By Mohamed (Jay) Mobeen
The recent announcement by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is short on details but it is expected that with the short time between now and Hajj 1443, the murkiness of this initial news release will dissipate with added clarity revealed on the new system directed at Hujjaj from the Americas, Europe and Australia.
What can be surmised thus far is that the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has totally revamped the mechanism and processes for pilgrims (Hujjaj) from the aforementioned geographical regions.
This system, in place for the Hijri year 1443, begins with an online application of expression of interest. Potential Hujjaj meeting age and other qualifications are entered into a draw.
Those who are successful are then eligible to apply on the new online electronic portal where they will be able to make all logistical arrangements including hotel accommodations, ground transportation along with arrangements for Mena, Arafah and Muzdalifah.
The applicant would have the option of choosing different packages just as was the practice with Hajj service providers in their own countries.
Visas would still be issued electronically but instead it would now be issued and sent directly to the applicant.
As well, Hajj visas would be valid for three (3) months. Over the past few years, the Saudis have embarked upon and ploughed copious amounts of dinars into the development and marketing of its tourism industry with particular focus on places such as Al Ula.
This tourist destination is one of the oldest cities in the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudis are banking on this ancient site that once sat at the crossroads of the Incense Route and The Silk Road.
Hujjaj may now remain in the Kingdom and travel the length and breadth of the land and experience places such as Al Ula without the oppressive restrictions of the past.
In essence, this move by the Saudi authorities is multi-pronged; elimination of the foreign players and focus on the spin-off tourism as an economic booster.
Much like the UAE, Saudia Arabia is looking at diversifying its economy. Oil will not last much longer.
What it means for Hajj is that the middlemen in the affected regions of the Americas, Europe and Australia are now eliminated.
This, in my humble opinion, may be a welcome relief for the multitude who could not have afforded to fulfill this once in a lifetime ibadaat.
It may also be read as an answer to the pleas and duas of so many who had saved their meagre earnings but kept being priced out of the ultimate experience of Hajj.
Having been engaged with the Islamic Institute of Toronto (IIT) in providing administrative assistance, guidance and leadership for hundreds of Hujjaj since 2000, I have seen a fair share and then some of the workings of Hajj service providers.
In 2000, a premium Hajj package was priced at under $4,000 CDN. In 2019, the same services ranged from $14,540 to 16,440 CDN.
It was no secret that the cost of Hajj services had escalated to exorbitant levels. Simply put Hajj had been priced out of the reach of the ordinary people.
We are yet to see what the costs will be and if the various levels of services and associated prices will be evened out. One could have and ought to have seen this coming for a number of reasons, least among which were issues of price gouging, unsavoury dealings and unfulfilled transactions.
These were raised directly with the Saudi authorities year after year. A few years ago, the Saudis launched an online portal for Umrah, making it easier for anyone to apply for their own visas, ground transportation, accommodation and logistical arrangements.
A couple years ago, they also eased the mahram and age restrictions on women.
We are yet to see if this would now apply to Hajj. This new process would, for all intent and purpose, cut out the middle men and resellers.
In essence the Motawef (Unified Agents) would now have total control of Hajj services. Motawefs are local Saudis. Aside from transportation to the Kingdom, most or all revenue generated from Hajj will now be limited to and circulated within the Kingdom.
But one may ask what about the spiritual experience of Hajj? How does the Hujjaj navigate the various stages of Umrah and hajj? How does going without a group, a spiritual guide, a leader affect this ibadaat? Would the manasik of Hajj be fulfilled as it ought to be?
Many questions abound and while the Saudis may have put the resources and mechanisms in place to make it a fulfilling experience, that is yet to be seen.
Read in it what you will but this is a new and different departure from past arrangements that will affect the Hajj experience.
While this may be so, it is also welcome relief for those who were previously priced out of performing Hajj, a once in a lifetime act of worship.
May Allah allow those with the intention to respond to His call and perform the Hajj.