Hassan Shibly/Hassan Shibly
Saudi Arabia has finally reopened the holy city of Mecca to international travelers after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. But a new set of travel restrictions and operational procedures created a different set of issues for those wishing to make the trip.
Saudi Arabia has reopened the country to 1 million people wishing to make the 2022 pilgrimage to Mecca. About 2 million people normally descend on the city for the hajj, but authorities have decided to limit the number of participants this year due to the ongoing pandemic.
But for many, limited capacity wasn’t the biggest hurdle in their path. Saudi Arabia has implemented a new reservation system requiring prospective pilgrims to go through a single online platform, which many have found difficult to navigate.
Problems with the new reservation system
Traditionally, many Muslims in Western countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia use travel agencies to book everything from flights and accommodation to field guides. But Saudi Arabia’s new rules have removed the middle man. Instead, people had to book their travel through Motawif, the one-stop online platform to manage hajj travel arrangements.
Mahmoud Ghanem, a biochemist from Delaware, was initially enthusiastic about the changes because they came with the promise that things would not only be cheaper, but also easier.
“When the Saudi government announced that they were going to use a portal or whatever, I was so happy. I was like, ‘Oh my God, my dreams have come true,'” Mahmoud said. it turned out to be a nightmare.”
He tried to book a trip for himself and his wife to no avail. But he encountered repeated error messages every time he tried to select a travel package, which totaled nearly $30,000 for the two of them over 10 days. He desperately reached out to Motawif, but was assured he would be able to make the trip.
Christina Assi/AFP via Getty Images
He finally got his travel arrangements on June 28 and paid in full. But the next morning, after staying up all night preparing for the trip, Ghanem received a call from Dubai telling him not to board; there was no room.
“I was just calling them twice a day and begging them to get me the e-ticket, and nothing,” Mahmoud said. “Then starting July 2, I saw some people on Twitter getting emails saying you had two options: book your own flight, or you cancel and then we’ll refund you and guarantee you a spotlight for next year’s hajj. But I didn’t even understand that.”
With so many people trying to make the pilgrimage, he said he would have understood if someone had told him he couldn’t go. He just wanted someone to be transparent. Instead, Mahmoud said he and his wife were dragged out for days by representatives who assured them they could get to Mecca.
But after seeing what the others faced when they arrived, he’s actually glad they never made it to Saudi Arabia.
Worries on the ground
This year’s hajj began on the evening of July 7 and will end on the evening of July 12. Millions of people participate in the ritual which follows the same steps as the Prophet Muhammad approximately 1,400 years ago each year. That’s why so much effort is put into ensuring travelers have what they need for what can be a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
That said, many of those who made it to this year’s hajj shared their frustrations and worries about their pilgrimage on social media.
Mohammed Nasim said his mother and father were able to make the trip from the UK, but only after their trip was pushed back for more than a week. They had originally booked a hotel just a five-minute walk from al-Masjid al-Ḥarām, Mecca’s Grand Mosque, but instead ended up at another hotel an hour’s walk away.
They were also promised three meals a day, but the food never arrived.
“My parents are both diabetics (type 2), so it’s important to eat on time,” Nasim said. “They took some cookies thinking Motawif would deliver food on time all the time…but they’re not.”
At Mina, about 8 km from the Grand Mosque of Makkah, tents that stretch as far as the eye can see are provided for travelers staying at the camp while performing other parts of the pilgrimage. Some share a tent with dozens of others, while others opt for more privacy, reserving one for those in their group.
When temperatures soar above 100 degrees, air conditioning tends to go from a luxury item to a necessity. And some Twitter users staying in Mina said their air conditioning didn’t work, leading to unbearable living conditions.
— travelthew0rld (@travelthew0rld2) July 7, 2022
“Our Mina tent has NO air conditioning. We can’t breathe in these tents. It feels like an oven. Given [Instant noodles] for lunch,” one user wrote. “HELP!! We will die of heat stroke.”
Others have complained that the toilets are below average, there is a lack of clean drinking water and a lack of English-speaking guides to lead the way. And the overwhelming majority of those unhappy with their hajj experience point the finger at Motawif, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, and the government itself.
Hajj has always been imperfect
Although the hajj pilgrimage is only a one-time requirement, many Muslims make the journey multiple times. According to Hassan Shibly, a Florida attorney, new hajj participants can be both overwhelmed and unpleasantly surprised by the experience. But for those who have done it before, like Shibly, this year’s hajj is only slightly out of the ordinary.
“Things aren’t perfect, they’re messy, but they’re still there,” Shibly said. “I’ve been coming to hajj since I was 17. It’s always an adventure, and it’s always transformative. Even the challenges and hardships are part of the sweetness of the journey, our only opportunity to sacrifice in front of God in the heat and lose the conveniences we are used to.You learn to appreciate the challenges.
Hassan Shibly/Hassan Shibly
This year marks his seventh or eighth hajj. In years past, he has volunteered to help guide newcomers who more often than not don’t know where to go and when. But this year, he says, his services are more important than ever with the shortage of English-speaking guides.
He admits things could be better. But he also saw members of the Hajj and Umrah ministry making their rounds for comment.
“They’re engaging and responsive. That legitimately surprised me,” Shibly said. “I think I would have a different opinion if it wasn’t for that.”
Ghanem is less optimistic. This year would have been his first hajj. He’s still struggling to get his money back from this year’s attempt and unsure if he still wants to risk tens of thousands of dollars next year.
As a dual citizen, he and his wife can try to attend next year’s hajj through the Egyptian government. He tried to go through them before going through the United States in June, but was told he was not selected. But at least they were transparent, Ghanem said, which keeps his expectations grounded.
Despite all his setbacks, he said he remained determined to get to Makkah. Ghanem simply wants the Saudi government to reconsider its approach to hajj by making it easier and more affordable for Muslims around the world to fulfill their religious obligation.
“It should be more like a religious event. The profit should be minimum, you know?” Ghanem said. “But it’s been a business over the years.”