British Muslims limit hopes of attending first Hajj for foreigners since the pandemic

New online portal for foreign pilgrims aims to ease registration and selection but UK hopefuls tell 'The National' it has created anxiety and confusion

British Muslims still don't know if they will be some of the lucky few selected to make the pilgrimage through a new online draw system. AFP
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Muslims from the UK hoping to attend the annual Hajj have raised doubts over their prospects after Saudi Arabia announced a new quota for British pilgrims that was much lower than expected.

After the pandemic limited their access to Islam’s holiest sites, many were looking forward to being able to make the journey for the first time in three years.

However, a new booking system introduced by Saudi Arabia has limited their chances of being selected.

Layla Begum Ali from London was looking forward to making the pilgrimage this year and researched several UK-based Hajj operators before paying thousands of pounds in a deposit in April, well before the new process for foreigners was announced.

“I was hopeful and excited and wanted to do everything I could to secure my spot,” Ms Ali tells The National.

A business planning manager with the NHS, Ms Ali has already performed the Umrah but this year would be her first Hajj. She plans to go on pilgrimage with her brother.

“We waited for information and nothing came for a while until we heard about the new online portal and then suddenly things became difficult and a bit intense,” she said.

The portal Ms Ali is referring to is Motawif, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah's flagship electronic registration platform for people from Europe, America and Australia.

Ms Ali proceeded with the online application anyway but her hopes of being selected were dampened when it surfaced that only 3,000 to 3,300 British Muslims would be allowed to make the trip.

Earlier announcements in April suggested the UK quota would be a little more than 12,000 people, but officials in Saudi Arabia have since clarified that number is a total from Europe and North America.

Motawif said more than 100,000 people from 56 countries have registered for the pilgrimage through the portal.

The platform offers a range of flight and accommodation packages — Platinum, Gold or Silver.

After the platform's launch on June 10, would-be pilgrims had three days to complete an online form which was then entered into a draw system. Those selected will be notified by June 18, with the first flight expected to arrive in Saudi Arabia on June 22.

The ministry said the portal is part of the kingdom’s efforts to streamline Hajj procedures and provide competitive prices but Ms Ali said it has created a lot of “stress and confusion” for both pilgrims and operators alike.

“I don’t mind using an online portal and I got on to it as soon as I saw it went live but I don’t think a lot of people, particularly the older pilgrims, are that computer literate” she said.

In addition, the Civil Aviation Authority confirmed that those packages do not benefit from Atol, the UK financial protection programme for air package holidays.

“It broke my heart when I found out about the reduced number,” says Ms Ali. “I mean, what are the chances I will get it now? And even if I do, I will feel so guilty for anyone else who is ill or has been waiting years to go.”

At an informational seminar held by the Council of British Hajj in London last week, Ms Ali said attendees expressed their “anger and frustration” over the new process — something she has seen echoed on Twitter whenever she posts updates on the latest Hajj selection dates and processes.

The more devastating consequence has been for UK Hajj and Umrah operators who typically organised the trips for about 25,000 British Muslims every year pre-pandemic and who found their business had dried up overnight.

The concerns were voiced at an emergency meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hajj and Umrah earlier this week.

Representatives from the National Pilgrimage Organisations Association said UK operators who had counted on the first foreign post-pandemic Hajj being a lifeline now feared going bankrupt.

The non-profit trade association Licensed Hajj Organisers UK added that the 124 licensed operators and hundreds more sub agents would be “severely impacted” by the new booking system.

Ms Ali said she felt “very fortunate” that the original agent she booked with in April returned her deposit after Motawif launched.

“Not everyone has been so lucky and people are getting stressed out about getting refunds or getting into debt if they need to pay for the Motawif packages before getting their original deposits back,” she said.

Meanwhile, with only weeks to go until the pilgrimage season begins, British Muslims still do not know if they are going or not — adding more than a little worry to what is meant to be a peaceful spiritual journey.

For all the new system's teething problems, however, Ms Ali said that after three years of waiting, “people just want to go” and will deal the issues that come up one way or another.

Updated: June 17, 2022, 9:24 AM