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Friday, July 24, 2015

UMRAH PILGRIMS ARE GONE



Most of the Umrah pilgrims have left Makkah for their various countries after graduating (as the Americans would say) summa cum laude, from the institute of fasting, taraaweeh, tahajjud and i’tikaaf at the vicinity of the Ka’bah in Ramadan. These graduates, and others like them around the world, who fasted, seeking Allah’s countenance, have had their past sins forgiven, aside the greater dividend of manumission from Hell, Allah-willing, and admission into Paradise, the gates of which were wide open throughout the period their course lasted in the Holy Month.

Now, the place is virtually empty with only few worshippers offering their devotions and leaving in droves to Jeddah for their return flights. In the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, a Fairmont Hotel, for example, where the VIP Premium Pilgrims of my company stayed, with the Musallah at Prayer Floor (S2), we prayed Maghrib yesterday in about two rows of worshippers. A few days ago it was packed full. This is a hotel with 60 floors (excluding 15 or so floors from B2 to M2 where the Reception is situated) and more than 1,600 rooms.

The only Umrah pilgrims that remain in Makkah now are those waiting airline confirmation of their return leg. These are those who made last minute arrangements because they were uncertain of getting their visas or they purchased their tickets when all flights were full and thus could not get early return flights out of Jeddah. Or people like me who stay behind to finalise arrangements on behalf of their agencies and companies for Hajj 2015 coming up in about two months’ time.

Before the commencement of the last 10 days of Ramadan, there was no single available room in any hotel around the Ka’bah. Umrah stakeholders were worried because of the reduction in the number of Ramadan visas, but when there was a sudden, albeit slight increase in visa quotas, the entire Umrah market was engulfed by a feeling of bathos, as all rooms in hotels within 1000 metres to the Haram were sold out. 

The story was not the same in the Nigerian Umrah industry because as other countries were trooping into Makkah, the number of our pilgrims in Ramadan was very negligible indeed. In times gone by, everywhere you turned, there were Nigerian Umrah pilgrims in Ramadan in apartments and hotels. In fact, I had occasion to write on these pages that 60% of 5 star hotel occupancy was paid for by Nigerians during such season, not to speak of lower places of accommodation in both Madeenah and Makkah of which we controlled a reasonable percentage. 

The opening for additional visas was created by the Saudi Hajj Ministry when local Saudi companies made case for pilgrims from their partners around  the world. The Saudi companies interceded for those Umrah partners with decent packages that could bring good money because of the type of accommodation contracts they ratified with their counterpart in the Holy Land. Many companies in Nigeria did not fall under that grouping as their Umrah contracts were confined to the lowest forms of accommodation and services to pilgrims. The few Nigerian companies that got such increase ended up not utilising all of it because it was too late to accommodate more pilgrims in an organised package enrolment closed weeks earlier, or to secure seats on regular flights for new entrants.

The search for visa has seen Nigerian passports traversing territorial boundaries to neighbouring countries - Benin Republic, Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso - seeking for Umrah visas through dubitable travel agents who live by trafficking in visa-only ventures. 

Rumours had it that Umrah visa cost as high as five thousand dollars ($5000); even at that, without any assurance of getting it. Many paid this much and suffered the agony of disappointment, losing both their money and the visa. Their loss did not stop there; the money they paid for reservation of their hotels in Madeenah and Makkah was gone.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) started   a crackdown last year on Umrah companies in order to forestall traffic in visa. This is commendable. EFCC should make example of erring companies to serve as deterrent to others. Since the exercise commenced, the EFCC has invited me twice ‘to make some points clear regarding certain issues the Commission is investigating’. I honoured both invitations but I am yet to hear about any indictment against Umrah visa racketeers! 

During my visits to the EFCC, I made my hosts understand that:

Not all companies in the Umrah industry have genuine visa contracts with a Saudi partner. Ninety percent of travel agents will collect hundreds of passports only to take them to the very companies with authority to issue Umrah visa with the Saudi embassy or Consulate. Unknown to many Umrah pilgrims they are dealing with sub-agents in trying to secure their visas, thus they will hardly know the true position of the process as the agent handling it has to sugar-coat whatever he hears from the actual company processing the visa before telling them.

