EASYDistant British Muslims face missing out on the Hajj pilgrimage after two years of waiting for Saudi Arabia to relax post-pandemic travel restrictions.
One woman described the process as “torture” after her dream of completing one of the five pillars of Islam was taken from her due to new entry requirements introduced by Covid.
The annual pilgrimage to Mecca is seen as an obligation every Muslim has to fulfill in their lifetime but increasingly expensive packages mean that most people save for years to make the trip.
However, many who had hoped to visit this year went up in smoke after Saudi Arabia introduced new regulations requiring prospective tourists to book through a government website – a process described by some as a lottery – just weeks before they were meant to fly.
One million Muslims will be allowed to complete the Hajj, which takes place in July, and all must be vaccinated three times and be under the age of 65. This is less than half of the 2.5 million who have already completed the Hajj. attend in 2019.
Muslims in the UK talked to The Independent about their experience trying to book Hajj this year.
‘The hardest thing is not knowing’
Suhail Sherwani, a general practitioner from South London, said he and his family booked the Hajj this spring with a travel agent. However, after Saudi made an announcement that the changes would take place, his booking was canceled and refunded.
Hajj travel agents often arrange flights, accommodation and visas as well as organize guides and gatherings to help pilgrims prepare for the spiritual endeavour.
However, these travel agents have now been dropped as Saudi Arabia announced that bookings can only be made through their own portal called MotawifDubbed the Hajj online ‘lottery’ system.
After registering on the portal, they are informed that they will be notified within a week of the status of their application. If successful, they can choose a package and pay, then Motawif will send them an e-visa.
Packages in silver, gold and platinum start at around £5,000 and go up to £9,000 per person.
Dr. Sherwani applied through Motawif’s portal and received notification that his application was successful and prompted for full payment.
But after the payment was completed, he received a message saying the booking was unsuccessful even though the money was still in his account.
“I am traveling with 11 people in my group,” says Dr. Sherwani The Independent. “That’s about £90,000 floating around and it’s not covered by ATOL because Motawif isn’t registered.”
This means that if the travel agency “goes out of business” his group will lose all their money.
He is now in the dark not knowing if he fell victim to technical problems, if he will receive a refund and if he will get another chance to enter the lottery. number or not?
GP has been refreshing his email all day waiting for the latest update. “The hardest thing is not knowing and the lack of communication,” he said.
“If it was all announced months ago, then you have set your expectations from there. Now it’s really hard. You feel excited, you feel happy.”
His case is not unique as hundreds of people have expressed confusion at “paying but failed”, with Telegram groups set up by the community to answer questions, provide support. ethically and share up-to-date information.
‘Nobody wants to stay that much in two weeks in the desert’
A run engineer from the Midlands reported a similar experience after paying £26,000 on the portal for his family of four.
“The website says the refund will be returned, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work,” said the 50-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous. “There is no word on when it will be refunded.
“Everyone is in the same turmoil. I’m completely in limbo at the moment.”
The engineer said two days after the payment, Motawif emailed him and said he would be updated on his situation within 72 hours. This could mean anything from cashback to a second chance to enter the draw.
However, if successful, he will have to fly out on June 28, with just a few days left to arrange for PCR testing and take care of house chores before leaving.
The father-of-two is also concerned the package he originally ordered will no longer be available and will have to choose a more expensive deal.
Another package could mean paying an extra £6,000 which “others have desperately accepted,” he said, adding: “Nobody wants to spend that much money in two weeks in the desert.
“There is always a comment on Motawif pages saying ‘Thank you for choosing Motawif’. But I don’t choose them. I didn’t choose this one”.
‘There’s no one to help’
Meriem Haneef, a graphic designer from Slough, said she felt compelled to share personal data and personal information with strangers on social media because “there was no one else to help”.
After experiencing a similar ‘failed booking’ issue, the 43-year-old said she hasn’t heard anything specific about her payment and app, except for a Facebook message messanger from Motawif, who said they will look into it after countless investigations.
“They never got the phone number they listed in the FAQ,” Ms. Haneef said. “Why do they only use social media platforms to respond? It was a complete disaster.”
‘The system has a teething problem’
Fahad Abrar, a business owner from High Wycombe, is more sympathetic to the new system.
“Working in IT myself, I understand messaging issues. The whole system has teething problems.”
But the 42-year-old added that the lack of clarity has affected his emotions as he admits to feeling “very depressed and anxious” while waiting for a response from Motawif.
“You get to a point where you almost start questioning your own relationship with God, wondering if you’re worthy of the Hajj.”
While the shaking has caused a stir among hopeful pilgrims, the sudden change in course has been equally difficult for Hajj travel agents.
Rehan Rauf, who works for Labbaik Hajj Umrah in south London, said: “We only refund our customers, we have some information regarding the portal – so if someone is contact us, we just give them that information.”
When asked how the change has impacted the business, he replied: “It really doesn’t matter. It is written. This is not a business, we are doing it for God’s sake. “
But the travel agent is optimistic that UK tour operators will be reinvigorated next year due to the level of clutter and disorganization faced by customers: “Our customers have told us I that the price has increased and changed after booking. Therefore, if the customer is not satisfied, they will definitely ask the department to take it back to the agency.
“How will they perform Hajj without any guidance?”
With the first pilgrims from all over the world arriving in Mecca and with only a few days until the holy month begins, many have reluctantly accepted that they will not come this year.
“Disappointing of course,” said Maria Ashiq, 27, from Bradford. “First, they said they hadn’t considered people with pending status in our application, giving us false hope.
“But this vain hope lasted 13 days. Nothing has changed, it is still pending”.
Motawif has been contacted for comment.