UK Hajj tour companies face financial difficulties

Image: Wikimedia CClicense

British Muslim tour operators are threatened with financial ruin after the Saudi authorities barred international travellers to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage in a measure to control the Covid-19 epidemic.

Usually 25,000 British Muslims go to the Hajj in a normal year, the largest number from western Europe, but the decision to bar all international visitors is creating challenges for the £175 million Hajj industry in the UK.

Rashid Mogradia, CEO of the Council of British Hajjis, said there will be some casualties among tour operators, whose income relies on the Hajj.

He told a Religion Media Centre online briefing, that many people had paid a deposit for the visit this July, before the decision to restrict numbers was made. Travel regulations say this must be paid back within 14 days but, he said, not many companies have that kind of cash to make the repayments.

Abdel Rahman Helbawi, a member of the National Executive Committee of Licensed Hajj Organisers, said there are 112 Hajj operators in the UK, some are staffed by just one person working from home part time, others are travel companies with many members of staff.  Volunteers are also engaged in the businesses as group leaders.

He had not heard of any company that had collapsed into bankruptcy, but almost all Hajj companies are facing financial difficulties, though managing one way or another to survive. He said the furlough scheme, loans and business rate relief had all helped, but the real struggle would be apparent over the next couple of months when the furlough scheme is ended.

Rashid Mogradia’s organisation, the Council of British Hajjis, is trying to extend the time allowed for companies to make repayments of deposits to three months, but beyond that time, he said, trading standards would have to become involved.

Professor Sean McLoughlin, University of Leeds, told the briefing that the Hajj industry in the UK grew up in the mid-2000s – until then, people made their own independent arrangements. Now the Hajj is a global business, based on the longing for and love of holy places in Muslim culture and belief.

Rashid Mogradia explained that his organisation had been set up to professionalise the Hajj industry in the UK, confronting fraudulent unscrupulous agents and creating awareness of good practice.  He is concerned that when the full impact of the Hajj shutdown becomes known, people within the community may not come forward to report fraud or bad practice, but this is important for the law to be upheld.

Aysha Khan, a reporter with the Religion News Service in the USA, said she had not detected a huge sense of loss among Muslims in America, where usually 12,000 people attend the Hajj. What had struck them the hardest was the loss of Friday prayers, communal and social activities and spiritual connections during the lockdown. The decision about the Hajj had not come as a shock – people were expecting it.

Those who have already paid deposits felt some certainty, in fact, because they were free to pursue a refund or defer until next year, though some were considering donating the money they had set aside to a good cause instead, as a spiritual act of personal sacrifice.

She had also detected ‘cognitive dissonance’ in relation to the Hajj, with people saying that though it was meant to be the peak of their spiritual life, it was taking place in a country with a terrible record on human rights, embroiled in controversy over the killing of the Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi and had turned into an event about profit and capitalisation.

She said there was a flexibility in interpretation around the requirement to take part in the Hajj, with people believing they had to be out of debt before attending, something almost unattainable for young American Muslims with student debt, mortgages and medical bills.

The panel suggested that the impact of this extraordinary season will be felt in different ways – it would have an afterlife.

Dr Carool Kersten, King’s College London, suggested that scholars had been forced to consider once more the preservation of life weighed against the preservation of religion and acts of worship. This, he observed, is leading to flexibility and new interpretative processes.

He believed the media will pay more attention to mass pilgrimages of Shia Muslims to Najaf and Karbala in southern Iraq, which draw more people than the Hajj but are less well reported. The Shia pilgrim season of Ashura is approaching in August, when usually 5-8 million people try to visit Karbala.

Rashid Mogradia said the Hajj industry was now seeking greater impact for the lesser observance of Umrah, a pilgrimage to Mecca which can take place throughout the year and could start as early as September, subject to Saudi permission.

Mass observance of the Hajj involves long distance flights, raising environmental concerns. Dr Kersten said there was increasing debate over climate change in the Muslim world, but opulent 5-star hotel living in Mecca did not augur well for the ‘greening’ of the Hajj.

Abdel Rahman Helbawi said the Hajj is a religious experience where people gain new perspectives by going through rituals. There was no chance it could be replaced by a virtual pilgrimage, though he did reveal that 1400 years ago, people in Syria were discouraged from going to Mecca because of internal politics, so they did observe a virtual hajj, standing in open spaces to show support for pilgrims in Mecca.

The panel agreed there is no possibility of the Hajj changing status within Islamic tradition.  It remains a religious duty and its organisation brings prestige to the Saudi government.

Dr Carool Kersten said the visit to the Hajj once in a lifetime, was one of the five pillars of Islam and one of the practices central to being Muslim. He said there have been examples in history when the Hajj was cancelled due to disease, political upheavals or other reasons. But the Hajj is now a massive global event attracting up to 3 million people, and this is the first time in modern history that it has been restricted in this way.

He added that it is also of increasing economic importance to Saudi Arabia, especially as oil revenue falls, and that the plans of the Crown Prince, and de facto ruler of the Kingdom, Mohammed Bin Salman, called for the number of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina to double by 2030.

First published following RMC zoom briefing  7 July 2020