Saudi Arabia wipes out $182 million niche UK market; outrage on social media.
Saudi Arabia’s increasingly centralised form of governance, now dictating Hajj pilgrims register and book their packages via Motawif, has wiped out a niche UK economic sector worth ₤150 million ($182 million) and sent outraged pilgrims to social media to vent their displeasure at the new system’s flaws.
Motawif is the exclusive online platform authorised by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah to offer Hajj services to Europe, North America and Australia. On 6 June the ministry informed pilgrims to register and book Hajj 2022 packages digitally following an April announcement that globally 1 million Muslims could perform Hajj this year.
The platform promises tailor-made packages that “perfectly fit individual preferences, needs and budgets”, in addition to visa application, support services and a 24/7 call centre in multiple languages.
However, in distressed pleas from British, Australian, American and Canadian Muslims across social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, countless pilgrims state the organisation has not delivered on its promises.
Approved applicants, selected through a draw, grumble about failed package bookings despite their accounts already debited for the amounts owed. According to aggrieved parties, Motawif eventually offered alternatives – by phone calls – at up to 35% higher prices than the original package price without relevant details available like the hotel’s location.
“The only telephone number that seems to work is the French number, but I got cut off after waiting for 40 minutes,” Tahir Ahmed, a British diplomat who wished to clarify inaccuracies in the packages offered, wrote on Twitter.
While the packages offered included flights, accommodation, transportation and visa, the British Civil Aviation Authority warned pilgrims these were not part of Air Travel Organiser’s Licensing (ATOL), a UK financial protection scheme for air package holidays sold by travel businesses.
The Licensed Hajj Organisers UK (LHO), a non-profit trade association founded in 2016, is tagged in many of these social media posts, but their hands are tied.
“We have to respect Saudi Arabia is a sovereign country and has its own rules and regulations to support its vision of empowering its citizens,” LHO told Salaam Gateway via Twitter.
On 13 June, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hajj & Umrah held an emergency meeting at the UK Parliament to discuss Hajj 2022 arrangements with industry stakeholders and pilgrims. All attending members of the public had booked to go on Hajj with a UK Hajj tour operator since 2020.
“Hearing their impact statements was heart breaking,” said a Parliamentary Group’s tweet.
LHO members spoke about the negative impact on British businesses who had been servicing British pilgrims for over 40 years and raised concerns that some companies may go bankrupt, as they were counting on Hajj 2022 as a lifeline following two years of lost business due to COVID-19.
Money stuck in Saudi Arabia, as the ministry holds company bonds, also affects liquidity. This potentially leaves pilgrims, who had booked years ahead and were now forced to cancel with the British travel agent, without a refund.
Other highlighted issues include pilgrims’ welfare, access to Hajj guides and imams and pre-departure preparation and support.
According to the 2019 University of Leeds report Mapping the UK’s Hajj Sector, the number of British Muslim pilgrims had risen from 573 in 1969 to between 25,000 and 27,000 before the pandemic halted religious tourism.
Speaking on a BBC radio show, the report’s author, Seán McLoughlin, the university’s professor of Anthropology of Islam, said this year 12,000 British Muslims were supposed to travel.
However, the number had been slashed to 3,500 as the quota was wrongly allocated.
“This new system has really unsettled people because it’s been introduced so late in the day. Many pilgrims are feeling as though they’ve been like guinea pigs in a system that hasn’t been piloted properly,” he said.
The Motawif platform divulges Dubai-headquartered Traveeazy as technology partner. The Traveazy Group, to which UmrahMe and HolidayMe also belong, claims to have sales of more than $200 million and boasts to have assisted more than 4 million travellers, using relationships with more than 10,000 business-to-business agents. McLoughlin said people were demanding a return to the previous system that allowed them to buy packages from local, licensed Hajj organisers (munazzams).
Since Saudi Arabia published its Vision 2030 in 2016, calling for Hajj numbers to more than double to 6 million, the number of UK munazzams grew 20% to 117 providers, the largest number in the West, according to the report.
McLoughlin pointed out the modern development of the Hajj must be understood in terms of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing challenge of diversifying its non-oil based economy.
“It’s fair to say they also want to centralise the margins agents across the world have been making. This is part of a bigger bid to develop religious tourism as an alternative income source,” McLoughlin said.
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