Hajj in Saudi Arabia: Pilgrimage as a lottery win

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The Islamic pilgrimage Hajj begins in Saudi Arabia. This time, the participation of foreign Muslims was partly regulated by a lottery procedure. This has caused frustration for some believers.

Devotional: A Muslim prays in the Great Mosque of Mecca

You have to be vaccinated and follow strict hygiene rules, as is usual in Corona times. And yet the Hajj Islamic pilgrimage beginning on Wednesday (July 6th, 2022) is a deeply emotional undertaking for the approximately one million Muslim participants from all over the world.

The number of participants is low compared to the two and a half million who traveled to Mecca and Medina, the holy places of Islam in Saudi Arabia, three years ago – before the start of the pandemic. The fact that the Hajj can now take place again on a significant scale – in 2019 only 1,000 pilgrims were admitted, last year there were already 60,000 – is for most of the pilgrims arriving from a total of 50 countries an expression of a long-awaited return to normality – also of religious normality.

However, preparations for this year's Hajj season have caused a lot of trouble for many Muslims. In June, the Saudi Arabian Hajj Ministry announced that pilgrims from Europe, Australia, North and South America can now apply for Hajj tickets through a government-sponsored website called Motawif. Since demand always exceeds supply, the promise to participate in the pilgrimage is based on a kind of lottery system. The prices for the tickets are fixed.

Give up in frustration

The new system is intended to protect pilgrims from non-recognized tour operators who offered visas online and offline at different prices. However, the new measure also sidelined recognized long-established organizers who had already sold tickets for the 2022 Hajj season.

After the pandemic and the hardships of recent years, he felt the need to reconnect with God, says Omar. The Lebanese resident in the United States had already applied for his hajj visa through an online travel agency in the United States. But when Saudi Arabia surprisingly switched to the new lottery system, Omar withdrew his application in frustration because he would have had to book the trip again. “But I still haven't received confirmation of a refund,” he complains to DW. He does not want to give his full name publicly: If it were known, he says, he fears disadvantages in future applications to participate in the pilgrimage.

How does online booking work? Statements by the Saudi government for foreign pilgrims on the Motawif website

Paid but failed

Omar isn't the only one upset by the surprise launch of the new system. Pilgrims who received permission to participate through the lottery and duly paid for their hajj packages – the cheapest start at around 5,800 euros – report that the new system is flawed in a number of ways.

Yours Many of those affected expressed displeasure on Twitter in the past few days and weeks under the hashtag #PaidButFailed. Complaints are about non-executed transfers, missing information on the application status, inconsistent flight and accommodation details or changed accommodations. In addition, the customer hotline was practically unavailable.

There is not enough space

Even before the corona pandemic and long before the new system became binding for Muslims in Europe, Australia and America, not all Muslims who wanted to could take part in the Hajj pilgrimage. The reason: the number of tickets allocated was always in proportion to the Muslim population of the respective country. And year after year the number of interested parties was always greater than the number of places available.

The fact that the kingdom is once again allowing fewer people to enter the country than in the years before the pandemic causes displeasure. The restriction applies not only to pilgrims from abroad, but also to Saudi citizens. Even those countries that are not bound by the new ticketing system have only received half their previous quota for this year's hajj season. For example, the number of permitted pilgrims from Pakistan has been reduced from 200,000 in 2019 to 80,000 this year. The number of admitted Iranians has been more than halved, from just under 87,000 in 2019 to 40,000 in 2022.

“The number of European, Australian and American Muslims now falling under the umbrella of the new lottery is represents only the smallest part, with probably only about 50,000 pilgrims,” ​​says Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, lecturer in Islamic and Middle East studies at the University of Freiburg, to DW. “That would then be half of the previous contingent.”< /p>

Hajj pilgrimage is a religious duty for devout Muslims. Scene from the circumnavigation of the Kaaba in Mecca

More pilgrims, more government revenue

However, the new system could be a test for the future, says Fuchs. “As part of the Vision 2030 he initiated, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already announced that the number of pilgrims is to be massively increased in the future,” he explains. The reforms initiated by the Crown Prince also aimed to professionalize the tourism infrastructure. “In general, the country should open up to tourism – including the Hajj pilgrimage, for which the aim is to achieve unprecedented numbers of participants.”

All in all, the Saudi state wants to benefit even more from the pilgrimage in the future, says Fuchs. “We are already seeing this development in the lottery. The fact that you can only fly with Saudi airlines is quite extraordinary. These packages are extremely expensive.”

According to the Saudi press agency, almost 376,000 were booked on Tuesday evening International pilgrims arrived at the airports, including many of the 50,000 pilgrims from Europe, Australia and America. The others should have followed by now. And it already seems clear: next year tens of thousands of believers will be able to try their luck in the lottery.

Adapted from English by Kersten Knipp.