'I lost all my life savings and don’t even know if I will get to go': British Muslims speak out on new Hajj booking system
Saudi Arabia announced in early June that pilgrims would no longer be able to book to go to Hajj through UK Hajj travel agents, but instead, have to apply through a ‘lottery-style' system on a newly launched platform Motawif.
“Everything turned upside down. We were making our preparations two weeks before we were supposed to go after having booked with an agent, who is now in the process of refunding us,” Mohammed, a software engineer from London told The New Arab.
"I went through the whole process of applying – they are not ATOL protected, the company says they have a presence in various cities but they don’t even have an office in other nations, and there are problems with the booking form"
Mohammad says he had little time to make new preparations on the newly announced platform.
“I was going to go with my wife and sister to Hajj as we had been saving since 2021 and had booked to go with a travel agent. Despite the short time we had, we took a look at the new website and registered with Motawif, but we did not get selected this time.”
However, Mohammad says he saw many ‘flaws in the new application system’.
“I went through the whole process of applying – they are not ATOL protected, the company says they have a presence in various cities but they don’t even have an office in other nations, and there are problems with the booking form. Despite this, we were still prepared to pursue it, but because I wasn’t selected to purchase a package I have been actively helping others who were selected but have encountered similar issues to us.”
"I made a payment of over £16,000 from my lifelong savings in order to make the pilgrimage that I had been waiting to go on for years. Then I get a message that the payment has gone through but the booking has failed!"
Aysha (name changed for confidentiality purposes) told The New Arab that she too was distraught at the problems faced after being selected via the new system.
“I made a payment of over £16,000 from my lifelong savings in order to make the pilgrimage that I had been waiting to go on for years. Then I get a message that the payment has gone through but the booking has failed! Now I feel I have lost all my life savings but don’t know if I will even get to go for Hajj... I am heartbroken,” she says.
Aysha says this whole experience of applying without the protection of a Hajj travel agent is affecting her mental wellbeing.
“I didn’t mind that they have a new platform but the problem is that I have not received my tickets, my visa or know anything about the flights. The money has gone from my account but when I try to contact Motawif, there is an automated response and no human-to-human contact. I have cried so much after this. What if I have lost my savings and don’t end up going, what will I do?”
Aysha is not the only one who is facing serious issues after booking through the new portal.
Another Hajj applicant who wished to remain completely anonymous told The New Arab, "The biggest problem was changing the system at the last minute which caused panic and confusion. This is such an important trip and we did a lot of research before choosing who to travel with. The new system promised booking in ‘5 easy steps’ – this was absolute rubbish.”
The applicant also told The New Arab that the new system had promised savings of up to ‘35%’ but most people ended up paying more.
“There were no details about how we get from Jeddah to Medina, no idea who is meeting us at the airport or whether anyone is meeting us at all, no idea how we will be divided into groups and no shaykhs to accompany us, although we should have access to a 'person of knowledge’."
The applicant continues to help pilgrims via Twitter who have reached out to her and described the new system as difficult with no clarity or guidance.
“After ‘winning the lottery’ we accessed the Motawif portal and were presented with four levels of packages – silver, gold, platinum and platinum plus. Within each level, there were approx 18 packages to choose from. It took hours and hours to understand what the price difference meant," the applicant added.
“This is the most expensive trip I have ever paid for in my life and I’m 58 years old. I still have no tickets yet and don’t know when I will receive them.”
The applicant's status on the portal has been left as 'pending' and it has been difficult to get a response from Motawif as she says it is impossible to get through to them. She says the stress of it has left her with a lost voice and backache.
Forty-year-old Nadia Akhtar was yet another Hajj applicant who said the new overhaul of a system has been ‘dreadful and really upsetting’.
As a secondary school teacher, Nadia had to book time off work well in advance in preparation for Hajj. She wrote a formal letter almost a year ago, even though she knew she would be unpaid for the three weeks' leave time.
“I booked through my local tour agency for myself and my husband. We had planned to fly out on June 25 for three weeks. But, at the start of June, we got some very upsetting news that people living in Western countries were to be entered into a Hajj lottery.
"This didn’t really go down very well with my employer as I wasn’t providing a definite answer as to whether I was going or not. They have been really understanding about this process, but it has caused embarrassment and then on top of that waiting for the lottery was ridiculous," Nadia reveals.
"Nadia had to book time off work well in advance in preparation for Hajj. She wrote a formal letter almost a year ago, even though she knew she would be unpaid for the three weeks' leave time"
Both Nadia and her husband's Hajj status is also still 'pending' at the time of writing and she says that the website was crashing down while she was applying.
“This whole situation of last-minute bookings via Motawif has left me drained and anxious. I haven’t slept properly worrying about whether I was going or not. I couldn’t attend any Hajj seminars, and the Ihram I purchased for my husband is still in the suitcase until InshAllah (God willing) next year, when we try again. This whole nightmare will be repeated again in 2023 but Allah will help us all through it,” Nadia says somewhat optimistically.
Another Hajj applicant named Iram also revealed to The New Arab how awful the experience had been for her too. "So many are due to go soon and still don’t have their visa. All of this could have been mitigated if we had just stayed with the agencies," she says.
Iram explains that the quota of pilgrims from the UK has now been reduced with no real explanation.
“We can only guess that they just haven’t the physical manpower and capacity to cope. It has all been very stressful for pilgrims as this should be a time of personal and spiritual preparations before going but it’s full of anxiety and sleepless nights.”
The New Arab reached out to Motawif for comment but has yet to receive a response at the time of publication.
Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning journalist, author, and Universal Peace Federation Ambassador. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, CNN, BBC, and others. She was awarded the FIPP the global network of media Rising Stars in Media Award 2018.
Follow her on Twitter: @tasnimnazeer1