Photo: MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA - MAR 14, 2015 : Muslims look into Maqam Ibrahim (the station of Ibrahim) March 14, 2015 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, while they perform the tawaf / Mawardi Bahar / Shutterstock.com
A UAE start-up is going Uber with umrah al badal.
As a technology solution, iUmrah.world, launched in June last year, is designed to connect people who want to perform umrah al badal with people in Mecca registered on the site as badals.
“It’s basically an Uber or Careem service model, connecting users, linking buyer and seller, and cutting down travel time and a lot of red tape. It’s umrah on demand,” iUmrah.world's Ahmed Alhaddad told Salaam Gateway.
The system is not fully automated yet and Alhaddad stressed that the goal is to achieve a completely digitized standalone platform. Anybody who wishes to perform umrah would then be able to log in, pay the amount and schedule their preferred date.
“We’re launching it in stages. For now, it’s an e-commerce website but we will soon release a mobile app where we will live stream the umrah and you can watch the person performing it on your behalf and hear your name being mentioned.”
The company is currently working with Google’s Livestream to fully integrate live streaming into its system and expects the service to be ready within the next two weeks.
WHAT IS UMARH AL BADAL?
Umrah or haj al badal, or "proxy" umrah or haj, refers to performing the pilgrimage on behalf of others. It is permitted in Islam for Muslims who cannot perform either pilgrimage on their own due to physical incapability and/or ill health with no hope of recovery, or death.
Traditionally, the practice is offered by travel and tourism agencies as well as official haj missions.
RELATED: Malaysia: 50 pct more people apply for proxy haj
At the moment, a person requesting umrah al badal has to email iUmrah.world. Alhaddad said that once the app is ready, the user can log in and register their request, which will be received by registered badals who can choose to perform it, provided they have a 4G camera.
Eventually, Google Maps will be plugged in, enabling clients to track the badals, or iMutawwifs as Alhaddad calls them, as they perform umrah.
Any Meccan above 18 years of age who has the app and knows how to perform umrah will be eligible to offer their services. The platform will also accept refugees and entrepreneurs from the holy city.
“In most cases, religious entrepreneurs offer their services but have very little income,” Alhaddad said. “We want to help them commercialize their skills and to contribute to the Saudi economy by reducing unemployment.”
In order to ensure only suitable badal candidates, official haj missions such as Malaysia’s Tabung Haji carry out due diligence on applicants from its home country, including face-to-face interviews. Alhaddad said his platform offers “no government involvement” and is currently focused on ensuring a proper working model.
“[R]egulations will catch up later like in the case of Uber, Careem and Airbnb,” he said.
An advertisement for iUmrah.World in Times Square, New York, USA, on uly 29, 2016 / Courtesy iUmrah.World
PRICES AND PAYMENTS
Each umrah al badal is priced at $500.
Without revealing the proportion earned by the badals, Alhaddad said that a fully-dedicated iMutawwif can earn up to $3,000 a month.
The company is working with an American bank to identify the best international gateway to set up payments. Ultimately, the rates will depend on the location of the person paying as every country deducts a different percentage, said Alhaddad.
“We need to figure out the best central location to set up the payment gateway to be fair to everybody,” Alhaddad said.
“We’re also looking at possibilities to offer 4G smartphones to the iMutawwifs. This will depend on venture capitalists and how fast we move to an Initial Public Offering (IPO).”
The next phase of development would be to spin off the company with an IPO in a well-regulated country, said Alhaddad.
“We want to go IPO very quickly. Our vision is to ensure a share of iUmrah.world, and by 2020 we should be an IPO company. This way we would be able to align ourselves with the Saudi Vision 2030.”
The company plans to either spin off in the U.S. or the UAE. While the U.S. is a more advanced IPO market with a strong culture of venture capitalism, for Alhaddad the UAE is emerging as a strong competitor.
“We know that Dubai is gearing up to become the capital of the Islamic Economy, so we’re considering the UAE. We still have all our options open.”
Alhaddad declined to share numbers but said that since its launch in June 2015, iUmrah.world has seen an “exponential increase of 400 percent month-on-month” of people opting for umrah al badal, and that the number of registered badals in Mecca has also increased significantly.
Most of the requests come from North America, Europe, Indonesia, Nigeria, Malaysia and Palestine, according to Alhaddad.
He is confident of sustained growth. “We’re expecting a tremendous surge in demand. People who are actually coming to perform umrah or haj today are estimated to be about 6 million (a year) – that’s 0.01 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. So our market share is the other 98 percent of Muslims.”
The immediate priority, however, is to get iUmrah.world off the ground and build the team’s operational capabilities.
An unconventional route will be adopted to promote the platform, using a combination of social media and loyalty partners who could be travel agents, mosques, charity organisations or even internet cafes.
As the internet is not readily available in many developing economies, people could gather in one place and watch their umrah being performed, Alhaddad said.
Once iUmrah.world gets rolling, the plan is to extend the concept to iHajj, but only after careful planning, said Alhaddad.
The world’s largest gathering of Muslims lasts only up to 14 days in a year; however, due to the influx of visitors in this period, many limitations exist.
Pressure on telecom infrastructure and a jammed digital network would make live streaming from Mecca a challenge.
“Haj al badal is part of our vision and next year we will also launch iPilgrim for other spiritual destinations, such as Masjid Al Aqsa. There are a lot of Muslims who would want to visit and many Muslims there might be unemployed,” Alhaddad said.
“We will continue using our technical tools to enhance people’s spiritual needs, connecting the virtual cloud with the spiritual cloud.”
51 TREES FOR EACH UMRAH
“Our business model is triple baseline. We cut down on the capital footprint, create employment, and contribute to the planting of trees to reduce carbon emissions,” said Alhaddad.
For every umrah performed the company plants 51 trees. Alhaddad explained that every normal umrah generates approximately 1 ton of carbon per traveller, and that it will take 51 trees 12 months to absorb this carbon.
iUmrah.world is currently using Facebook to reach out to farmers, who must register on the website, mark their location on Google Maps, and request an order to plant the trees. The site requests photos for each GPS tagging.
Registered farmers receive an email notification once an iUmrah is performed, and payments to them are currently done through PayPal.
“The farmer earns $1 per tree or $51 per umrah, all inclusive of transaction costs,” explained Alhaddad.
Making sure the trees are planted is a key part of the process. “As a minimal requirement, we do ask for before/after photos as part of the process and will continue to improve the process with time. Some of the challenges are technical due to mobile coverage or farmers without cameras,” said Alhaddad.
He also sees the potential for a much bigger offshoot project. “The vision here is to create the largest database of farmers who can also be leveraged upon by other entities requesting to achieve zero carbon footprints; this will offer the farmers business continuity,” he said.
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