Who gets to do Hajj in Saudi Arabia?


The Hajj, a religious pilgrimage for Muslims and one of the largest gatherings of humans on Earth, begins in Saudi Arabia on June 26 and ends July 1. The number of people attending the pilgrimage to visit Kaaba, or God’s House, in Mecca, was reduced drastically during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, it will be back to normal again, with around 2.6 million Muslim pilgrims expected to make the journey.

Almost 1.5 million pilgrims are already in Saudi Arabia for this year's Hajj. (Amr Nabil/AP Photo7picture alliance)
Almost 1.5 million pilgrims are already in Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj. (Amr Nabil/AP Photo7picture alliance)

Performing the Hajj is an important part of the Islamic faith. Just as an observant, able-bodied Muslim should pray regularly, give alms and fast during the month of Ramadan, going on pilgrimage — that is, performing the Hajj — is considered one of the five pillars of the belief system. (Also Read | Hajj 2023: Date, history, significance and Ihram to Eid-ul-Adha rituals of Muslims pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia)

The Hajj takes place every year in a prescribed way over six days during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar.

However, there are around 2 billion Muslims around the world and given the numbers involved, it would be impossible for Saudi Arabia to host all those who want to perform Hajj at one specific time. For this reason, the Saudi government designates different countries a quota that says how many people from that nation may come to Mecca in any year.

Generally speaking, the rule is around one pilgrim per every 1,000 Muslims in Muslim-majority countries. This is something that was agreed upon at the 1987 Organization of the Islamic Conference.

For example, in Indonesia, an estimated 88% of the around 276 million-strong population are Muslim. This year, Indonesia’s quota for the Hajj was just over 230,000.

While the Saudis specify quotas, the actual travel is usually facilitated inside the country. Many countries have their own internal lottery or quota and qualification systems to work out how to distribute the Saudi Hajj visas.

Some, like Indonesia, ask applicants to pay a fee to be put into a lottery or, if they don’t get drawn, to be put onto a waitlist. The quota systems in Indonesia and elsewhere mean that many Muslims around the world would have to wait years, sometimes decades, to perform the Hajj.

Other countries, like Jordan, might ask for pilgrims’ date of birth via a registration website. They may also check that the individual has not been on Hajj before. This is so that older Muslims can perform Hajj before they die, and those who’ve never been get a chance to go.

Accusations of corruption with Hajj quota system

In the past, the internal national systems have led to all kinds of controversy as well as accusations of corruption, mismanagement and favouritism.

For example, senior officials in India have been accused of giving out more of the Saudi quota to certain local tour operators in exchange for bribes. In Pakistan in 2014, politicians were implicated in a corruption investigation related to the mismanagement of a fund that would-be pilgrims pay into to guarantee their spot on a waiting list. Potential pilgrims have also speculated that Saudi Embassy staff make money by selling Hajj visas.

It’s a different situation in countries where Muslims make up a religious minority. Up until recently, Muslims living in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and in the European Union didn’t have to deal with a quota system and tended to be able to go on pilgrimage more or less as they wished.

Travel is usually facilitated by local travel agencies, often linked to Muslim community organizations or mosques, who specialize in preparing customers for the Hajj. Many of the travel agencies are approved by Saudi Arabia, which gives them a number of Hajj visas to distribute. Western pilgrims usually have to purchase a package tour — this includes the visa, the flight, accommodation and the other services that Hajj missions normally undertake — in order to be able to travel. These agencies tended to sell Hajj travel packages on first-come, first-serve basis.

This all changed in early June 2022, when the Saudi government launched its own online platform called Motawif. Unexpectedly, it told would-be pilgrims in 57 countries, mostly in the so-called West, to cancel all pre-existing bookings and to register their interest in the Hajj individually on the website. In effect, this also cut out the specialized travel operators who had previously acted as middlemen.

The number of Muslims from the West who can perform Hajj has fallen since then. Some have complained about the loss of this privilege, but other observers have pointed out that the decreases are roughly in line with one-to-1,000 ratio. For example, the United Kingdom is home to around 3.8 million Muslims. Before the pandemic, about 25,000 British Muslims would regularly perform Hajj. But the new system only allocates 3,600 Hajj visas to the UK.

The Saudi authorities claimed they made the changes to crack down on Hajj scams and travel agency subcontractors, but some analysts think the move was more economic in nature. Both religious travel and tourism are a major part of the oil-rich Gulf state’s attempts to diversify its national income away from oil. The country makes anywhere between $8 billion and $12 billion (€10.9 billion) from a normal Hajj season, and wants to rapidly increase numbers of pilgrims and regular tourists.

Last year’s sudden change by the Saudis caused a huge number of complaints, with prospective pilgrims left unsure of whether they would even be allowed to be travel to Saudi Arabia until shortly before they were supposed to depart. Some were turned away at airports or denied boarding even though they had paid for a Hajj package. Others are still waiting for their money back.

This year, Saudi Arabia launched another website, Nusuk, for the same purpose. However, would-be pilgrims have already reported problems, with a social media hashtag, #nusuked, gathering a litany of complaints.

Selection process for Hajj quota system kept ‘opaque’

Most of those affected by the changes to the system this year and last have said they get no response from Saudi authorities to their enquiries.

“The kingdom chooses to keep the quota system as opaque as possible in order to exploit it as a political tool to reward its allies and punish its adversaries,” Turan Kayaoglu, a professor of international relations at the University of Washington in the US, argued in a 2020 op-ed for The Brookings Institution. “Moreover, Saudi Arabia can facilitate or impede issuing visas. For example, under the Saudi blockade, Qatari pilgrims were effectively denied from performing the Hajj because many had difficulties obtaining visas.”

Kayaoglu argued it would be better if the Hajj quota system and logistics management were handed over to a more international body, rather than allowing the Saudis to use it for their own political purposes. It’s an important ritual that should belong to all Muslims, he said.

Ihsan Yilmaz, a professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, sees the firm Saudi grip on Hajj visas as a form of soft power, a way of convincing more Muslims of the Saudi version of Islam.

“Saudis have used this soft power as much as possible,” Yilaz, who is the chair of the university’s Islamic Studies department, wrote in a 2022 article for the Australian Institute of International Affairs. “They have always known that Hajj represents a great opportunity to win the hearts and minds of millions of pilgrims.”

Saudi Arabia also often hosts Muslim elites — scholars, journalists, political leaders — for Hajj, Yilmaz added. “Indeed, many opinion leaders in Muslim countries have been hesitant to criticize the Saudis, fearing that they may not be allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj,” he suggested.

For those Muslims who miss out on Hajj, there is also another option known as Umrah. This has the pilgrim taking the same route, but this shorter journey can be performed at any time of the year. About 19 million Muslims undertake this trip every year and Saudi Arabia gives these visas out far more freely.


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *