This month, when the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah closed its registration for pilgrims inside the Kingdom, 690,000 citizens and residents had applied. Moreover, 150,000 people, or 15 percent of that total, were selected through an e-draw last week. A further 850,000 will be coming from overseas to perform the Hajj rituals this year. These numbers are in stark contrast to previous, pre-pandemic years.
Each Arab and Muslim country’s quota of pilgrims was unanimously determined and agreed upon at a meeting of foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1987. The agreement stipulates that the ratio is set at one per 1,000 people of the country’s population. However, because of COVID-19, that number was reduced by 2.45 percent of the original quota set for each country.
The responsibility for pilgrims outside Saudi Arabia is borne by the Arbab Al-Tawaif Establishments, established by a Saudi cabinet decision in 2006. Last year, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah transformed them into nine joint-stock companies. These firms are considered to be part of the private sector, with revenues of over $12 billion for every Hajj season, contributing 7 percent to the Kingdom’s GDP.
Challenges remain, such as Iranian leader Ali Khamenei asking Iranian pilgrims not to buy gifts for their families from markets in Saudi. Khamenei has claimed that prices are too high, and urged his country’s citizens to buy ostensibly cheaper and higher-quality products at home. Statistics show that most pilgrims spend 14 percent of the cost of Hajj on gifts in the Kingdom, which in turn increases the demand for the Saudi riyal and the value of Saudi foreign exchange reserves — something Iran does not wish to happen.
However, the Kingdom continues to innovate to provide pilgrims a smooth and secure Hajj. This year, it has provided smart solutions to help the two holy mosques prepare, such as a transit visa that gives those passing through Saudi airspace the opportunity to perform Umrah within 96 hours of their waiting period.
Another way has been through the Makkah Road Initiative, which the ministry has been operating for the fourth year. Through the initiative, pilgrims are able to complete immigration and travel procedures from their home countries, which contributed to a reduced waiting time in Saudi’s airports from an estimated six hours to 15 minutes. Pakistan, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia are countries that have benefited from these smart solutions. More countries are to be added to the list of beneficiaries, according to the ministry.
It is known that pilgrims spend an average of 40 percent of the cost of Hajj in their countries and the remaining 60 percent in the Kingdom. The Kingdom benefits only from visa fees worth more than $500 from those who perform Hajj for the second time. However, this year will be a different because the ministry has focused on pilgrims performing Hajj for the first time.
It should be noted that foreign pilgrims are buying Hajj packages abroad, including for housing and food, that cost 46 percent more than those offered by the ministry. According to 2018 statistics, pilgrims abroad are paying an estimated average of $7,000 per pilgrim without transportation.
In contrast, the ministry offers three Saudi packages for pilgrims which are, on average, $3,000 per person without transportation or value-added tax. These include various accommodation options, in Mina towers, or in upgraded or standard tents. The cost disparity cannot be justified and agencies abroad must explain why they are raising costs.
- Dr. Bader bin Saud is a weekly columnist for Al-Riyadh and Okaz, a media and knowledge management researcher, and the former deputy commander of the Special Forces for Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia