December Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

Ghulam Rasool, 58, sits in the courtyard of the holy Ka’aba, tears rolling down his cheeks. It is 24 days since he arrived in the kingdom. With no money left for a hotel room, he has no choice but to seek shelter in the precincts of the Ka’aba. He has fasted without sehri (the pre-dawn meal) for nine days and for opening his fasts at the time of sunset, has been dependent on charity handouts of dates and yogurt milk. Ghulam Rasool is desperate to return to Pakistan, but cannot do so unless he complies with an absurd demand. “Produce the woman who travelled with you from Pakistan or else surrender yourself to the Saudi authorities and be prepared to go to jail,” he has been told by his travel agents in Saudi Arabia. Needless to say, Ghulam Rasool, who made the journey on his own, is completely at a loss what to do.

He only knows that he handed over his passport and paid 45,000 rupees to one Mohammed Aslam, a local agent in Punjab’s Okara district, for a return ticket and a 15-day Umra package which included transportation to and from Jeddah airport and accommodation in Mecca and Madina. As far as he knew, he had only to ensure that he had sufficient money to pay for his meals during his stay. With his 15-day package over, his meagre funds have run out and he finds himself in dire straits.

According to the rules of Umra and Haj, a woman cannot embark on these religious journeys without being accompanied by a mehram (either her husband, brother or son). However, those who know the tricks of the trade are easily able to circumvent these requirements. Ghulam Rasool, an unlettered cotton grower by profession, was unaware that his agent had forged his documents, including the name of a female pilgrim, a total stranger, as his dependent. According to Saudi rules, a male pilgrim must return with his dependents. Otherwise, he will be charged with violating the kingdom’s immigration rules and thrown into prison.

If he is to avoid this fate, the only other alternative given to Ghulam Rasool by his agents is to pay them 1,000 Saudi riyals (one riyal is equal to approximately 16 rupees) as a bribe in return for which they will negotiate a deal for his return with the Saudi police. Meanwhile, they have confiscated both his passport and ticket. “I don’t have the money to arrange for transport to Jeddah airport even if they allow me to travel back to Pakistan,” he says. Looking towards the Holy Ka’aba, he wails, “Oh God, I have never been inside a police station in all my life. Why are you condemning me to prison in my old age?”

While Ghulam Rasool’s fate is not known, what is certain is that his is not an isolated case. Almost every pilgrim who travels to Saudi Arabia for performing his or her religious obligations these days has a sorry tale to tell. Most of them suffer at the hands of unscrupulous agents who, under the new visa rules introduced by Saudi Arabia about two years ago, are authorised to arrange these visits.

Millions of people from all over the world travel to Saudi Arabia each year for performing Haj and Umra. According to official figures, during the two consecutive months of Rabi-ul-Awal and Ramazan, at least 200,000 to 250,000 people from Pakistan visit the kingdom for Umra every year. The ministry of Haj and Auqaf in Saudi Arabia has issued contracts to between 200 to 250 Saudi travel agents to handle the entire Umra traffic into Saudi Arabia from all over the world.

The authorised agents are responsible for appointing sub-contractors all over the world who are, in turn, licensed to handle prospective pilgrims from their countries. This effectively restricts all intending pilgrims from applying directly to the ministry for their visas and, instead, compels them to choose a licensed Haj and Umra tour operator through whom they would be issued their visas. There are around 250 subcontractors in Pakistan dealing in Umra and Haj tours.

According to the procedures laid down by the Saudi government, these contractors are responsible not only for visa-processing but also for arranging confirmed hotel bookings for the pilgrims. The Umra visa, which cannot be extended and is issued for a maximum period of one month, limits the pilgrim to visiting Mecca and Madina only, with Jeddah as the port of transit. The minimum package is three days, but a pilgrim can choose either a package that covers his entire stay in Saudi Arabia or one that forms only part of it. Upon arriving in Jeddah, or another port of entry in the kingdom, every pilgrim is to be received by the Saudi contractor or his agents, who will retain the visitor’s airline ticket as well as his passport. While the passport is usually returned within the next few days, in order to enable him to travel to other cities in the kingdom, the agent, who is responsible for reconfirming the return bookings, retains the ticket. On the prescribed day of departure, the pilgrim is to be collected from his hotel and taken to the airport where the Saudi contractor/agent will handle the airline check-in. These agents are then supposed to escort their clients to the immigration desk and hand over their passports and airline tickets to them.

Although the procedure appears very well-organised and streamlined on paper, the reality is quite different, at least for pilgrims from Pakistan, where dishonest agents lose no opportunity to fleece them. Although ostensibly there is no fee for Umra and Haj visas, agents charge between 100 to 250 US dollars from each pilgrim in the name of visa fees.

