As the outcry over Umrah visas fees continue, an urgent meeting has been scheduled by social cohesive activist Yusuf Abramjee to discuss the proposed excessive visa costs of travelling to Makkah and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The meeting is expected to take place on Sunday 11am at Jisa in Crosby, south of Johannesburg.
In recent weeks there has been scant information regarding visa costs both from the local Saudi Arabian embassy in South Africa and authorities in the kingdom.
The lack of clarity on the issue has prompted the South African Hajj and Umrah Council (SAHUC) to write to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) requesting their intervention with Saudi Arabia regarding visa charges for Umrah and Hajj for repeat pilgrims.
Secretary General of Jamiatul Ulama South Africa Moulana Ebrahim Bham who is also co-chairing the meeting says they have received a plethora of calls to address the issues of visa costs as many people intend on embarking for Umrah, especially during the December period.
“The matter has been covered in some sort of mystery, no one seems to know what is happening, the travel agents say they don’t know what’s happening, their visas have been blocked, they don’t get any Umrah visas.”
Ml Bham says unlike normal visas, an Umrah visa is not for tourist purposes as people go to Makkah and Medina for the sake of Ibaadat and for the pleasure of Allah.
He says there is concern that Umrah and Hajj has been made into such an elite type of situation that it takes away the poor people’s right to and the poor people’s capacity to be able to visit Makkah and Medina.
“Our we going to make Umrah and Hajj into something that’ll only be affordable to those who are wealthy and the poor people are the majority of the ummah who have such a burning desire to go to Makkah and Medina not for any other reason but for the sake of Islam, motivated by the love for Allah (SWT). Will they be deprived of this spiritual and great journey?”
Ml Bham says that the meeting is not intended to politicise the matter but rather encourage civil society who may be able to pressurise authorities in resolving the issue.
#UmrahVisaFeesMustFall – Global outcry intensifies
Ebrahim Moosa – Analysis | 10 Muharram 1438/12 October 2016
When its much hyped Vision 2030 programme was announced earlier this year, those doing the bidding for the Saudi regime were swift in hailing the initiative as revolutionary.
“Vision 2030 heralds dawn of a new era” announced one such bombastic headline in the state-run Arab News.
Echoing sentiments showcased during the period across the Saudi press, columnist Saad al-Dosary went on to claim that the “ambitious” development “did not disappoint anybody”.
“It lived up to the expectations of Saudis,” he said, and was “a long-term strategy to help realize the full potential of the Kingdom and to put the country on the road to success and development”.
The plan was conceived in response to dwindling Saudi financial fortunes and touted as a means to forge new streams of income for the Kingdom beyond oil.
One stated objective of the plan was to increase the number of Umrah pilgrims to 30 million per year and market Saudi Arabia as a Muslim tourist hub.
Concealed beneath this seemingly altruistic goal however, was the unspoken intention of the Saudis to tap deeper into the economic windfalls of religious ‘tourism’.
According to statistics from the Makkah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, foreign hujaaj last year spent almost 20 billion riyals ($5.3 billion) during the hajj. Add to this the annual Umrah spend and the true financial ‘utility’ of these Holy Journeys for an embattled dynasty suddenly shines through.
Economists say the overall ‘tourism’ sector contributes $22.6 billion (85 billion Saudi riyals) to Saudi Arabia’s GDP with Hajj and Umrah providing $12 billion (45 billion Saudi riyals).
Seen in this light, expanding the scope of the Umrah season can simply be considered a ruse to keep the Saudi economy well-oiled throughout the year.
Vision 2030 thus may well succeed in becoming a great money-spinner for Saudis, leaving no subjects disappointed as al-Dosary suggests. But what this kind of myopic calculus fails to investigate is the willingness of the wider Ummah to be part of this scheme, and their keenness, or lack thereof, to play according to Saudi terms.
It must be quite awkward for the Saudi authorities to proclaim, on the one hand, their credentials as the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques – a privilege conditional on selfless service, whilst on the other viewing the pilgrims they are meant to serve as juicy cash cows.
The regime of new Umrah visa fees officially adopted at the beginning of October, and meant to contribute significantly towards this projected new Vision 2030 income stream is a poignant manifestation of this awkwardness.
