JEDDAH, 27 August — Many pilgrims, especially expatriate residents of neighboring Gulf countries, are complaining about the difficulties they are facing in performing Umrah following the introduction of new regulations.
Most of these pilgrims emphasize in particular that it was both more convenient and less expensive for them to perform Umrah using their own transport. Now, under the new regulations, they cannot obtain visas directly, as Umrah visas are issued only through approved agents. This means that they must travel on group packages.
“Why don’t the concerned authorities consider this problem and try to implement a new policy valid for all GCC residents?”
This is the question being asked by thousands of GCC expatriates. At the moment citizens of GCC countries, unlike immigrants living in them, are allowed to enter the Kingdom to perform Umrah and Haj without first obtaining visas. This, according to the expatriates who want the same privilege, is simply unjust.
“We go to Makkah and Madinah only for the purpose of Umrah when we travel in our cars, and do not have any intention of staying in Saudi Arabia illegally,” an Indian expatriate in Dubai told Arab News.
The fees charged by the agents, he continued, are exorbitant, while the services they provide amount only to sending faxes to agents in the Kingdom to arrange accommodation in Makkah and Madinah.
He said in some cases even after paying their money the visitors themselves end up having to find their own accommodation because of mixups with the bookings.
In fact, officials at the Ministry of Haj have started to investigate 20 Umrah agents accused of trading in Umrah visas in violation of existing regulations, according to Muhammad Saleh Bantan, deputy minister of Haj.
“We have evidence against those agents and there will be tough punishments strictly enforced, including fines of up to SR50,000 in addition to license withdrawal, for those found guilty,” Bantan said.
There are legal committees from several ministries studying the alleged illegalities and they are drawing up the punishments for such violations, he added.
Saudi Arabia introduced new Umrah service regulations last May, with the aim of streamlining religious visits and bringing to an end the problem of overstaying by some pilgrims. Services are now to be provided by Saudi companies licensed by the Haj Ministry. Pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah must produce a bank draft and possess a return ticket. Local agents will receive the pilgrims on arrival, arrange for their transportation and accommodation, and will ensure that they return to their home countries before their visas expire.
In a related development, Haj Minister Iyad Madani insisted yesterday that there had been no delay in issuing Umrah visas to Iranian pilgrims, as has been alleged by an Iranian official. However, he said that if there had been such a delay it would have been caused the Iranian Umrah company which single-handedly deals with the large number of Iranian pilgrims.
Ibrahim Abdul Azim, deputy chairman of the Iranian Haj delegation, had earlier told BBC television that the delay was caused by the new restrictions imposed by Saudi authorities. He said that out of the 50,000 Iranians who have applied for Umrah visas, only 15,000 had received them.
Madani predicts that in general the number of Umrah pilgrims will reach 20 million annually. Saudi Umrah companies have already signed contracts with 100 foreign companies to provide the service.
Under the new rules, Umrah pilgrims can stay in the Kingdom for a month, instead of the previous two weeks.
“The visa period can be extended automatically for two months if they want to visit various parts of the Kingdom,” the Haj minister said.
The new system also allows foreign pilgrims to perform Umrah more than once in a year.
The minister criticized the Umrah companies for triggering a price war by undercutting the prices they had previously agreed on. The price war has caused losses to small companies.
The companies licensed to provide Umrah services have expressed their fears that the recent move by the Haj Ministry allowing Tawafa organizations to handle Umrah pilgrims will drastically undermine their business.
The existing Umrah firms said the six new Tawafa organizations specializing in Umrah services would definitely reduce their share in the market, and may quite possibly result in their departure from the market within a few years.
They want the ministry to withdraw the licenses given to the Tawafa organizations on the grounds that the latter will dominate the market because of their financial resources and professional expertise.
The Tawafa organizations, which handle more than 1.2 million foreign pilgrims every year, argue that their entry into the Umrah market could only improve the service, as they will be able to offer housing and transport services to Umrah pilgrims by using their existing mechanisms.
Representatives of the Umrah companies raised the issue during a meeting with Deputy Minister Bantan last Saturday at the Jeddah Chamber for Commerce and Industry (JCCI).
The minister urged Umrah companies to compete with one another to provide better services to pilgrims, without slipping into an unjustifiable price war.
During the meeting, representatives of Umrah companies raised a number of issues, such as the procedural delays at the Foreign Ministry and the Passports Department.
They also raised the rule of ensuring that 90 percent of pilgrims who have been issued visas should have traveled before any more visas are issued to new pilgrims, saying the regulation had had a detrimental effect on many of their contracts with foreign pilgrims.
Bantan urged the companies to update their information, including publishing the address of their headquarters, and improve their administrative systems.
He disclosed that the Haj Ministry will be soon linked with the foreign and interior ministries by a computer network.
The Umrah visas will then be automated through an electronic network that links all of the Saudi embassies and consulates with the Ministry of Haj and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.