As each pilgrim has to pay for at least a three-day package, which includes hotel accommodation, the agents levy charges for the hotels at their own discretion. The more experienced visitors opt to pay for hotel accommodation for only three days of their itinerary plus the pick-and-drop facility to the airport. Many others who are either unaware of the perils involved in dealing with agents or, in order to avoid the hassle of finding accommodation once they arrive in Saudi Arabia, choose to sign a package covering their entire stay and pay the agents in advance for their accommodation. Most of those in the latter category belong to middle and lower middle class income groups. They usually bring with them very little money, just enough to suffice for their meals during their stay in the kingdom.

A group of 24 pilgrims intending to travel to Saudi Arabia had paid 34,000 rupees each to a local agent in Hyderabad, Sindh. They were directed to meet him at the Karachi airport on October 10, where he would hand over their tickets and travel documents. They were to bring their luggage along as their flight to Saudi Arabia was to leave the same day.

On the given day, the group, some of them wearing their ahram (the white cloth which is one of the prerequisites for performing Umra) in readiness for the pilgrimage, arrived at the airport only to find that the agent had not shown up. They called the agent’s mobile phone frantically, but it was switched off. In utter despair, some of them even started crying when they learnt that the flight on which they were supposed to travel had taken off without them. Qazi Bashir, one of the members of this group said, “We tried to phone the agent repeatedly for the next three days but he was nowhere to be found.”

Bashir placed the blame for such scams squarely on the Saudi authorities saying that people were less likely to be cheated in this manner if they could apply for the visas on their own. “I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody tells me that the Saudi authorities are hobnobbing with these agents or that they have introduced these new procedures after collecting huge bribes from them,” he says angrily.

For some pilgrims, the ordeal begins when they land at the Jeddah airport. Once they have completed the immigration formalities, pilgrims are received by their respective agents at the exit gate, who collect their tickets and passports from them and in return, give them rubber armbands to wear, printed with the name of the company and its contact details. Sometimes, however, these agents fail to show up, creating massive problems for the hapless pilgrims who do not have sufficient money to travel further.

When they do arrive as expected, many of the agents, who can communicate in Arabic alone, direct the pilgrims to sit in the airport compound while they arrange for their transport. The passengers, who are often attired in ahram, are made to wait, sometimes for several hours, in the airport compound. Their language handicap means that they cannot make any enquiries on their own about their journey ahead. Finally, they are herded into derelict buses and taken to Mecca.

Instead of arranging their accommodation in hotels close to the Haram or the compound of the Ka’aba, the pilgrims are lodged in hotels miles away, from where they are supposed to make their way five times a day to say their prayers. As a result, most of the old and the weak either end up staying at the Haram the entire day, only to return to their hotel once they have said their last prayers in the evening. “Forget about the distance — they have made twelve of us stay in one room which can accomodate only four,” says Mohammed Aslam, who paid 90,000 rupees to an agent in Pakistan for a 15-day trip for him and his wife .

Moreover, although Muslim women are supposed to keep a certain distance from males other than their close relatives, Aslam and his wife are sharing the room with four couples and two men who are strangers to them. “I know it’s disgusting, but none of us have enough money to rent separate rooms on our own,” he says, explaining that they brought very little money with them, after they had paid for what they considered was a comprehensive package.

While Aslam is still fortunate in that he has some accommodation, Mohammed Ali, who is travelling with his wife, is not so lucky. Having bought a 15-day package from a company in Karachi, the couple’s passports and tickets were collected by an agent at the airport who arranged a driver to take them to Mecca. To their dismay, instead of transporting them to a hotel as stipulated in their package, the driver deposited them on the roadside along with their luggage and sped away. Ali is now in a quandary because he has neither their passports nor their tickets and no idea how to retrieve his travel documents as his agent gave him no contact details upon arrival.

Khalid Qazi, who lives in Islamabad and purchased a 15-day package from one OCS Company, is travelling with his aged mother and a sister. He paid 50,000 rupees to the agent in Pakistan for each of them but once he arrived at Jeddah airport, he has not been claimed as a customer by any agent. Six days of shifting from one hotel to another in Mecca have left him with insufficient funds to extend his stay. “We have spent the little money that we brought with us on paying for the hotels — an expense I hadn’t made allowance for — and now I don’t have enough money left to take my mother to Madina,” he says sadly. “Even though we paid our dues, we are still unable to perform our religious duties properly….”

While accommodation is the one problem that almost everyone faces, perhaps the most intractable of all is faced by the pilgrims when they cannot leave the kingdom because their agents have lost their tickets and passports. During a visit to the office of one of these companies called Shoba Travels, I found hundreds of irate Pakistani pilgrims there, demanding that the agents locate their tickets and passports.

