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Opinion | Feb 12, 2014

Reflections, Projections And Safety In Hajj

Reflections, Projections And Safety In Hajj

Hajj in the last few years have been adjudged as very successful globally. Last year especially, the control mechanism and resultant end clearly manifested more than ever in recent years. The reason for this success is either because of adequate preparations or the less number of pilgrims which made the organization of the yearly 'conference of faith' easier.

Yet, even as there are many commendable things done every year by the Saudi Hajj authorities to ease pilgrims' sojourn to the Holy Land, there are also some challenges to the entire Hajj operations in the Kingdom which would need a kind of global conference for all Hajj stakeholders across the world.

Millions of Muslims stay between seven to 45 days in the Kingdom seeking fulfilment of their fifth pillar of Islam – Hajj – a call proclaimed by Prophet Ibrahim (peace be on him). Statistics showed that about 1.4 million Muslims from 188 countries performed the 2013 Hajj, down 21 per cent on 2012 Hajj which was about 1.75 million. It could be more because official statements base records on legally registered pilgrims.

Last year, the Saudi government cut by 20 per cent the quotas for pilgrims from abroad over fears of MERS virus and because of massive capacity expansion projects on the Grand Mosque. But the Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia told reporters shortly before the Mina outing that the authorities had detected no cases of the MERS virus among the pilgrims. The virus was reported to have killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia

Saudi government forbids unlicensed pilgrims. Last year, Saudi authorities stepped up measures to curb these illegal pilgrims who infiltrate into Makkah through desert roads. Security officials said that as many as 31,000 Saudi and expatriate pilgrims were turned back for not carrying legal permits, while around 12,600 others were arrested. This effort decreased the number of pilgrims, causing internal pilgrims to be reduced by more than half - 600,718 while external pilgrims reduced by 20%.

In his response to the Eidil-Adha greetings of the Interior Minister, Prince Muhammad bin Naif, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz congratulated the Prince who is the president of the Supreme Hajj Committee for the successful organization of Hajj 2013. The King exclaimed, “All ministries, military and security establishments and law-enforcing agencies, and most important, our brave security forces deserve congratulations,” while in turn receiving congratulations from across the globe for a successful 2013 Hajj.

Makkah Governor, Prince Khaled Al-Faisal also declared 2013 Hajj an overwhelming success in terms of health care provision, security operations and traffic plans. Said he in an interview, “All government institutions, security forces, volunteers, pilgrim establishments and men on the ground worked as one team to ensure the success of this year's Hajj.”

Prince Khaled al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz described the 2013 hajj as a 'qualitative turning point' in the organization of the annual pilgrimage, which according to him was often marred in previous years by deadly fires and stampedes. “The rites were carried out in a calm atmosphere and free of any political demonstrations, making it a success and proving Islam is a religion of peace, civilization and progress,” he told Saudi reporters.

On his part, the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz, in a statement publicized by Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said 95,000 security forces were deployed to maintain order during the 2013 Hajj which involved use of sophisticated techniques and modern equipment. The security officers were reinforced by forces from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of the National Guard, and the Presidency of the General Intelligence.

“Maintaining the safety and security of pilgrims requires us to take all the possibilities seriously, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia witnessed a fierce terrorist campaign in the recent past which did not exclude the holy sites. With the grace of Allah, we were able to confront this terrorist campaign, limit its risks, and spare the country and people its evils,” he added.

“The Hajj is not a field for political conflicts and sectarian differences, taking into consideration the narrow space and congestion of pilgrims, where any kind of unrest could lead to a disaster,” he said, adding, “Therefore, the government of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques calls on all pilgrims to adhere to the performance of their rituals and stay away from anything that distracts them from the Hajj and puts them at risk,” he added.

Commenting on the expansion projects being undertaken at the holy sites, the Saudi Interior Minister said: “We have followed the ongoing project by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, to expand the Grand Mosque in Makkah. We are committed to decreasing the number of pilgrims for 2013 Hajj due to these construction projects. We expect the capacity of the Mataf (circumambulation area) to be doubled when the project is completed,” he added.

He had expressed confidence in the citizens and expatriates in the Kingdom to take the exceptional circumstances during the Hajj season into consideration by strictly adhering to Hajj regulations as well as obtaining the required permits needed for those who want to perform Hajj rituals from within the Kingdom. Electronic gates have been installed at the entrance to Mecca to control the flow of pilgrims and make sure that only those with Hajj permits are allowed access, the Minister averred.

The Saudi authorities have observed some of the challenges. From an analytical view point, some of these challenges have to do with the formula in slot distributions to countries, visa issuance, the operations at the King Abdullah International Airport Jeddah (Airport services, the Immigration and General Agents Office), handling of passports, the role of Muassassah and its field offices, five or four-day stay at Mina and environmental matters. For the sake of clarity, let's take the points one by one.

The extant formula for allocation of Hajj seats to countries needs to be revisited or reviewed on yearly basis, with consideration to utilization of slots of immediate past Hajj by each country. Despite the fact that there is ever increasing demand for Hajj seats by almost every country, it should be of consideration the population of expatriates who go for Hajj from each country. In Nigeria, for instance, over a percentage of the yearly Hajj allocation is consumed by expatriates. Nigeria needs increment in Hajj slots allocated to it by Saudi government.

On visa issuance to intending pilgrims, I think there is need for improvement. It is quite truth that the acquisition of visa is not a total guarantee to entering a country because the Immigration of that country may fault it, just as it happened in 2012 Hajj when some female pilgrims were faulted for not having appropriate guide. In relation to Hajj which is a yearly event, there should be no room for mistake. There should be clear difference in all types of entry visa granted for Hajj.

As far as I can recognize, I think of three types: conventional Hajj visa, gratis or Mujamalah visa and entry visa. Added to this is the type called official visa for the officials of Hajj Missions. These categories of visa holders are legitimately allowed to perform Hajj. What is required is a distinction between the conventional and Mujamalah visas. And in the case of Nigeria where 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory operate at individual capacities under NAHCON, there is need for the Saudi Embassy to create a space where names of states would be inserted in the visa. In the same space, the word “Mujamalah” could be inserted for such visa category.

By so doing, the Saudi authority would assist Nigeria in its efforts to curb the menace of non-conventional pilgrims who do not pay the expenses of Hajj but force themselves into utilizing the facilities paid for by the conventional pilgrims. This will be in tandem with the Saudi policy which frowns at residents/indigenes embarking on Hajj with permit and proper arrangements.

On the operations at the King Abdullah International Airport Jeddah, it has been observed that some airlines are given preferential treatment over the others despite the fact that all of them do meet the international standards required for their operations. Claims were recorded that the Saudi Airport service providers often deliberately delay services to the airlines in order to impose penalties on them for defaults. This could be far from the truth. However, if it is so, then there is serious need to save Hajj operation from corruption and injustice.

The Immigration at the Jeddah Airport have been doing their best. Their assignment is often critical because it is part of their duties to identify fake visa holders, fake passport holders and impersonators. It is only who passes the immigration screening that qualifies to enter any country and not only the visa. Yet, it has been observed that while the Saudi Immigration quicken the processes of some countries, others are often left for many hours before being attended to.

Also, it is often a case that some Immigration officers tend to learn on the job at such critical moment that pilgrims have been exhausted from the stress of journey to the Holy Land. It was once reported that pilgrims of a flight waited for over six hours before being processed by the Immigration. This trend should be changed. If more manpower is needed in this regard, the Saudi government is capable of handling it.

Added to this, the way the Saudi Immigration handles international passports of diverse countries differ. I do not know how lettered some of them might be in term of Islamic knowledge which demand equality to all human race. I remember an incident that occurred in 2012 Hajj when an Immigration officer collected the passports of four pilgrims from one of the West African countries without explanations, took them to a desk and disappeared. It took several hours before the passports were found and given back to the owners.

Again, the mishandling of official and diplomatic passports should be of concern to the Saudi government. It is an international regulation that such categories of passport be handles with extra care and should never be collected from the holders save for exceptional cases. What is needed here is proper orientation for the officers.

In regard to the United Agents Office, complaints have been made of allocation of low quality buses to some certain people. The dedication of worn-out vehicles to some people and new buses to the others who pay the same amounts for the services is not good in the eye of equality and fairness. Also, it is often difficult to redeem unutilized tickets paid for by pilgrims for their intercity transportation (Jeddah-Madina-Makkah). Maybe, Hajj Missions should take the responsibility of redeeming such amounts from the United Agents Office on behalf of their pilgrims.

