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Thursday, February 11, 2016

STILL ON UMRAH VISA




One of the journalists who covered the dinner hosted by the Saudi Arabian Ambassador in his residence on Wednesday January 27th, 2016 was Hassan Okikiola of AL- AFRIKIY ISLAMIC TELEVISION CHANNEL NEWS. I wrote on that dinner a fortnight ago on these pages where I dwelt on the remarks made, shortly before the dinner, by the Saudi Ambassador, Sheikh Fahad Abdullah Sefyan, and Honourable Dr. Abdullahi Balarabe Salame, Chairman Committee on Nigeria-Saudi Arabia Parliamentary Friendship Group, respectively. I deliberately refused to discuss the issue of Umrah and Hajj which came up during the group’s discussion with His Excellency, the Ambassador. 


Members of the Committee asked the Ambassador concerning the genuineness or otherwise of what Umrah and Hajj agents charge for visa at different seasons. As a player in the industry, the Ambassador invited to me answer part of the questions in a private capacity. Al-Afrikiy Channel videotaped my answer to the question which was later shared, in good faith,  by Hassan Okikiola on his Facebook page. It generated many reactions on Facebook, (one Good Samaritan copied and shared it on) WhatsApp and other social media, with some people misunderstanding or misrepresenting what I said.




I will try to reproduce what I said at the Saudi Arabian Ambassador’s residence in answer to the question on Umrah and Hajj visas, with additions to make it clearer than when the words were originally uttered. Time was at a premium at the dinner, I had to give a concise response.


Two actors, I said, cause the problem of visa: the Umrah agent on the one hand, and the people of means who can afford to pay the cost, on the other. I explained that at the Saudi Embassy level the visa is free, they charge nothing for the issuance of Umrah or Hajj visas. However, at the Saudi Hajj Ministry level, vis-a-vis the contract we sign with our Saudi partners, there is an expenditure on each visa, which is about $100 per passport for all seasons including Ramadan. Even on the online potal for visa application, there is a stage where the visa application awaits payment, and until our Saudi partners make that payment to the Saudi Hajj Ministry on our behalf, the application is on hold. Consequently, if processing each visa costs about $100, why for Allah’s sake will Umrah agents be charging between $1,000 and $5,000 for just a visa per passport according to season? I wondered. 




Of course, there is the issue of bank guarantee of SAR100, 000 (₦8,200,000) or SAR200,000 (₦16,400,000), depending on which company is the Saudi partner. That money is only accessed by the Saudi part in the event of some pilgrims overstaying their visas, otherwise the money is refunded to the Nigerian company at the expiration of the term of the contract. I urged myself and my colleagues in the industry to honour the fiduciary duty we owe the pilgrims and to fear Allah in what we charge them for visas, as there is no justification in charging for what we well know the pilgrims would not use. Charging for visa with the shabbiest of accommodation attached, which the pilgrims will not use, forcing them to make alternative arrangements, is heartless and cruel. 


I went ahead to explain how visa and other logistics are intertwined in Umrah and Hajj. In the word and letter of the contract, which we ratify with our Saudi partners, there is nothing called visa only. All contracts, I said, are a total package; transportation (a certain clause requires agents to have control over return air tickets of visa applicants, hence the inclusion of IATA certification of Umrah agents as a condition for Umrah licence by NAHCON and the Saudi Hajj Ministry), accommodation, feeding, local transport within Saudia, etc.  For example, the contract my company signs with its Saudi partner, has the option of 3, 4, or 5 star accommodation, the lowest being $700 (N217,000) for a seven-day stay which includes bed and breakfast with each Umrah visa. So, our pilgrims have options according to their means. The cost of these Umrah packages  covers visa, accommodation, feeding and transport, thereby eliminating the ‘visa only’ arrangement.


