The Hajj journey for average Pakistanis

Hajj pilgrims take a selfie at the Grand Mosque in Makkah on Wednesday, on the eve of the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (AFP)
Updated 31 August 2017

The Hajj journey for average Pakistanis

ISLAMABAD: Asif Mohammed Khan, a resident of the northwestern Pakistani city of Abbottabad, has been anxiously waiting to receive good news from the government-run draw for Hajj visas for his retired parents.
In 2011, unaware of the application procedures and being warned that Pakistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has a selective system favoring those able to pay under the table, Khan sought help from his uncle working for a government department to apply under the official quota, hoping to increase his chances of obtaining the visa, but to no avail.
“There are some people working in his department who applied the same year and were selected. I asked my uncle how that was possible and he said they were lucky — without going into further details. I don’t believe that,” Khan told Arab News. “Is our luck so bad that in six years we haven’t been chosen?”
Like Khan, many people residing in rural areas or small cities are oblivious to application procedures or contact details stated on the ministry’s website, and ask for help from relatives or agents to fulfill the prerequisites to place their name in the yearly draw.
However, those who are informed through advertisements or public notices published by the ministry, and reach the government designated Hajji camps, are faced with the dilemma of financing their pilgrimage. The Saudi fee for a Hajj visa is Rs. 55,000, or SR2,000 ($533) and the fee for the complete government package is approximately Rs. 270,941 according to the government’s Hajj scheme, which will likely increase next year.
Ibrar Hussain, with an average income of Rs. 20,000 per month, has been saving for several years to send his parents on Hajj but has been unable to accumulate enough.
“It is already hard enough for me to survive on my salary, though I am provided accommodation and food by my employer, but I have to send some of my money to my parents and save some. I am eligible for a bank loan also but I can’t send them on Hajj and later pay monthly interest to the bank on the installments. That’s haram [forbidden],” Hussain told Arab News.
He questions why the government can’t provide an interest-free installment package for pilgrimage and also do away with the lottery scheme.
Of the top 10 countries awarded Hajj visas, Pakistan ranks second, receiving a visa quota of 179,210. According to the director general of Hajj, 107,526 Pakistanis received visas from the government balloting scheme and the rest through private operators or Hajj. “Those who can afford it take the packages between Rs. 700,00 up to Rs. 1.1 million,” says a private Hajj company CEO, Farhan Ahmed.
This is beyond the means of a majority of people, but the incumbent PML-N government has made several improvements to make Hajj affordable, easier, with quality accommodations and three meals, said Ahmed, speaking to Arab News.
A mid-level official at the Ministry of Religious Affairs who requested anonymity, told Arab News, that simply doing away with the balloting system would send the Hajj visa scheme into chaos as the number of applications the ministry receives is overwhelming.
“If we allow everyone, it would turn in to a disaster,” he said. “The mechanism is in place to provide equal opportunity to all. Those who are 90 years or above are given visas first, without going through the draw program, so we understand the sentiments of the people and are doing our best.”
However, he agreed that nepotism and selective balloting could not be ruled out, but the new policy barring government employees who have made the journey in last five years from performing Hajj, has had a beneficial impact for those who have queued on the waiting list.

Russian museum CEO: Archaeology in Saudi Arabia is at its peak

Since the launch of the Vision 2030 reform plans, many steps have been taken to present Saudi Arabia’s ancient wonders such as Al-Gara Mountain in Al-Ahsa to the world. (Shutterstock)
Updated 7 min 55 sec ago

Russian museum CEO: Archaeology in Saudi Arabia is at its peak

  • Undiscovered archaeological treasures key to cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia

MOSCOW: Archaeology in Saudi Arabia has seen an unprecedented number of discoveries and findings in recent years. With over 44 Saudi and international missions working in the Kingdom this year alone, Russia’s State Hermitage Museum director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, commended the country’s efforts in presenting its hidden treasures to the world.
Arab News met with the director in Moscow to discuss the future of archaeology in Saudi Arabia and his interest in hosting one of its most famous exhibits, “AlUla: Wonder of Arabia.”
Piotrovsky, the urbane general director of the State Hermitage Museum located in Saint Petersburg, was appointed in 1992 by decree of the prime minister at the time.
He has a long history with the museum.
He took up the position following his father, Boris Piotrovsky, who was director from 1964 until his death in 1990.
Piotrovsky’s work at the museum is inspired by both his passion for the arts and a deeply rooted adoration for archaeology.
A graduate of Leningrad University, he spent a year taking part in archaeological explorations in Yemen, the Caucuses and central Asia, with over 200 scholarly publications, including catalogues of Arabic manuscripts.
A fluent Arabic speaker, he dedicated many years of his career to the archaeology of the Arab world, the spiritual and political history of Islam and Arab culture as well as medieval works and ancient inscriptions.
He told Arab News how the school of archaeology is always developing, and in order to achieve success in any excursion, it is key that teams coordinate with others to learn from their experiences.
“It is a very international field. If it is not, it will become too narrow and nationalistic,” Piotrovsky said.
“Archaeological departments are the most open bodies in every country. Be it Russia, Egypt, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, they are accustomed to working with different points of view and people from other civilizations. Openness is important for achieving success.”
The director said that many archaeologists from the Kingdom have been invited by the museum to partake in expeditions alongside Russian archaeologists to gain experience and exchange knowledge.
“AlUla is one of the jewels of archaeology,” he said. “It is a rare site, the Nabataeans controlled the routes from south to north. The Romans, Indians, ancient Palmyrians and Bedouins have been there.” The director told Arab News that they have been working in joint teams not only in archaeological diggings but also with plans to develop what they call an “archaeological park.”


4.5m - people visited the State Hermitage Museum.

The Russian State Hermitage Museum tells the story of Russia, its palaces, Peter the Great and many more significant historical moments. The museum also exhibits artifacts of different civilizations: Islamic, Buddhist, Catholic and others.
The museum’s message and goal is for “different civilizations to speak to each other and to us and make a connection,” he exclaimed.
Piotrovsky believes the same concept can be developed for AlUla.
Speaking to Arab News last January, Dr. Abdullah Al-Zahrani, general director of archaeological research studies at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, said that digs in Saudi Arabia are increasing at an unprecedented rate.
“Archaeology in the Kingdom is on the rise,” said the director.
“There is still a lot to be discovered and we are still in the period where you begin to dig and make a discovery, dig more and make another discovery. In the Arab world, everything is new and holds a base for the development of knowledge.”
Piotrovsky has been following the progress of archaeology in the Arab world for many years and he said that more archaeologists are going to Saudi Arabia now than at any point in the past 10 years.
Antiquities discovered in the Kingdom are known to come from one of the oldest areas of human settlements, with discoveries dating back 1.2 million years. In this past year alone, 15 new sites were discovered across the country.


85,000-year-old discovery of a rare fossilized finger bone in the Nefud Desert is the oldest human fossil on record unearthed.

“It is a very important region which is still undiscovered properly. We all know the first man, according to our theories, was born in Africa and then we see its traces moving to Europe and Asia through the Arabian Peninsula,” said Piotrovsky.
“Ancient archaeology is very important but I think for this time period it should be the archaeology of the written period. Archaeology of the trade routes, coming from India and Africa, trade routes from Iraq and Palestine and Syria. There were fantastic kingdoms and sites.”
The museum’s keen interest in Saudi Arabia’s archaeological findings are a reflection of the director’s move to enhance cooperation between the countries.
It is planning on bringing the Kingdom’s first international exhibition dedicated to the human and natural heritage of AlUla titled “AlUla: Wonder of Arabia” to Saint Petersburg.
In 2011, the museum hosted the third leg of the “Saudi Archaeological Masterpieces through the Ages” exhibition after the successful exhibitions at the Louvre Museum in Paris and the La Caixa Foundation in Barcelona.
Aimed to introduce the historical and cultural importance of the Kingdom, the 450 relics were displayed for the first time outside of Saudi Arabia. They date back to a time between the Palaeolithic era and the pre-Islamic ages.
Since the launch of the Vision 2030 reform plans, many steps have been taken to present Saudi Arabia’s modern culture and ancient wonders to the world.
There is history lying beneath the Kingdom’s vast sand dunes, and a dig will not suffice, there is more to be done for the world to connect with the Kingdom.
“Opening up to the world is a little bit dangerous, but a museum recipe is a good one,” said Piotrovsky.