There is also this issue of placing ticket stickers on the pages of international passports by the United Agents Office at the Airport. Is there no way all stickers at the Jeddah Airport could be handled without tempering with the international passport which is a document valid for five years and for journeys to all countries of the world?

In relation to this is the delay the holders of official visas are exposed to at the United Agents Office point at the airport. While the conventional pilgrims who come with passport attachments or who pay royalties are processed quickly, those with official visas are left without attention likely because nothing is expected from them in terms of royalty and transportation fees.

The role of Muassasah and its field offices also need to be redefined. As the fulcrum of service provision at the Holy sites of Mina and Arafat, there should be no preferential treatment amongst the Guests of Allah or short-changing of services paid for by the pilgrims. It is unarguable that more often are the complaints on the Mina tenting and facilities, complaints on extension of the Mina tents to Muzdalifa, inadequacy of toilet facilities, environmental hazards posed by heaps of refuse on the way paths and around the tents and the challenges inborn compulsory feeding arraignments introduced three years ago.

The feeding arrangements, many observers hold, have not been fully and successfully implemented and Muassassah alongside the licensed food contractors should be extremely very worried in the event that Guests of Allah in the Kingdom are short-changed for the services they paid for. Several complaints have been recorded of the inadequacy of dishes and beverages supplied to the pilgrims. If this feeding policy is well implemented, the presence of illegal food vendours and reduction in the environmental hazards in Mina and Arafat would be controlled.

The environmental hazards in Mina have continued to be of serious concern to Hajj Missions, more so as they have been to the Saudi authorities. The hazards have been worsened by the presence of food vendours and petty traders who seize the advantage of the absence of local dishes to infiltrate the tents.

These have made the five or four-day stay at Mina remarkably a mediocre to some pilgrims. In Hajj, Mina is supposed to be a place for spiritual sanctity, moral elevation and attitudinal transformation, with the comfort of contemporary age. Unfortunately, it is like a certain category of people have been perpetually destined to be in Muzdalifa during their stay at the Mash'ir. There is need to rotate the positions allocated to countries at the Masha'ir to prove that there is equality amongst all Muslim nations.

On Wednesday, 30th October 2013 the second most important arm of Hajj authorities in the Kingdom – the Muassasah – organized a party to celebrate a successful 2013 Hajj. Not in any way undermining the gathering to dine and rejoice for the completion of a season always associated with struggle from both the service providers and the service receivers, it could be also a forum when properly planned out to x-ray the whole exercise and identify the challenges from each Hajj.

This is done after every Hajj. But notwithstanding the opportunity it creates for some Hajj missions to meet and interact with one another, it has never been a forum to discuss shortcomings from both the Hajj missions and the Saudi side so as to identify the common as well as the peculiar challenges. It is often a gathering for feasting and thanking – thanksgivings. It is more often a gathering where the hard truth is not exposed on the failures in service provision to the pilgrims, even as every Hajj comes with its challenges, no doubt.

This is why the Ministry of Hajj should organize after every year a post-Hajj conference where all Hajj missions and agencies across the world would meet and discuss issues instead of meeting with each country for the signing of memorandum of understanding (MOU). The MOU can be signed during or immediately after such conference. This could be another forum to be geared towards unity enhancement of the Ummah.

Although a British organization known as the Peoples Hajj Limited has started two years ago what is similar to such conference, it has been far less than a comprehensive meeting of all Hajj stakeholders. The London confab is not attended by many stakeholders due to visa problem and by extension the Western war on stereotyped terrorism. Even as laudable as this London initiative by two intelligent brothers, Muhsin Tutla and Hassan Tutla, it could be enlarged and supported by the Saudi government in such a way that it would be compulsory for every Hajj mission to attend.

It is worthy to note that the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has in the past few years started such national conferences on Hajj. The Nigerian Hajj Mission, globally acknowledged, has transformed Hajj management and operations in the Nigeria. The National Hajj Conference (NHC) has largely been the push to the successes because the leadership of NAHCON believes that there is no monopoly of knowledge in any field of human endeavour.

