al Haram, priced at $6,100AUD. A similar package with accommodation that far from Masjid Al Haram, including a stay in Madinah, including flights and a 18 night package in 2019/2020 was $8,400 AUD. When they released additional packages after a few days, the so-called Platinum package for Australia (14 nights) was close to $11,000 AUD. This included a short stay in Madinah and had a better camp in Mina but no flights included and a hotel that was 3.4km away from Masjid Al Haram. If someone was to select this package and ask for a better hotel with a better hotel location in Makkah it is assumed this would take cost somewhere to $14-15,000 per person as a minimum. Adding last minute flight bookings would take the cost to $20,000+ AUD per person for Australia for a 2 week Hajj package where 4-5 nights of the 14 night package would be in Mina/Muzdalifah. This is by no means any cheaper than what Hajj operators have offered previously and had planned to offer earlier this year before they were ousted from the process.
- Many people begun creating their own fact sheets or video instructions on how to complete the registration process to help other pilgrims as these were not originally supplied. Motawif eventually created their own but in most instances it was too late.
Issues With The Hajj Draw
Similar to other issues identified above, the Lottery Draw itself has contained some challenges for all involved:
- It was stated the draw had taken place on 13-14 June and that successful applicants would be notified between 15-18 June. However, all applications were not reviewed even at the time of writing on 17th June as people’s application were still in a “pending” category, which meant they had yet to be reviewed.
- Many applications were moved to an “amendment” category where people had to rectify or correct information, however due to technical issues were unable to do so.
- Mixed communication and messaging that led to further confusion with official statements stating that an “approved” profile status meant that they were successful in being selected to go into the draw and other statements saying that “approved” meant that they were selected to go to Hajj and proceed and make payment.
- Other mixed messaging has seen official statements say that the draw won’t take place until all those in the amendment stage have had the opportunity to resubmit but at the same time others have been selected and approved and asked to make payment.
- Others have claimed that prices are much more expensive than originally quoted once being approved.
According to the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah these changes are all aimed at using technology to improve experience for Pilgrims:
“These services come within the framework of the Ministry’s strategy to develop the digital experience for pilgrims,” the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said.”These efforts aim to facilitate the procedures and provide competitive prices for pilgrims from these countries,” it added.
Impact On Hajj Operators
The last minute decision by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah this year to change the process without any consultation, review of performance of existing Hajj operators has lead to many Hajj operators potentially going out of business. Previously there were around 117 UK Hajj organisers licensed by Saudi Arabia with each being responsible for their own annual quota of 150-450 Hajj pilgrims3. Indeed in the UK Sky News reported that the $175 million industry is at risk of collapse and it is a similar situation in other countries like USA, Canada and Australia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQf_TqKbeG0
Yusuf, a Hajj travel agency director in London, said Saudi Arabia’s announcement changed the industry overnight.“We have been doing Umrah and Hajj for many years, and getting anything out of the ministry is very difficult, so how pilgrims are going to get what they need is mind-boggling,” Yusuf told Middle East Eye4.
“Many agents rely on Hajj for their main profit. Now they will most likely rely on Umrah to survive, but that would be even more difficult given how saturated the Umrah market is with different agencies and pilgrims now able to book everything themselves.”
“This is our business. They cut off our business suddenly without any notice. This is not good.”– Amana Travel5
In the UK the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hajj & Umrah tried to lobby the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah after Ramadan to provide guidance on what was happening this year. They have also recently raised the issue in the UK parliament:In addition to the last minute decision to remove the Hajj operators from this year’s Hajj, the rule applied that people that have been to Hajj in the last 5 years will not be eligible to enter the draw will most certainly mean that they won’t even be able to attend this years Hajj to help others in any capacity.
Perhaps the biggest loss of not having the existing Hajj organizations involved is the role they play in being mentors, cultivating the pilgrims’ potential as they transition into becoming better Muslims through the hajj spiritual enlightenment.