Amidst a global outcry on the exorbitance of the fees, apologists for the system have been keen to put a gloss on certain provisions of the new scheme, whilst neglecting to mention the wider negative fallout altogether.
A key selling point for them has been the announcement that Saudi Arabia will bear the costs of a one-time entry visa to those wishing to perform Hajj and Umrah for the first time.
As Arab News reported, “a number of heads of tawafa institutions said the Kingdom’s offer to carry fees for Haj and Umrah visas, which exceed SR2000,” proved “the state’s keenness to support Muslims in performing the pilgrimage comfortably and easily without bearing financial costs.”
The cheerleaders went further to even suggest that the imposition of the SR2000 for subsequent Holy Trips was a “good regulatory step” as it proved “that those who wish to perform Haj or Umrah have the financial ability to do so”.
Regardless of the justifications churned out in the Saudi self-flattery echo chamber, indications are that few in the Muslim world are buying them.
In Jordan, some 200 truck owners, who own around 1000 trucks between them, closed the entrance to Ramtha, 90km north of Amman, last week, calling on their government to contact Saudi authorities to cancel the fee hike. Scores of protestors also took to raising their grievances outside the Jordanian transport ministry.
The National Federation of Travel Agencies of Morocco (FNAVM) also last week decided to boycott Umrah trips following the Saudi dictat.
Moroccan agencies further agreed to boycott all Hajj and Umrah exhibitions in the Kingdom until the fees are lifted.
The Egyptian Travel Agents Association (ETAA) likewise also decided to boycott all Hajj and Umrah exhibitions and to form committees in cooperation with the foreign ministry to travel to Saudi Arabia and persuade the Ministry of Hajj to overturn the decision.
A number of Egyptian tourism companies’ owners called for boycotting Umrah trips, while EETA officials said they would wait until contact had been made with the Saudi authorities.
Online, the new stipulations have given rise to numerous petitions, many of whom have already garnered thousands of signatures.
‘New Umrah Visa fees Must Fall,’ a petition drafted by a South African on Change.org asks that visas be offered free or kept at a minimum cost. Organisers say that responses will be delivered to the local Saudi Embassy, various consulates throughout the world and to other key industry decision makers.
Yet another petition asserts: “The Muslim Ummah cannot afford to pay exorbitant fees to visit the Holy Landscape of Makkah and Madinah. These new visa prices will result in many families being deprived of the auspicious benefits of visiting the Holy Land.”
‘#Umrah Visa Fees Must Fall’ urges the Saudi Government to “revisit and revise the new regulations thus making it more affordable for prospective Umrah travellers to make the journey that every Muslim endeavours towards.”
With a dearth in official communication from the local Saudi embassy, the trepidation amongst South African Muslims has prompted local travel operators to lodge their concerns through correspondence with the Saudi mission.
Spokesperson for the South African Muslim Travel Association, Hajj Operator Fazila Malek says a joint letter sent to the embassy contains a “strong stance” and an unequivocal rejection of the “exorbitant fee”.
For its part, the South African Hajj and Umrah Council(SAHUC), whose mandate only involves the organisation of Hajj trips, has added its voice to the growing list of objectors, expressing “disappointment” with the current state of affairs.
“SAHUC firmly supports the concerns and dismay that the implementation of the Umrah Visa Fee has caused amongst the public. We acknowledge the huge impact it has on the costs(which we too are impacted by)”.
The regulator indicated that it had written to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation(DIRCO) requesting their high level intervention to communicate the concerns with their Saudi counterparts. SAHUC has also written to the local Saudi Embassy.
“SAHUC will continue to support an international appeal on the Umrah Visa Fee Debacle,” the regulator pledged.
At present there are no firm indications of a change in heart from the Saudis, who promulgated the new scheme through an official royal decree.
But with increasingly vocal calls for boycott from the not-so-usual quarters and many annual Umrah hoteliers exhibitions consequently placed on hold, Malek believes Riyadh is “thinking deeply” about the effect of the changes.
Never mind envisioning 2030, it appears there will be enough in 2016 to keep Riyadh’s hands full.