Meet the UK’s oldest Hajj tour agent who helped pave pilgrims’ path to Makkah

Owner of a Hajj and Umrah tourism agency in St. John’s Wood, northwest London, Hamdy El-Sawy. (AN Photo)
Updated 09 March 2018
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Meet the UK’s oldest Hajj tour agent who helped pave pilgrims’ path to Makkah

LONDON: The maps of Makkah and Mount Arafat are wearing thin at El-Sawy Travel, a Hajj and Umrah tourism agency in St. John’s Wood, northwest London.
Faded finger marks show where owner Hamdy El-Sawy has traced the journeys made by hundreds of British Muslims he has taken on the sacred pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia over the past four decades.
“I enjoy serving them— they are the guests of God,” said El-Sawy, rubbing eyes that are rheumy with age.
When El-Sawy established his business in 1978, he was the only Hajj group tour operator in the UK. Today, scores of similar businesses take more than 25,000 British citizens and residents to Saudi Arabia each year to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam.
Times have changed since El-Sawy first visited Saudi Arabia in 1974. Traveling from his native Egypt to undertake the Umrah, he journeyed by sea. “I think it took 40 hours,” he recalled with a laugh.
After moving to London and setting up a translation company in the late 1970s, El-Sawy began organizing weekend bus trips across the country for London’s Muslim community.
“One day we were coming back from Manchester when somebody asked, ‘When is the big trip?’ I thought maybe he wanted to go to the Lake District or Wales. So I said, ‘where would you like to go?’ He said: ‘The Hajj’”
The pilgrimage to Makkah is one of the five pillars of Islam, with all able-bodied Muslims required to visit the holy site at least once.

El-Sawy led the first British Hajj group to Makkah in 1981, taking 47 Muslims from all different origins and ethnicities on the sacred journey. The “very simple” town of Makkah where El-Sawy landed with his first group of pilgrims has long since given way to a global hub with infrastructure capable of managing the annual arrival of 6.5 million faithful from across the globe each year.
“There has been a lot of improvement,” El-Sawy said.
Other tour operators agreed. Abu Tahera, who has worked with with Birmingham-based Premier Hajj Tours for a decade, said that communication between authorities in the Kingdom and the UK has improved markedly.
“I’ve been doing this for about ten years, and there have been a lot of changes in terms of logistics, and in terms of the way the [Saudi] embassy deals with the issuance of visas…. It’s getting better and easier,” he said.
Another change has been in the cost of the Hajj. The first year he led a group on the Hajj, El-Sawy charged pilgrims £325 ($451). Today, Hajj tours purchased through his business cost between £4,000 and £6,500.
Nevertheless, Britain’s Hajj tourism industry is thriving despite the appreciable price tag on packages. On average, tours cost £5,000, with super luxury itineraries selling for £13,000 and more, according to Rashid Mogradia, CEO of the Council for British Hajjis, a UK national charity which promotes the welfare of British pilgrims. According to statistics provided by the City of London, British Muslims spend £90 million on pilgrimages each year.
Despite the considerable sum, more and more British Muslims are investing in the journey. “The UK market is very strong and growing.” Mogradia told Arab News. “The more reputable and licensed operators are showing an increase in their bookings.”
Between 2016 and 2017, the number of British residents embarking on the Hajj jumped from 19,000 to more than 25,000, while the number taking the Umrah soared from 75,000 to 100,000 over the same one-year period.
Mogradia said that the sharp increase is due in part to the Islamic calendar, which changes each year and currently sees Hajj fall during the summer months. “People are off work, it’s the holiday season and its easier for them to undertake the pilgrimage.”
However, other reasons may also be behind the dramatic increase in British pilgrims: “The fact that in the time where Muslims are under constant attack you have the prevalence of Islamophobia within the UK and around the world— the Hajj is seen as a spiritual rejuvenation. People go and seek solace through their faith,” said Mogradia.
The average age of UK pilgrims is decreasing, several operators said, as British families today bring young children on the Hajj. But there is also a cross-generational mix not seen previously as middle-aged Muslims take older parents along with them.
The younger generation of pilgrims demand top quality Hajj services. “People are doing research before going,” said Tamim Ahmed, managing director of the family-owned Ahmed Travel, based in East London. “Ten years ago when I first started in the market, people didn’t do much research: they went to their local mosque and [selected] which group was easiest to join,” he said.
“People look for the best hotels: it’s about quality to make sure their Hajj is done properly,” said Ahmed, whose company took more than 350 British muslims on the pilgrimage. “People are shopping around for packages,” he explained.


China ups pressure as tech exec's hearing goes into Tuesday

Liu Xiaozong, husband of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's chief financial officer arrives at a Vancouver, British Columbia courthouse following a break in the bail hearing for his wife on Monday, December 10, 2018. (AP)
Updated 11 December 2018
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China ups pressure as tech exec's hearing goes into Tuesday

  • The Canadian province of British Columbia has already canceled a trade mission to China amid fears China could detain Canadians in retaliation for Meng's detention
  • The prosecutor said her husband has no meaningful connections to Vancouver and spends only two or three weeks a year in the city

VANCOUVER, British Columbia: A jailed Chinese technology executive will have to wait at least one more day to see if she will be released on bail in a case that has raised U.S.-China tensions and complicated efforts to resolve a trade dispute that has roiled financial markets and threatened global economic growth.
Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and daughter of its founder, was detained at the request of the U.S. during a layover at the Vancouver airport Dec. 1 — the same day that Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping of China agreed to a 90-day cease-fire in the trade dispute that threatens to disrupt global commerce.
The U.S. has accused Huawei of using a Hong Kong shell company to sell equipment to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. It also says Meng and Huawei misled banks about the company's business dealings in Iran.
After a second daylong session, Justice William Ehrcke said the bail hearing would continue Tuesday.
In urging the court to reject Meng's bail request, prosecutor John Gibb-Carsley noted the Huawei executive has vast resources and a strong incentive to flee as she is facing fraud charges in the United States that could put her in prison for 30 years.
Gibb-Carsley later told the judge that if he does decide to grant bail it should include house arrest.
David Martin, Meng's lawyer, said Meng was willing to pay for a surveillance company to monitor her and wear an ankle monitor but she wanted to be able to travel around Vancouver and its suburbs. Scott Filer of Lions Gate Risk Management group said his company would make a citizen's arrest if she breached bail conditions.
Martin said Meng's husband would put up both of their Vancouver homes plus $1 million Canadian ($750,000) for a total value of $15 million Canadian ($11.2 million) as collateral.
The judge cast doubt on that proposal, saying Meng's husband isn't a resident of British Columbia — a requirement for him to act as a guarantor that his wife won't flee — and his visitor visa expires in February.
The prosecutor said her husband has no meaningful connections to Vancouver and spends only two or three weeks a year in the city. Gibb-Carsley also expressed concern about the idea of using a security company paid by Meng.
He said later that $15 million Canadian ($11.2 million) would be an appropriate amount if the judge granted bail, but he said half should be in cash.
Meng's arrest has fueled U.S.-China trade tensions at a time when the two countries are seeking to resolve a dispute over Beijing's technology and industrial strategy. Both sides have sought to keep the issues separate, at least so far, but the arrest has roiled markets, with stock markets worldwide down again Monday.
The hearing has sparked widespread interest, and the courtroom was packed again Monday with media and spectators, including some who came to support Meng. One man in the gallery brought binoculars to have a closer look at Meng, while outside court a man and woman held a sign that read "Free Ms. Meng."
Over the weekend, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned Canadian Ambassador John McCallum and U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad.
Le warned both countries that Beijing would take steps based on their response. Asked Monday what those steps might be, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said only, "It totally depends on the Canadian side itself."
The Canadian province of British Columbia has already canceled a trade mission to China amid fears China could detain Canadians in retaliation for Meng's detention.
Stocks around the world fell Monday over investor concerns about the continuing U.S.-China trade dispute, as well as the cloud hanging over Brexit negotiations after Britain's prime minister postponed a vote on her deal for Britain to quit the European Union. In the U.S., stocks were volatile, tumbling in the morning and then recovering in the afternoon.
The Huawei case complicates efforts to resolve the U.S.-China trade dispute. The United States has slapped tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports, charging that China steals American technology and forces U.S. companies to turn over trade secrets.
Tariffs on $200 billion of those imports were scheduled to rise from 10 percent to 25 percent on Jan. 1. But over dinner Dec. 1 with Xi in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Trump agreed to delay the increase for 90 days, buying time for more negotiations.
Bill Perry, a trade lawyer with Harris Bricken in Seattle, said China's decelerating economy is putting pressure on Xi to make concessions before U.S. tariffs go up.
"They need a trade deal. They don't want the tariffs to go up to 25" percent, said Perry, who produces the "US China Trade War" blog. "This is Damocles' sword hanging over the Chinese government."
Huawei, the biggest global supplier of network gear for phone and internet companies, has become the target of U.S. security concerns because of its ties to the Chinese government. The U.S. has pressured other countries to limit use of its technology, warning they could be opening themselves up to surveillance and theft of information.
Lu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, accused countries he didn't cite by name of hyping the "so-called" threat.
"I must tell you that not a single piece of evidence have they ever presented to back their allegation," he said. "To create obstacles for companies' normal operations based on speculation is quite absurd."
Canadian officials have declined to comment on Chinese threats of retaliation, instead emphasizing the independence of Canada's judiciary and the importance of Ottawa's relationship with Beijing.