KUALA LUMPUR: As Malaysian pilgrims arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for the flight to Saudi Arabia, they are welcomed by Saudi officials who are helping tens of thousands of people depart for Hajj.
The welcome is a pre-departure glimpse into Saudi hospitality.
Malaysia is among five Muslim majority countries — including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Morocco — where Saudi Arabia opened its Makkah Route initiative.
The program, launched in 2019, is dedicated to Hajj pilgrims, allowing them to fulfill all visa, customs and health requirements at the airport of origin, saving long hours of waiting. Upon arrival, pilgrims can enter the Kingdom without waiting, having already gone through visa and customs processes back home.
Those departing from Kuala Lumpur airport are taken care of by dozens of Saudi immigration officials working round the clock to facilitate their journey.
“We are not even in Saudi yet, but I can already feel the warmth. This is very welcoming,” Ariff Abdullah, who departed on one of the last Hajj flights this week, told Arab News, as he and his wife were getting ready to board their Jeddah-bound flight.
“Today I was joking with the chap at the immigration counter,” Abdullah said. “He even knew a couple of Malay words!”
This year, 14,306 Malaysian pilgrims will take part in Hajj. The number is half the quota Malaysia received in 2019, the last Hajj season before the COVID-19 pandemic. But the total number of pilgrims who will arrive in the Kingdom this year has also been halved.
Hajj was restricted to just 1,000 people living in the Kingdom in 2020, and limited to only 60,000 domestic participants in 2021.
As COVID-19 curbs have been lifted this year, Saudi Arabia will welcome 1 million foreign and domestic pilgrims, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.
Makkah Route officials are helping to streamline their arrival.
“The initiative aims to facilitate the pilgrims’ immigration process at their country of origin, including fingerprinting and finalizing the entry (to Saudi Arabia), and delivery of luggage to their chosen accommodations in a very short time,” Sgt. Maj. Anas Muhammad, who arrived from Jeddah to assist Malaysian pilgrims, told Arab News.
His colleague, Sgt. Kholoud Al-Ahmadi, is “honored to be part of the Makkah Route initiative in Malaysia.”
She said: “I am very glad to be part of this initiative, especially since it’s my first time in Malaysia.”
Combined with other procedures under the Makkah Route, the immigration process from both the Malaysian and Saudi sides takes an average of 10 minutes per pilgrim.
To those who require more assistance, including people with disabilities, the scheme is a welcome relief.
“When we reach Jeddah, we are all cleared and there is no need to wait and queue for immigration there,” said Zainab Binti Awang, a wheelchair user accompanied by her sister.
When they reach the Kingdom, pilgrims are received at the airport and taken to their hotels in Makkah and Madinah. They can focus on their spiritual journeys, as all practical aspects of the pilgrimage are taken care of.
“The Makkah Route is very convenient,” said Johar Yusof, another pilgrim departing from Kuala Lumpur. “There’s no need to go through hassle — I love it.”