Every year, the Saudi government dedicates a specific number of visas to each country around the world for Muslims to fulfil their obligatory Hajj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam.
In 2023, Hajj will return to pre-pandemic numbers as Saudi Arabia removes all Covid-19 restrictions, however, Muslims in the Mena region are still struggling as they grapple with soaring inflation rates and economic hardship.
Hajj prices have risen astronomically for Egyptians, as they contend with record-high inflation and a 50 per cent drop in the value of the Egyptian pound since last year.
Prices for economy and luxury Hajj packages for Egyptians have risen by 30 per cent to 40 per cent, with the cheapest package costing about 125,000 Egyptian pounds ($4,000) this year, compared with 95,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,000) last year.
Some luxury packages for the 2023 pilgrimage cost as much as 1.5 million Egyptian pounds.
As most of the fees paid by Egyptian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia are in riyals, the depreciation in the value of the Egyptian pound over the past year has made the pilgrimage much more costly.
Plane tickets from Cairo to Jeddah or Madinah are expected to keep rising as the date of the Hajj approaches.
This year the Hajj season begins on June 25.
Egypt’s Hajj committee, the government body that oversees the pilgrimages each year, anticipated that plane tickets would cost about 45,000 Egyptian pounds by mid-June, 15,000 more than a round-trip to New York.
The increase in ticket prices was attributed to the increased demand for Hajj this year, following three years of Covid-related slumps in pilgrimages and the weak performance of the Egyptian pound.
Despite the economic woes, many Egyptians are still adamant to attend. However as millions continue to face price increases on basic goods and services, others are saving money by not attending.
“I have been to Hajj multiple times before so I won’t be going this year because my family, like everyone in our community, is in money-saving mode,” Nouran Ahmed, 46, told The National.”
“But there are a lot of people I know who are going this year. It’s a little surprising because some of my relatives have sold some of their belongings to be able to afford it.”
Applications for assistance
Entrants to the government-run raffles offering Hajj packages at below-market prices doubled in comparison with 2022 entries.
For some, it is the only chance they will have to attend.
“They think that next year, it will only get more expensive and so they want to do it while they can. I also think when people go through hard times and are worried, they want to get closer to God and ask him for help,” Ms Ahmed said.
Last year, the Egyptian government issued 9,200 discounted packages to pilgrims through the three ministries, with 16,000 offered this year.
One raffle organised by the tourism ministry offered packages between 130,000 and 310,000 Egyptian pounds, depending on the proximity of accommodation to the Grand Mosque.
Two other raffles, organised by government ministries, offered rates of about 150,000.
Hajj pilgrimage difficult dream to realise for Jordanians
Every year, retired Jordanian businessman Mohammad Al Kaseh unsuccessfully applies to go to Hajj.
“I am always unlucky, although I fulfil the age requirements,” says Mr Al Kaseh referring to the 63-year-old age minimum set by the Jordanian authorities.
Jordan, a country of 10 million who are mostly Muslim, has a quota of 8,000 pilgrims set by Saudi Arabia, indicating how little chance ordinary people have to fulfil what is a religious duty for every Muslim.
Economic pressures in Jordan have also added to the difficulties of performing Hajj.
The minimum cost of attending from Jordan is $4,500, which is more than what many people in the country make in a year.
“It is mandatory but at the same time God will not punish you if circumstances beyond your control prevent you performing the Hajj,” Mr Al Kaseh said.
“The world is becoming so complicated. When my father and grandfather used to go to Hajj no one had heard of quotas. They just went.”
Two agency staff are assigned to every 35 pilgrims, says Abu Khaled, manager at a Hajj agency with branches in Amman, and the cities of Ajlun and Ramtha in northern Jordan.
Although this year is the first Hajj season since coronavirus restrictions, Abu Khaled said some of his clients have passed on their turn to someone else with more money.
“It is a convoluted process but it can be done,” he says. “The economic conditions are biting this year.”
Vaccination hold-ups in Iraq
About 37,000 Iraqis will perform Hajj this year, according to the Iraq government’s Hajj and Umrah Commission which oversees the process.
Zainab Radhi, who was supposed to perform Hajj in 2021, is still waiting to get the seasonal flu and meningococcal meningitis vaccinations.
Saudi Arabia's Hajj and Umrah Commission has stressed that Hajj pilgrims must be vaccinated against Covid-19, seasonal flu, meningococcal meningitis, yellow fever and polio.
“We are still waiting and no one is telling us when and where we can get these vaccines,” the 40-year-old English teacher told The National.
Iraq's Hajj and Umrah Commission has said that this Hajj season will present “significant challenges”.
“The foremost being the presence of a large number of elderly among the pilgrims due to the suspension of Hajj for two years because of coronavirus and deprivation of the elderly from performing Hajj last year,” the commission’s head, Sheikh Sami Al Masoudi, said last week.
This year, the Iraqi Commission has offered two Hajj packages.
Those who plan to travel by plane will pay about 5.65 million Iraqi dinars ($3,800), while those travelling by land will pay about a million dinars less.
The pilgrim pays the package directly to the commission, which arranges all transport and accommodation in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The commission then divides the pilgrims into groups and assigns each group to a Hajj contractor and a religious guide to administer the process.
“We finish the paperwork for them, including the visa, and organise training courses for them in Iraq and Saudi Arabia on the Hajj rituals,” Abdul Salam Al Ani, founder and chief executive of Baghdad-based Zad Al Kheir Hajj travel agency told The National.
Zainab Radhi is eagerly preparing for the sacred journey to Makkah.
She is determined to fulfil her lifelong dream of undertaking this religious obligation.
“Hajj is a lifelong aspiration for me,” the mother of two said with a smile.
“This alone provides me tranquillity and physiological comfort after I have spent years preparing and waiting for this moment, both mentally and spiritually.”