Mohammed Hasan Jaiho, a resident of Dadu in Sindh, has been beating a path to this office for 10 days. The company has lost his passport and ticket, leaving Jaiho unable to travel to Madina as planned. According to Saudi government rules, pilgrims have to show their passports and valid visas in order to travel from one city to another in the kingdom. Jaiho has been running from pillar to post, but so far, to no avail.

Moreover, unlike most airlines that issue duplicate tickets in lieu of misplaced ones along with a minor penalty, PIA regulations require that a passenger who has lost his ticket purchase a new one, even if he proves his credentials beyond any doubt. “It’s ridiculous that they wouldn’t issue a duplicate despite my having a photocopy of the lost ticket,” says a pilgrim who had to purchase a new ticket after his ticket was lost by his agents.

Also, most pilgrims are not aware that as the Umra visa is issued for a maximum of one month, the ticket purchased for the purpose expires in one month as well so in case they overstay, they have to purchase a new ticket.

Judging from the number of pilgrims who relate stories of lost travel documents, this is not an infrequent occurence. “We have lost some twenty passports and nearly thirty tickets during the last 15 days,” reveals Sabir, an agent of Shoba Travels in Mecca. He believes that all the companies dealing in the Haj and Umra business in Saudi Arabia, numbering between 200 and 250, have misplaced a similar number of tickets for one reason or the other.

Departure from the kingdom can be delayed for reasons other than travel documents having been lost. Faisal Sajjad, who is travelling with his mother, has completed 13 days out of a 15-day package, but they have been informed by their agent that they cannot return to Pakistan for the next 20 days because there are no seats available. “We have only 70 riyals left; they will throw us out of the hotel after two days,” he says, pleading with his agents to help him get the booking done.

As the pilgrims are not permitted to keep the tickets in their possession, they cannot ensure that their bookings are done well in advance, leaving them vulnerable to such problems on the eve of their planned departure. Many pilgrims can be seen tearfully begging for confirmed bookings at various airline offices, while the lack of seats means that the airline staff often has to turn them away. “I don’t have the money to prolong my stay and I’d die if I was reduced to begging at such a holy place,” says an old man, imploring a PIA official at the airline office in Madina near Masjid-e-Nabvi to book him on a flight to Pakistan.

Far from assisting the pilgrims from their country, the Pakistani Consulate in Saudi Arabia refuses to even allow them into the premises. The determined ones, who manage to fight their way through, find that no help whatsoever is forthcoming from this quarter.

Insiders reveal that in order to become a subcontractor for the Umra and Haj tours, local aspirants are required to deposit 100,000 riyals as security with the main agents in Saudi Arabia. In the event of overstay by a customer travelling on his recommendation on a Umra visa, an agent is fined 3,000 riyals from this amount. However, when pilgrims are fleeced by dishonest agents, there appears to be no accountability. On the contrary, some practices by government institutions actually perpetuate their fraudulent actions. For example, PIA issues the tickets to the agents and offers them 40 per cent of the paid amount in case they want a refund of the return ticket. Many agents use this provision as an extra source of income when they collect the tickets from them at Jeddah airport and pocket 40 per cent of the refunded amount from PIA. In some cases, agents also cut deals with agents of other companies to purchase collected tickets at a throwaway price.

“This not only lends a bad name to the country when many Pakistanis overstay, but it also creates immense problems for genuine pilgrims whose tickets are lost in this manner,” says an insider. As for the fine of 3000 riyals the agents have to incur when their customer overstays, he says that the agents make so much money through these underhand methods that the deposit of 100,000 riyals pales in comparison. Nor does the prospect of losing their licence deter them. Many agents have obtained dual licences under different names, ensuring that if they lose one, they remain in business. “In any case, they can always apply with another name and obtain a fresh license,” says a source. According to him, some agents with offices at the Cantonment station in Karachi have even obtained eight to 10 licenses. Moreover, through contacts or by bribing authorities in Saudi Arabia, most of them have even managed to retrieve the money they deposited as a guarantee to the Saudi government.

In order to alleviate the sufferings of the pilgrims, it is suggested that instead of leaving prospective pilgrims at the mercy of so-called agents in Saudi Arabia and/or authorised travel agents in Pakistan, the Saudi Embassy should issue visas and impose fixed charges as visa-processing fee. “Passengers should be free to purchase airline tickets from anywhere they wish, while the Saudi Embassy can issue acknowledgement of visa applications and receipts of the prescribed visa-processing fee,” says Bashir Ahmed who travels quite often to Saudi Arabia. He contends that intending pilgrims should not be forced to book hotel accommodation because the charges are exorbitant if accommodation is booked from Pakistan. In case any visa fee is imposed by the Embassy it should be notified in clear terms and the authorised agent/agency should issue proper receipts against any amount they receive from intending pilgrims.

Only when the concerned authorities sit up and take notice can the pilgrims’ progress become smoother — one where they only have to dwell on spiritual rather than material matters.