Hajj pilgrimage: Heartache and confusion for British Muslims left in limbo by new Saudi rules

Problems with new ‘lottery’ system brought in after Covid have left prospective travellers disappointed and thousands of pounds out of pocket, Maryam Zakir-Hussain reports

<p>New restrictions mean only a million triple-vaccinated pilgrims will be allowed to visit Mecca this year </p>

New restrictions mean only a million triple-vaccinated pilgrims will be allowed to visit Mecca this year

Devastated British Muslims face missing out on the Hajj pilgrimage after waiting two years for Saudi Arabia to loosen restrictions on travel following the pandemic.

One woman described the process as “torture” after her dreams of completing one of the five pillars of Islam were snatched away from her due to new entry requirements brought in over Covid.

The annual pilgrimage to Mecca is considered an obligation which every Muslim must make in their lifetime but increasingly expensive packages mean that most people save for years in order to make the trip.

However, many had their hopes of visiting this year dashed after Saudi Arabia introduced new rules which require prospective travellers to book through a government website – a process described by some as a lottery – just weeks before they are intending to fly out.

A million Muslims will be allowed to complete the Hajj, which takes place in July, and all must be triple-vaccinated and aged under 65. That’s less than half the 2.5 million who attended in 2019.

British Muslims have spoken to The Independent about their experiences of attempting to book Hajj this year.

Only 1,000 pilgrims were allowed to attend the sacred event in 2020 due to Covid

‘The hardest thing is not knowing’

Suhail Sherwani, a GP from south London, said he and his family booked Hajj in spring this year with a travel agent. However, after Saudi made announcements that changes would take place, his booking was cancelled and refunded.

Hajj travel agents usually arrange flights, accomodation and visas as well as organising guides and gatherings to help pilgrims prepare for the spiritual endeavour.

However, these travel agents have now been scrapped as Saudi announced that booking can only be made through their own portal called Motawif, dubbed an online Hajj “lottery” system.

After registering on the portal, they were told they would be informed within a week regarding the status of their application. If successful, they could choose a package and make a payment, after which Motawif would send them an e-visa.

Packages come in silver, gold and platinum, starting from approximately £5,000 and going up to £9,000 per person.

Dr Sherwani applied through Motawif’s portal and received a message that his application was successful, and was prompted to make the full payment.

But after paying up, he received a message to say his booking had failed despite the money leaving his account.

“I’m travelling with 11 people in my group,” Dr Sherwani told The Independent. “That’s around £90,000 floating around, and it’s not ATOL protected because Motawif has not signed up for it.”

This means that if the travel company “goes bust” his group will lose all of their money.

Suhail Sherwani, a GP from south London, said he had spoken to hundreds of travel agents this year

He is now in the dark, unsure whether he has fallen victim to technical issues, if he will receive a refund and if he will have another opportunity to enter the lottery.

The GP has been refreshing his emails all day as he waits for latest updates. “The hardest thing is not knowing and the lack of communication,” he said.

“Had it all been communicated months ago, then you set your expectation from then. Now it’s really tough. You get excited, you get happy.”

His case is not unique as hundreds have expressed confusion at having “paid but failed”, with Telegram groups set up by communities to answer questions, offer moral support and share updates.

A camp for Hajj pilgrims to stay in during one of the rituals

‘No one wants to spend this much for two weeks in the desert’

A chartered engineer from the Midlands reported the same experience after paying £26,000 on the portal for his family of four.

“The website said a refund will be returned, but [gave] no reason why it failed,” said the 50-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous. “There was no information for when it will be refunded.

“Everyone is in the same disarray. I am in complete limbo at the moment.”

The engineer said two days after making the payment, Motawif emailed him saying he would be given an update on his situation within 72 hours. This could mean anything from a refund to a second chance at entering the draw.

However, if successful, he would have to fly out on 28 June, leaving him just a few days to arrange PCR tests and take care of his affairs at home before leaving.

The father-of-two is also concerned that the package he originally booked will no longer be available, and he will have to select a more expensive deal.

A different package could mean paying an extra £6,000 which “others have desperately accepted”, he said, adding: “No one wants to spend that much money for two weeks in the desert.

“There’s always a remark on Motawif pages saying ‘Thank you for choosing Motawif’. But I didn’t choose them. I didn’t choose this.”

Pilgrims walk around the Holy Kaaba seven times as part of Hajj

‘There’s no one to help’

Meriem Haneef, a graphic designer from Slough, said she felt forced to share private data and personal information to strangers on social media because “there was no one else to help”.

After experiencing the same “booking failed” problem, the 43-year-old said she has heard nothing specific regarding her payment and application, aside from a message on Facebook Messenger from Motawif who said they would look into it after countless probing.

“They never picked up on a phone number which they listed on the FAQs,” Ms Haneef said. “Why are they only using social media platforms to respond? It’s a complete disaster.”

‘System has teething issues’

Fahad Abrar, a business owner from High Wycombe, was more sympathetic towards the new system.

“Working in IT myself, I understand messaging problems. The whole system has teething issues,” he said.

But the 42-year-old added that the lack of clarity affected him emotionally as he admitted feeling “very depressed and anxious” while waiting to hear from Motawif.

He added: “You come to a point where you almost start to question your own relationship with God, wondering if you’re not worthy for Hajj.”

Although the shake-up has been tumultous for hopeful pilgrims, the sudden change in the process has been equally difficult for Hajj travel agents.

Rehan Rauf, who works for Labbaik Hajj Umrah in south London, said: “We are just refunding the money back to our clients, we have some information regarding the portal, so if someone gets in touch, we just give them that information.”

When asked how the change has impacted the business, he responded: “That really doesn’t matter. It is written. This isn’t a business, we are doing this for the sake of God.”

But the travel agent is optimistic that UK tour operators will be reinstated next year due to the level of confusion and disorganisation customers have faced: “Our clients have told us the price has increased and changed after booking. So if the client is not happy, they will surely ask the ministry to bring it back to the agency.

“How will they perform the Hajj if there is no one to guide them?”

With the first pilgrims from around the world already arriving in Mecca and just days left until the holy month begins, many have reluctantly accepted that they will not make it this year.

“It’s disappointing, of course,” said Maria Ashiq, 27, from Bradford. “First they were saying that they haven’t yet reviewed people with the pending status on our applications, giving us false hope.

“But this false hope has lasted 13 days. There is no change, it is still pending.”

Motawif has been contacted for comment.

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