Therefore, it is advisable to take a note from NAHCON. There are people who have been in the operations for decades and one appointed a Minister or Chairman shortly before a Hajj operation may insist on initiating and implementing a policy that could have far-reaching results when wide consultations are carried out amongst the customers or companies.

Very importantly, there would be need to discuss at such conferences the economic significance of Hajj to the Ummah. In his article published in al-Hayat Newspapers on October 19, 2013, titled “What lessons have we learned from Hajj 2013?”, a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of an upcoming Al-Arab News Channel, Jamal Khashoggi explored the economic importance of Hajj to the Kingdom and the need to exert more force in the control of 'illegal' pilgrims who constitute the nuisance during the Hajj seasons. He was, however, uncertain whether the success of 2013 Hajj was due to proper planning and organization or merely due to the global reduction of quotas of allocations to countries.

In a summary Jamal was quick to note, “The hajj reportedly may have raised the economic contribution of non-oil related activities – which I question – but at the expense of the quality of life for locals. There were millions of temporary workers brought in to provide the services needed for the flood of pilgrims coming into the country. These workers did not add any value to our economy or culture but depleted our scarce natural resources in the Arabian Peninsula which barely sustain its own people. In addition, the workers make the city uglier and overcrowd it without any order.”

He opined that the lessons learnt from 2013 Hajj should be used to revisit some facts in the Saudi cities, answering in the negative the question whether Jeddah or Riyadh really needs one million expatriate workers which represent more than half the inhabitants of each of the city.

The chaos that ensued during Hajj – stampede and high death rate especially at the Jamarat – few years ago, he submitted, was a clear manifestation caused by expatriate workers, not only during the hajj season, but throughout the year and in all Saudi and some Gulf cities. Expatriates go to Hajj without any prior reservations with legal operators, abuse the available natural resources and create problems to pilgrims. In performing their pilgrimage, they don't respect the directives and regulations of the Ministry of Hajj, unlike the regular pilgrims who abide by the set times to carry out the traditional stoning of the devil or circling around the Ka'aba.

He observed that even as Saudis pride themselves for serving the two Holy Mosques and therefore strived for increasing the capacity of the premises with massive expansion projects, they couldn't solve the issue of overcrowding and resultant stampedes, which often turned the hajj season into a nightmare instead of being a spiritual experience to boost morale and strengthen determination to build a better society. This year, he maintained, saw the fruits of the labor after more was done to organize the pilgrimage. “The structures looked wider and seemed to be able to host more pilgrims, and even if we return to the three million pilgrims in the coming years that we have seen in the past, it is unlikely to witness congestion if we maintain the order we established”, he added.

But is it advisable for a country to depend sole on its citizens for its manpower? The participation of expatriate workers in Hajj is just a utilization of a rare opportunity. No pepper reaper would prefer to die of convulsion when pepper is the natural cure. It could be arguable that the expatriates in Makkah alone would overcrowd the Masha'ir. Again, all the routes to Makkah and even the desert ones should be properly manned to reduce the unpermitted pilgrims from gaining access into Makkah during Hajj.

While the push to restrain influx of expatriate workers into the Kingdom, the Saudi Manpower Solutions Company (SMASCO) has concluded plans to hire housemaids on yearly contract ranging between SR31,000 to SR35,000. Last year, according to a Saudi Newspaper, the company recruited 6,000 male and female workers from India, the Philippines, Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Who then is abetting the influx of illegal pilgrims during Hajj? If proved to be true, it will be difficult to control illegal pilgrims when security operatives in the Kingdom are alleged to be compromising the policy of enforcement on “Hajj Permit”, for all categories of people resident in the Kingdom.

Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of the Saudi government to continually review how best to manage Hajj affairs with wide consultations with Hajj Missions across the globe. This is why a post-Hajj conference after every Hajj is overdue. And even if the 20% global reduction of Hajj slots continues for sometimes, it is better to secure the lives of pilgrims than to risk them to the hazards of overcrowd, insufficient accommodation – especially with the current massive demolition of houses in Makkah – and as well as any resultant health challenges.

Muhammad Ajah is an author, publisher and advocate of peace and the rule of law. E-mail: [email protected]

Muhammad Ajah
Muhammad Ajah, © 2014

This author has authored 291 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: MuhammadAjah

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