In its investigation of fraudulent Umrah companies, EFCC should, therefore, insist on seeing the visa contract signed by a company and its Saudi partner, authenticated by the Saudi Embassy and Saudi Hajj Ministry, Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Ministry among others, as well as the Umrah licence issued by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON).

Any Umrah company without advertised packages is a qualified candidate for visa racketeering, because whoever does not know where to keep his pilgrims in Madeenah and Makkah is certain to sell only visas to the highest bidder.

Umrah visa is not free. Yes, at the Saudi embassy level, it is printed on our passports as free, but our Saudi partners make payments on each visa to the Saudi Ministry of Hajj plus the cost for administrative expenses and logistics. On the Saudi Umrah portal there is a stage in the movement of passport details to securing MoFA number that is tagged ‘waiting payment’, and until your Saudi partners make that payment on your behalf, you will never get the MoFA. The layman believes the genuine agents get the visas free and charge them exorbitantly for the ‘gratis’ visas. The process involves a lot of cost. It starts with getting a Saudi Umrah Service Provider to accept your company as its Foreign Agent. This is one long and often-torturous process especially with Nigeria’s notorious banking rules, which make foreign exchange dealings hard.

The minimum you pay for a Saudi Bank Guarantee to any reputable Saudi Umrah Service Provider is SAR 100,000; my company coughed up SAR200, 000. This amount is held in escrow of some sort on behalf of the Saudi company should your company default. After this, you sign contracts for hotel accommodation and the accompanying charges to Saudi authorities apart from paying various sums to the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) totalling about a million naira or more. This is aside heavy bank charges for each transaction and the limits of withdrawals and transfers imposed by the CBN on banks for these kinds of foreign transactions.

For each visa, the Foreign Agent (your company) will make an online request through a portal for the visa. At the Saudi service provider’s end, they get the request and make online payment for the visa. The payment and the pilgrim’s details are scrutinised by the authorised agency in Saudia. During this period, the portal will show, by way of certain colour codes, how far your request has gone. When all pending approvals have been got, you can see new information on the portal.

It tells you that the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, popularly known as MoFA, has issued the pilgrim with a unique number with which you will complete the Umrah visa request process on the MoFA portal, which is different from the Umrah Agent portal you used earlier. This number is what people call the MoFA number.

On the MoFA portal, you enter the unique number and it retrieves all the details of the pilgrim you entered earlier on the other portal. It also directs you at this stage to upload a passport photograph of the pilgrim. After this, the portal generates what is called the E-MoFA number, an alphanumeric code, which the Saudi Embassy in Nigeria will use to retrieve an image of the pilgrim’s visa. Before you can get the E-MoFA number to the Embassy, you still need to use specialised computer programmes to generate a barcode of the E-MoFA number, print it on a sticker and paste the sticker on the pilgrim’s international passport. All these involve cost, which will ultimately trickle down to each pilgrim who approaches Umrah companies in Nigeria. How can we possibly issue people free visas with all I have mentioned?

The process costs foreign (Nigerian company) just about one hundred dollars ($100) for each passport. Therefore, Umrah visa is not actually ‘free’. Of course, this does not warrant selling the visa for thousands of dollars as these miscreants do at high season.

The people who complained to the EFCC, in the first place, about the exorbitant price of visa are the real problem of Umrah in Nigeria.  They will not make arrangements on time, refuse to pay for a package that covers the cost of visa, accommodation, transportation and feeding, but insist on getting visa-only at any price; thus, the law of demand and supply sets in. They think they make savings by paying for their hotel outside a package and just buying the visa, but they end up, in countless instances, either paying near double the amount of a complete package, or worse, losing what they paid for both the visa and the accommodation.

The EFCC should find ways of encouraging people to come forward and expose people behind the companies that sell visas to, or defraud them. If Umrah pilgrims do not come to report such evildoers, let the EFCC in collaboration with NAHCON follow pilgrims to Umrah and conduct a survey through questionnaires on the source of their visa and at what price. 

Umrah is not obligatory; it is sunnah according to the majority of the Muslim scholars. Why must people expend a lot of money on visa every year while their neighbours are looking for what to break their fast with in Ramadan? 


Umrah pilgrims are gone, but the Haram is full of worshippers going round the Ka’bah, as it awaits a full house in Hajj 2015.

1 comment :

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