Possible Solutions For Now
Given all the issues and challenges that have been faced to date and that time is of the essence with less than a week now until the first flights included in the packages are due to depart, something must be done to ensure a smooth journey for those who are selected to go on Hajj from Western countries.
If it at all possible there is a way to engage Hajj operators despite the logistical challenges that may present themselves, it must be explored. Even if it means Hajj operators only went to support and provide guidance to those that are selected, this would be beneficial to all parties involved.
Hajj operators can not only assist and support their fellow countrymen if they were allowed to go, but can also provide feedback on the new system, the services provided and it could begin dialogue with the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah on what the future could look like.
I call on all Hajj operators to show that it is really “Pilgrimage” over “Profit” and do everything in their means to support Hujjaj this year. Run seminars, provide advice, help with flight bookings, answer people’s questions to the best of your knowledge and encourage people to go!Click To Tweet
A Proposed Solution Moving Forward
According to Vision 2030 there are grand plans to increase the number of pilgrims for both Hajj and Umrah to 5 million and 30 million respectively by 20306. Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr Tawfiq Al-Rabiah has previously stressed the importance of cooperation between public-private sectors7.
Given the above and learnings that need to be taken from what has occurred perhaps a way forward next year for Western Countries is the following:
- Hajj operators return having to meet minimum criteria to be an approved Hajj Agent by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah or alternatively a Hajj Mission is created in each Western Country with local government backing and support
- All Hajj packages have to be uploaded into the portal and a booking made with that Hajj agent through portal. This would allow pilgrims from each country to have full transparency over all the packages that would be available to them and compare.
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah to focus on providing the mandatory services to Hajj operators instead of licensed Saudi Agents. By focusing on the actual Hajj days, the most important days of the packages, they will be at the forefront of serving pilgrims and also be able to interact with Hajj operators and help ensure regulation if required.
- A review and ranking system is created that allows pilgrims to provide feedback on Hajj operators together with the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah doing their own reviews on providers to ensure they maintain a high quality of service in line with the Pilgrim Experience Program (PEP)8
- The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah to implement direct to consumer offerings available to people from Western Countries for Umrah packages. Through this they will begin to gain valuable experience and train staff on providing all inclusive offerings and services to pilgrims. As the capacity for Hajj increases, rather than giving Hajj operators more visas initially, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah to provide Hajj packages direct to people from all countries over the world and not just Western countries. They should target making Hajj more affordable to the common person as part of their vision to increase the numbers of Hajj. This competition will also ensure that Hajj operators are ensuring their prices are competitive.
- As Hajj capacity grows, Hajj operators have the ability to ask for increased number of visas based on performance factors that need to be met.
Despite all obvious issues, challenges and concerns that are currently faced by pilgrims from Western Countries, our faith teaches us that Allahis the Best of Planners. Perhaps Western countries due to their passports have had Hajj too good for too long? Perhaps this whole new lottery process, draw and 5 year rule allows us to truly not take Hajj for granted and experience what the situation has been like for those from Muslim Majority countries over the past decade and more?
Prominent respected scholar and Hajj Spiritual Guide Abu Eesa from the UK (despite being a Manchester United supporter) provided a similar view point:
“Aside from the utter omnishambles that the Hajj has turned into this year, more than that it’s just how gutted I am for those folks here in the West who have been waiting so patiently and who will now possibly never get to enjoy the unique Hajj experiences others have historically been so blessed to have within the group structures we created each time.
Hey, let’s not lose our minds here: Hajj is still Hajj bro, and most folks will still get their chance to do it and it’s going to blow your mind even if you backpack it all the way, or you’re on your jack jones, or your whole family are as illiterate as melons. Even if you have to buy it from an online portal. Muslims from all over the globe, of all levels, for hundreds of years, have tasted the highest of highs during the Hajj rituals and there wasn’t an agent or scholar-led group in sight.
