Hajj tour upheaval forces UK operators to juggle compulsions of faith with survival
The yearly Hajj pilgrimage usually attracts over two million Muslims hailing from all around the world.
Many pilgrims will have saved their entire adult lives for this once-a-lifetime experience that Muslims believe to be an obligation upon all who can afford it.
This year, we knew things would be different with the enduring effects of the pandemic causing authorities to cap the number of attendees at one million, less than half their normal amount. But what we failed to foresee was the chaos, uncertainty and heartache that has prevailed.
"In Muslim-dense cities like Birmingham, London and Bradford they [Hajj tour operators] are woven into the fabric of the high street and community, run by people you pray with in the mosque, often passed down from the previous generations"
A mere few weeks before pilgrims were set to board planes bound for Jeddah after many had already paid substantial sums to Hajj tour operators and booked time off work, the Saudi government decided to overhaul the entire system for western Muslims hoping to attend Hajj.
Entirely dismissing the way things have been done for decades for European, North American and Australian Muslims, Hajj is now a direct-to-consumer experience with the entire booking process taking place through the Saudi’s Motawif website.
Prospective pilgrims must now enter a lottery, bringing the process in line with many Muslim-majority countries. The days of arranging things through your local high street Hajj agency, run by local community members and often affiliated with local mosques are behind us, it seems.
Some, such as Motawif’s own social media channels suggest that this is a change for the good. They claim that prices are 35% lower than with Hajj agencies and the lottery system ensures that first-time pilgrims take precedence over those who have been before.
But even a brief look at the comments under their posts, and the uproar, confusion and hurt are laid bare. Changing the entire system at such short notice and with no warning was never going to end well, not least for people who had already paid their life savings to Hajj agencies assuming their place was guaranteed.
These reassurances provided by Motawif are of little reassurance to people like 60-year-old Ali from the Midlands who had already paid £8,000 to an agency before learning of the changes to the system. “I had to request a refund and then enter the lottery. I’m not great with technology so I had my kids up all night trying to do it because we kept getting error messages,” he tells The New Arab.
Days after entering the lottery, Ali found out that he had been allocated a place and felt relieved that he could finally continue with his preparations.
“I was allocated my place on the last day of the lottery draw and once I tried to pay, I saw that all the bronze and silver packages were sold out. Gold was slightly above my budget, but I tried to book anyway and that wouldn’t let me. Eventually, that was sold out too. All that was left were packages for £13,000-£14,000 and that was just more than I could afford.”
For Ali, this ordeal felt like a painful rollercoaster of emotions, and he describes how giving up on completing Hajj this year was “devastating, like they’d given me hope and then taken it away again. Now all I can do is pray Allah accepts my intention and pray I can go next year, InshAllah (God willing).”
The despair that this overhaul has caused isn’t exclusively felt by people like Ali who thought they were before everything changed overnight. It’s also felt by many of the travel agencies for whom Hajj is the core component of their business and the bulk of their income.
Ismail* runs a Hajj tour operator in East London and he feels disappointed and exasperated at the Saudi government’s lack of communication, calling the entire situation “chaotic”. With 12 years of experience in providing this vital service to his community, he feels let down and concerned for the future of his business, highlighting how Hajj formed a major part of his profit.
“We had zero idea that any changes were coming so we paid large deposits to hotels in Saudi once we got confirmation that Hajj was going ahead this year.”
For Ismail, serving his community is a critical part of his business, and he adds that it’s not all about the money for him as he has prepared to tap into other income streams to ensure his business can stay afloat.
“If we’d known what was going on, we could have helped our customers apply through the new system. Lots of the older people can’t navigate these online platforms alone and need assistance. But we were kept in the dark.”
Just down the road, the owner of another East London Hajj agency is less optimistic about the future of his business. “Our livelihoods have gone,” he tells The New Arab.
Wishing to stay anonymous in the face of such uncertainty, he recounts his anger at the lack of concern for Muslim businesses shown by the government of Islam’s holiest sites.
There are around 80 Ministry of Hajj-approved tour operators in the UK – the most of any Western country.
In Muslim-dense cities like Birmingham, London and Bradford they are woven into the fabric of the high street and community, run by people you pray in the mosque with, often passed down from the previous generations.
Their role cannot be distilled into simply booking your flights and hotels, and the value of organising this once-in-a-lifetime experience through someone you know and trust cannot be overstated.
The loss of that human touch is something that cannot be quantified even in lost earnings or businesses collapsing, though the impact on local economies and individual families remains yet to be seen.
Muslims who have successfully booked their pilgrimage through Motawif will be embarking on this epic journey in the next few days.
As we watch the rites of pilgrimage take place on Islamic channels, it’s likely to feel bittersweet this year for those who saved up all their lives and so nearly made it, but were defeated by bureaucratic chaos for reasons yet unknown.
Nadeine Asbali is a secondary school teacher in London.
Follow her on Twitter: @najourno