Haj is not just a business

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With Haj less than a month away, many who have committed to perform this arduous requirement for Muslims are preparing for the task. Performance of the Haj (pilgrimage to Makkah) is required of every adult Muslim, male or female, if physically and financially possible. Many Muslims spend their entire lives saving and planning for this journey; others make the pilgrimage more than once if they are able.

The requirements for performing the pilgrimage are as follows:

• Pilgrims must have maturity and a sound mind, in order to understand the significance of the pilgrimage experience;

• They must have the physical capability to travel and perform the pilgrimage rites;

• They must demonstrate financial stability, be free of debt, so that they are able to bear the pilgrimage expenses as well as provide for dependents during travel.

For those who meet these criteria, performing the pilgrimage is obligatory at least once in their lifetime.

To combat the rising prices of performing Haj, the Haj Ministry in 2013 announced that it had licensed 22 companies to provide low-cost Haj services to domestic pilgrims, including expatriates. “These companies will charge SR1,900 to SR3,900,” it said, adding that such services would cover 20 percent of domestic pilgrims.

The ministry at the time said it was encouraging Haj companies to provide low-cost services to meet the requirements of a large number of Saudis and expatriates by providing incentives such as increasing the number of pilgrims they serve.

“They are also given priority in tent allocations in Mina,” a ministry official said. Moreover, they are allowed to rent 70 percent of buses from foreign companies. The ministry stressed that the prices of low-cost Haj firms would remain within the range of SR1,900 to SR3,900 in the coming years.

But many are finding it hard to pin down Haj operators who are abiding by the Ministry’s rules. One such hopeful is Yawar Ayub who because of his journey in a fruitless search for affordable Haj operators vented his ire in an email addressed to me.

He said: “I am an expatriate, and I have always read your columns and found you to be neutral, while discussing matters related to expatriates or Saudis. Hopefully, you will find time to read my email. I have been trying to get registered in a low-cost Haj scheme through the Internet since last year, but, unfortunately, I have not found the low-cost or Muyaser slot for low-income people on the official website. The website only shows the cost for the normal fare. Every time I search it is the same. I have even tried odd times like 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. in the morning or during the working day.

“Is this some type of joke with us low-income people or are the low-cost slots already distributed before the website goes online? Due to the rise in the cost of rent and other items including family fees, I was planning to send my family back, but before that I wanted to avail the opportunity of doing Haj while being in Saudi Arabia.

“I have complained to Allah and said that I am sorry that I am unable to afford the Haj from Saudi Arabia, and I am also writing this to you as I have no one else to share my feelings with. Please highlight this matter because no one is writing anything in the print media about the plight of us low-income people who want to perform Haj before returning home.

“There are many more like me who are wondering what to do. Once we go back to our country, it will be impossible to return and perform Haj due to the high traveling costs.”

Yawar has a legitimate complaint. Haj operators have raised prices atrociously with the result that many low-income people cannot afford to perform Haj. The website dedicated to supporting individuals like Yawar apparently falls short of expectations, leaving many dreams unrealized.

The Haj Ministry should review the prices that are being charged in order to ensure fair value, and prevent Haj from becoming just another business venture for greedy operators.

— The writer can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com; follow him on Twitter / @talmaeena


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