A call to reflect on Saudi Arabia’s pilgrimage policy
By Rasheed Rabbi
The Covid-19 closures had prevented millions of Muslims from pursuing the hajj. Many aspiring pilgrims had already booked and sent their money to their travel agents to increase their chances in the country-based hajj quota and waited throughout the pandemic.
In April 2022, hajj was resumed for those living outside the kingdom, which gave hope to those who had started preparing for their lifetime journey with the utmost sincerity. But despite all their efforts, the Saudi hajj ministry abruptly announced that pilgrims from North America, Australia and Europe could only book for the 2022 hajj through a single government-authorized online portal called Motawif. This initiated a lottery-based pilgrimage, as opposed to the existing first-come-first-serve framework.
Motawif, a product of Saudi Vision 2030, aims to increase religious tourism. According to Arabian Business (June 14), Abdulfattah Mashat (vice minister for hajj and umrah) said, “In our role as sector regulator, the new portal comes within the framework of the Ministry’s strategy to develop the digital experience for the pilgrims. These efforts aim to facilitate the procedures and provide transparency and competitive prices for pilgrims.”
The portal did simplify the application process, expedite registration and issued visas electronically; however, the wisdom of the Ministry’s decision has been called into question for several very good reasons.
The top technical defects that defied Saudi Vision 2030’s goal of providing a scalable digital experience for the pilgrims are:
• System Failure. The website crashed within the first 10 minutes due to the high volume of registrations to assess and understand the new process. The Motawif team should have guesstimated the huge number of initial interest forms submitted prior to actual registration for the lottery to avoid this failure. Besides, many features never performed as expected even after completing registration.
• Payment Failures. The 2022 hajj visa lottery winners encountered their first difficulty when trying to make payments. The most prominent failure was the portal’s untrusted and unknown payment platform. Banks simply refused to release large amounts of money to its system. Many saw their payments authorized and dispatched from bank accounts; however, their Motawif profiles weren’t updated for days.
• Inflated Transaction Fees. Pilgrims had to make payments using credit cards, and payment merchants charged huge fees for every transaction. Many have complained that the new system takes extortionate transaction fees.
• Incomplete Booking. After many hacks and staying on the phone for hours with Motawif’s customer service representatives, applicants were finally able to make a payment but couldn’t complete the booking of their desired package. Booking hotels and airlines as per individual schedules was a constant fight.
• Faults with Flight Booking. Motawif was only integrated with Saudi Airlines and thus couldn’t complete bookings for all pilgrims. Many pilgrim families discovered at the airport that neither their bookings were available, nor did all their family members have tickets. They had to wait in the airport for up to 48 hours, spending all that time haggling on the phone with Motawif’s support staff.
• Inefficient Hotel Check-in Strategy. Upon arriving at their hotels in Makka, pilgrims experienced enormous trouble in obtaining their rooms in accordance with Islam’s gender separation policy. Many were even asked to share their rooms with non-mahrams.
• Price Hikes. The original motivation behind promoting Motawif for all Western countries was the promise of cheaper rates. However, the total price drastically increased after completing the booking, although lower prices per package were initially published.
• Lack of Trust. The selected countries were used as test cases, and the repeating system errors engendered distrust among them. While booking through travel agents holds many conveniences, not to mention extra security and a designated point of contact to hold them accountable, Motawif’s lack of any such amenities resulted in nothing but stress and pain.
• Trouble with Refunds. Many applicants couldn’t complete a booking even after making full payment. Currently, they have hired law firms to resolve issues with receiving refunds.
Although the portal and its software are fraught with technical shortcomings, the core issues are largely ethical — Riyadh is legislating hajj policies for all Muslims. Among them are the following:
• Being Inconsiderate of Hajj’s True Reality. Hajj is no longer confined to a few weeks, but has become a yearlong cycle of planning, financing, teaching, outfitting, transporting, lodging, doctoring, celebrating, mourning, blaming and correcting. However, Motawif’s launch and the hajj ministry’s approved steps completely disregarded that reality. The system was announced on June 6, exactly one month prior to hajj, but wasn’t available until July 8. But at that time, potential pilgrims could only submit their questions. Registration for the lottery was opened late, on June 10. The results were supposed to be out by June 15, but people only began them on June 17 or later.
• Causing Stress and Confusion. The new system was introduced without proper planning and less than one month before the hajj season began. The “random” application process, done with less than two weeks to go, prevented Muslims living in the West from preparing spiritually, left many in the dark about their status and caused an immense amount of stress. Many people in the West cannot just pack up and leave for two to four weeks.
• Inconsiderate to Collective Necessity. Hajj’s dominant communal aspect is not found in other rituals, which primarily stress individual piety. Unfortunately, this collective ritual has increasingly fallen to the mercy of Saudi Arabia’s unilateral decision making and management.
• Not Accepting Responsibility. The Motawif portal’s massive failure flooded the media, and yet the hajj ministry called it a success, identifying its errors as occasional and random. The ministry’s refusal to acknowledge and accept that discriminatory hajj policies are religiously self-contradictory and a politically self-defeating ideology is nothing but transparent hypocrisy, a manipulation of sacred symbols of universality dreamed up for partisan advantage.
• Politicizing and Objectifying Hajj. Despite the great failure and increasing issues with hajj, Muslim governments and politicians seldom envision the result of their own hajj policies at home and abroad. Thus, this core ritual has become overtly politicized and covertly objectified in the name of modernization.
Far-reaching political ramifications are not surprising in connection with the hajj, particularly when it comes to government sponsorship and regulations. But this year’s policies superseded all past records! Pilgrims to Makka are “Guests of God,” not of Saudi Arabia or any other nation-state. They must be free to visit the holy places and to imagine their spiritual experiences individualistically. The principle of open access, combined with religious interpretation to preserve this pillar’s due sacrosanctity, are needed to preserve its autonomy, no matter how politicians try to manipulate it.
Rasheed Rabbi, an IT professional who earned an MA in religious studies (2016) from Hartford Seminary and is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry from Boston University, is also founder of e-Dawah (www.edawah.net) and secretary of the Association of Muslim Scientists, Engineers & Technology Professionals. He serves as a khateeb and Friday prayer leader at the ADAMS Center and is a certified Muslim chaplain at iNova Fairfax, iNovaLoudoun and Virginia’s Alexandria and Loudoun Adult Detention Centers.