From Pakistan, the delightful road to Makkah
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enjoys a pivotal position in the Islamic world as its monarch is also the Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques. Saudi Vision 2030 duly takes note of this fact and aims to develop Hajj and Umra facilities further as part of the overall progress in all other fields. The focus is to grow out of a petro-dependent economy to a vibrant, ambitious and economically resilient productive nation. In the modern world, production is not merely manufacturing goods but also includes improved services. Hajj and Umra facilities in the Kingdom have vastly improved over the years.
A quantum jump was made in 2019 when the pilot project of Road to Makkah was launched between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Two succeeding years were hampered by COVID-19 and no foreign pilgrims could go for Hajj. Road to Makkah has been revived this year and the first flight from Islamabad airport left a few days ago. This project envisages immigration formalities completed in Pakistan, before departure. These include electronic visa and biometrics. Over and above, Covid certificates and luggage coding were also completed in Pakistan. This enabled the pilgrims to move straight from the aircraft in Jeddah and Madinah to their designated accommodation.
Apart from Pakistan, the Road to Makkah facility has been extended to four other countries. This makes lots of logistic sense as it eases the work load at the Hajj terminals in the Kingdom. Much more than a commercial activity, the Hajj is an opportunity for spiritual redemption, for the pilgrims and the host government. In the Kingdom, the pilgrims are called “Guests of God.” Their comfort enables them to devote maximum time to religious rites. This year, 14,007 pilgrims will avail the Road to Makkah facility from Pakistan aboard 42 flights.
From the Pakistani perspective, this is a great facility that benefits both governments and more importantly the pilgrims themselves. Years ago, when I served as a diplomat in the Kingdom, things were not so well streamlined. I have seen dozens of flights carrying pilgrims land at Jeddah airport all at once. These pilgrims used to come from all continents and spoke various languages. Saudi immigration officials, transport providers, landlords renting out accommodation were all overwhelmed due to the rush of work. Now every pilgrim can see designated transport waiting at the airport of disembarkation. Their luggage, already coded and earmarked, will simultaneously reach its designated accommodation.
This year, 14,007 pilgrims will avail the Road to Makkah facility from Pakistan aboard 42 flights.
Pakistani Minister for Religious Affairs, Qari Abdul Shakoor, and the Kingdom’s Ambassador to Pakistan, His Excellency Nawaf Bin Saeed Al Malki, visited Islamabad airport together before the first flight left and personally inspected immigration arrangements, health checks, customs formalities etc. They expressed their satisfaction at the arrangements made and the smooth facilitation of pilgrims.
This year Pakistan’s pilgrim quota is just above 81,000. This means that only about 17% of Pakistani pilgrims will avail this highly useful facility this year. Some technical glitches on the first day notwithstanding, the system is now functioning smoothly. The pilgrim quota of Pakistan and other Muslim countries is bound to increase in the future as Covid-19 related fears and precautions abate. This facility therefore needs to be replicated in other countries and enlarged in Pakistan.
The first batch of Pakistani pilgrims benefitting from the Road to Makkah initiative arrived at the Prince Mohammad bin Abdul Aziz International Airport on June 7 and was received by the Head of Passports in Madinah. Another positive aspect of this initiative is that it affords an opportunity to Pakistani and Saudi immigration officials to work together during the Hajj season. In our current global village scenario, it is good for immigration officials to work together and share each other’s perspectives on various aspects of their sensitive work.
The use of digital technology is an essential part of Saudi Vision 2030. Pakistan too is determined to optimize the use of technology for issuance of personal documents and passports. It started issuing machine readable passports to Pakistani citizens in 2016 and recently some more security features have been added. Various Pakistani documents including the National Identity Card (NIC) are of international standards.
Meanwhile, it is heartening to note that Hajj arrangements in Makkah have been vastly improved. Similarly, the movement between Mina, Muzdalfa and Arafat has been streamlined. Madinah has witnessed great expansion and now has efficient modern transport and digital communication. This futuristic outlook, of which Road to Makkah is one part, augurs well for all pilgrims. Hajj, apart from being a religious obligation, promotes understanding and empathy.
– Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.