But will they have maximised their opportunity? Had the kind of transformational experience that we create using a set of tools and principles that you have just to be there to understand? Can a scholar/guide locally reproduce the social dynamic over there and then the post-Hajj life mentoring that we specialise in over here? I can honestly tell you as someone who has been part of many Hajj groups that they’ve been the greatest times of my life. Period. And I daresay that many of those folks who’ve been with me over the last 20 odd years would agree.
I’m not going to lie though, despite having got through 3kg of chocolate, I’m not as completely distraught as I might have been. For us Muslims in the West, I don’t think I’ll ever regret when we get taught a bit of humility after our often unbridled arrogance due to our passports and our sense of entitlement just because of how loud we can shout in English. Personally, I find it very difficult to reconcile with how easy life is because of these circumstances we were born into, as we waltz past the problems others have whilst travelling abroad, or indeed to make it relevant to Hajj: never ever having to worry about guaranteeing my opportunity to go, always knowing that I’ll definitely get a place, that I’m only ever just 9hrs away from leaving my doorstep and then walking up to the Ka’bah, always knowing that whatever happens I can just pay my way through any obstacles etc.
In this new system however, there’s no way to blag it. My passport and place of birth doesn’t matter anymore. The officials I know within the system doesn’t matter anymore. The hundreds of people ready to pay for my ticket in a heartbeat so I can join them, even that doesn’t matter anymore. The control that I absolutely need when travelling with people anywhere, all gone. Welcome to the rest of the world where hundreds of millions have to go through a lottery system in the Muslim countries every year to try to realise their Hajj dream, where even paying through the nose doesn’t guarantee anything.
Suddenly my Western privilege won’t help me one little jot. I’ve just been slapped down and you know what?
It’s about time I got taught that lesson that if Allah doesn’t invite you, then there’s nothing on this planet that you can do about it. And if the folks in the West waiting for Hajj get to realise this as well, then perhaps we don’t need to let this disaster be as bad as it seems to be.
I’m not being flippant about how stressful this is for so many of you. Some of you might not even get your money back if you booked with a non-regulated agency. Others might have to wait and suffer financial difficulties whilst their agents go bankrupt. Others have never even been to Makkah whilst I’ve been hundreds of times. However absolutely every single one of us have had our plans and dreams dashed, our mental state battered and our emotions put through a washing machine.
But if at the same time we come out of this with a greater realisation of the power of Allah, and a more sincere trust in Him and a greater appreciation for all His blessings He has bestowed upon us in our lives that we never took for granted, and then we thank Him sincerely for all of that, perhaps we will benefit from this what the Hajj itself would have meant to have benefitted us thereby. And if you’re still finding this too much to handle then please remember, Hajj is not meant to be something you sacrifice your entire life for. It is for those who are *able* to do it. And if you are not currently able, you don’t need to mentally and financially kill yourself over it.
May Allah ease your stress, recover your losses, reward the patient as if they have been doing Hajj all this time, and allow us all one day to together taste the beauty of what a complete Hajj experience really should be for us here in the West. Ameen.”
Whilst the sentiments above provoke thought and reflection, there is definitely a need for all of the issues raised in this article to be addressed and reviewed at a point in time. Right now given the time or lack thereof we just need to focus on being able to support those to make the journey to Hajj this year in whatever way we can.
I have personally reached out to Motawif and offered assistance to try and help them in managing the experience for Hujjaj this year without receiving a reply. This is because I am concerned to ensure that Hujjaj truly have a once in a lifetime experience and get all the necessary support, tools and guidance they can in completing this pillar of faith. I have shared with them resources I have put together and won’t be surprised if they put together a smart phone app to help pilgrims based on the one that I have created.
For those that get to perform Hajj this year, they will have been chosen by none other than Allahand what a beautiful blessing it will be! No doubt they will be Allah’s guests and Allah will make things easy for them. May they have a Hajj Mabrur and not forget us in their dua’s on Arafah!
The Dark Business of the Journey of Light – Hajj Fraud
Source: Muslim Matters