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PoliticsMiddle East

Saudi Arabia's hajj lottery has Muslims fuming

July 5, 2022

Saudi Arabia's lottery system for the 2022 hajj has Muslims in Europe, Australia and the Americas infuriated. Preparing for this year's pilgrimage to Mecca became a financial and logistical nightmare for many Muslims.

A Muslim pilgrim prays beside robots used to vacuum and sanitize air at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca
This year, Mecca welcomes up to 1 million pilgrims for their hajjImage: Amr Nabil/AP/picture alliance

Even if everything goes according to plan, preparing for and performing the hajj is an emotional journey for many Muslims. However, for thousands of prospective pilgrims from about 50 countries in Europe, Australia and the Americas, the preparation for this year's hajj season has turned into a financial drama, as well.

In June, Saudi Arabia's Hajj Ministry announced that, effective immediately, Muslims from those regions would have to apply for tickets for the pilgrimage at a fixed price through a newly introduced lottery system on the government-backed website Motawif. The new system is said to protect pilgrims from "fake" tour organizers, who have offered hajj visa for varying prices online and offline. However, the move also sidelined long-established operators who had already sold tickets for the 2022 hajj season, which starts on July 7.

The pilgrimage to the Kaaba (House of God) in Saudi Arabia's Mecca is mandatory for Muslims who are physically and financially capable and are younger than 65.

"After the pandemic and everything we have been through the past couple of years, I felt the need to revive my connection with God," said Omar, a Lebanese man who lives in the United States and had already applied for his hajj visa through a US-based online travel agency. He asked that DW not publish his full name, as he feared negative consequences on future hajj applications.

When Saudi Arabia switched to the new lottery system, Omar withdrew his application. "But I still haven't received confirmation for a refund," he said.

Screenshot of Motawif website boasts that lottery is "trusted," "flexible" and "exclusive"
Screenshot of Saudi Arabia's lottery for hajj visas, which is under fire for poor serviceImage: Motawif

Even applicants who were drawn in the Motawif lottery and have paid for their hajj packages, which start at about $6,000 (€5,850) say the new system provided more trouble than tickets.

On Twitter, many have poured out their anger about experiences under the hashtag #PaidButFailed.

The issues are similar and include payments that did not go through, unconfirmed application status, mismatched flight and accommodation dates, changes of hotels, and the fact that the customer hotline has been basically unavailable. 

'Unprecedented numbers'

Even before the new system became mandatory for Muslims in Europe, Australia and the Americas, many were left out of the hajj. The number of tickets allocated have always been proportionate to the Muslim population of a given country.

And, in the pandemic years, the number of people permitted to attend was reduced significantly. The number of Muslims permitted from countries in Asia and the Middle East was reduced — and even Saudi citizens were only allowed in a limited capacity.

In 2019, before the pandemic, up to 2.5 million people were allowed to participate in the hajj; in 2020, only 1,000 were.

In 2021, the number was increased to 60,000, and, in 2022, 1 million people will be allowed.

 Muslim pilgrims pray around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine
The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and a religious dutyImage: Ashraf Amra/APA Images/ZUMA/picture alliance

In turn, even countries that are not bound by the new ticketing system have received only half their previous quota for this year's hajj season.

For example, Pakistan's permitted pilgrims were cut from 200,000 in 2019 to 80,000 in 2022. The number of Iranians allowed has been more than halved, from just under 87,000 in 2019 to 40,000 in 2022.

"And yet, the amount of European, Australian and American Muslims that are now under the umbrella of the new lottery is the smallest part, with probably around 50,000 pilgrims only," Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, a lecturer of Islamic and Middle East studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany, told DW. 

Fuchs said the new system could be a test for the future. " Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already announced that he aims to increase the number of pilgrims massively as part of his Vision 2030," Fuchs said.

The overhaul has already led to changing rights for women, the reopening of cinemas after 35 years and the building of an "eco-city" called Neom, which is 33 times bigger than New York.

"Furthermore, the strategy includes professionalizing tourism and enhancing religious tourism, including the hajj, which could see unprecedented numbers of pilgrims in the future," Fuchs said.

Fuchs said it wasn't surprising that Saudi Arabia aims to funnel the lucrative plans of the pilgrims directly into the kingdom's coffers.

"For example, from now on, pilgrims from Europe, Australia and the Americas have to use Saudi Airlines only," Fuchs said.

As of Tuesday evening, a total of 375,918 international pilgrims had arrived in airports, according to the Saudi Press Agency .Along with the hajjis who have crossed via the land borders, some 40% of the total pilgrims permitted for 2022 have already started the next leg of the journey to Mecca — on foot, in line with the tradition.

That number will, of course, include some of the 50,000 permitted pilgrims from Europe, Australia and the Americas. Next year, tens of thousands more will try their luck at the lottery again.

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.