The people of means in Nigeria (or at least, some of them) are the other part of the visa problem because they refused to accept that going on religious pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia is different from going on safaris or tours abroad. They come to the Umrah agents and insist on getting visa only, since they can make their arrangement for accommodation, transport, etc. In fact, many make such arrangements, including their tickets before approaching us.  Oftentimes they come at the last minute, when all arrangements are completed, and plead to pay any amount for the visa. They would have paid much less, if they had made early arrangements and paid in good time. It is analogous to giving up yourself for financial slaughter, as the Umrah agent will only sharpen his knife. Some Umrah agents contrive an illegal arrangement with their Saudi partners who know what obtains here, of selling visa only, so they permit it and share in the loot, especially during the month of Ramadan. 


Some of these people of means have bought or leased apartments in the tall structures around the Ka’bah in Makkah. Of course, it makes no economic sense to be a house owner in a city you are visiting and still take hotel accommodation. I advised the Saudi authorities to create a system for owners of apartments to have special visas from their embassies around the world. Until such alleviation comes, the current law does not exempt anybody, as all Umrah visa applicants must take a full package covering hotel accommodation in both Makkah and Madeenah. There is no room for visa only in whatever circumstance, and this law has its valid reasons. Nigerians constitute a large fraction of overstaying pilgrims in Saudia. The country is only taking measures to reduce the incidence of this crime.


This is what I said in essence but many who watched the video online took my use of personal pronoun as a confession of my complicity in short-changing Umrah and Hajj pilgrims. They failed to appreciate the fact that I used ‘we’ as a token of reverence to my colleagues in the industry.

One Ibrahim Ande, in his comment concerning the video, said,  ‘these guys at COMREL charge $14k for the basic package of Hajj where you share rooms with 4 others....now they are lecturing us fear of Allah and not charging unnecessary fees’

In my reply, I said to him, ‘My brother Ibrahim Ande, you missed the point. The discussion was on visa charges. Where travel agents expend only about $100 to process Umrah visa for each pilgrim, most of them ended up charging $1,500 and more for visa only. The package should include accommodation, transport, etc. with the charges of the visa added to it. That was why I urged my colleagues to fear Allah and stop charging that much for visa only as well as making the pilgrims pay additional fees for accommodation. I thank you for being charitable enough as to state that COMEREL charges $14,000 'for basic package of Hajj'. That is indeed basic, for our premium package was beyond $30,000 for certain category of options. Those who can pay for such packages have repeatedly told COMEREL that they got value for money in the services rendered them. Visit www.comerel.net for confirmation. Thank you my brother.


My company is not the subject of this article, but the mistake people like my respected brother, Ibrahim Ande, make is to confuse what we charge with asking a desperate pilgrim to cough up as much as $1,000 for just an Umrah visa. The hapless pilgrim would still need to arrange for everything else. What he described as ‘basic’ is actually our VIP Package. Ours is a VIP arrangement comprising of five-star hotels in both Makkah and Madeenah as well as the best and closest tents to the ritual sites in Minaa and ‘Arafah. We also hire the latest buses available for the movement of the pilgrims. When you examine what the package entails, you can see beyond the mere mention of a seemingly high figure. At the risk of sounding immodest, I make bold to say we give commensurate services for what we charge.


The Saudi accommodation industry is heavily demand-driven. I have written about that in previous articles; it only bears reiterating here. The bulk of what we charge as agents goes into accommodation arrangements. To use an additional services tent (the closest to the jamaraat) known as A Plus tents, you pay through your nose. Most of the buses in use for conveying pilgrims around the Kingdom are old and prone to frequent breakdown. We jettison their use and pay for better buses. Our slogan of Comfort, Efficiency and Reliability comes at a cost.
No doubt, we could opt for lower standards but we have chosen this standard, believing the pilgrimage is not about suffering and realising most of the suffering, which people encounter, has nothing to do with the pilgrimage per se. We are filling a niche. We cannot serve everyone. No matter how low our prices might be, always someone will find the amount too high. In reality, you could pay less for a service and get less value for your money than the one who paid more elsewhere. As the Englishman would say, “The devil is in the details”.


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