Saturday, January 23, 2016


The Umrah 2016 season has commenced around the last two or so months of 2015, but due to variation between the Hijrah and the Gregorian calendars, we still have to align the season to 2016. Umrah pilgrims, with the slight increase in visa for this year’s season, are trooping into the holy territories from all over the globe. This sudden surge in the number of pilgrims is betraying some logistic challenges at the Jeddah airport. In the past Nigerians went for Umrah mostly in Ramadan, but now, all season Umrah has gained currency among Nigerian Muslims.

My concern here is not on pricing of packages or the type of accommodation Umrah agents provide for their pilgrims. I am not going to speak about the high rates of visas either, (which is of course, not free). I have had occasions to write on all these issues in the past. I will not repeat myself here.

I intend to share my experience in Jeddah Hajj Terminal during a recent Umrah trip I and my wife undertook as advance party to pilgrims of a new product in my company’s packages which we christened Low Season Umrah. 

We flew Ethiopian Airline which at the time had not commenced flights to Madeenah. Although after our return from the trip I have seen some newspaper advertisements by the airline announcing its flights to Madeenah, but at the time of our journey, Ethiopian Airline could only land in Jeddah.

After landing at Jeddah pilgrims with Umrah visas have to remain seated until passengers with residence permits, visiting visas, etc have disembarked. These will board buses to the North Terminal, the main international airport, which is more orderly, organised and with a manageable crowd. Then another set of buses will approach the stationed aircraft to convey Umrah pilgrims to the Hajj Terminal which is now better in terms of infrastructure than what it was a few years ago.

Entering one of the arrival halls at the Hajj Terminal I noticed that the crowd was as large as you witnessed at the peak of Hajj seasons. Pilgrims grouped together according to their arrival time, region and flight details. Here, the wait  was endless; until  the long queues at the Passport Control abated there was nothing one could do to hasten their movement to the next level of airport formalities.

At the Passport Control which in the Hajj Terminal covers a vast expanse of space with numberless booths for stamping of passports and recording of thump print of pilgrims. The whole area was flooded with queues of pilgrims waiting patiently for their passports to be stamped, their fingerprints and pictures captured. 

Not all countries are subjected to fingerprint and image capture at the point of entry into Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries like Dubai (where ‘iris scan’ is used in place of fingerprints capture). Only pilgrims from some countries which include Pakistan, Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh, etc undergo such scrutiny. A regular traveller to Saudi Arabia knows the reason for subjecting pilgrims from these countries to this extra verifications and checks. That is not the purpose of this article.

Luggage Claim is another hurdle after the near lifelong time spent at arrivals and passport control. The place is in total chaos to put it mildly. Pilgrims’ Baggages of diverse hues littered the whole section of the Luggage Claim. You will start your ‘tawaaf’ here by moving from one luggage carousel to another. You will not see your bags. 

All baggages, unless they were tagged as ‘Umrah’ from the point of check in, were taken to the North Terminal. That was what happened to us. From Abuja Ethiopian Airline did not attach any ‘Umrah’ stickers to our baggages, thus we could not see them at the Hajj Terminal. We had to complain to a designated office for the purpose at the airport, and after several followups spanning hours, the luggages were finally sorted out at the North Terminal, separating  what was left of the baggage of the passengers with visas other than the Umrah, before sending them to the Hajj Terminal. 

The Saudi government stipulates that all Umrah passengers’ luggage must be tagged as such. Not doing so is wrong and in breach of the law. It should attract a sanction against the offending airline. People waste a lot of their productive time looking for their bags; bags which were misplaced due to the negligence of an airline.

We landed at Jeddah around 3am, but due to what I enumerated above, we left the airport around 8:30am. There were cases of pilgrims who left hours later than us.

Another problem at the Hajj Terminal is that of transport out of the airport. No taxi is allowed; no buses for public transport; nothing. For obvious reasons the Hajj Terminal is the much guarded of all airports in the Kingdom. This is commendable. But there should flexibility without relaxing security in order to ease the hardship of pilgrims for whose benefit all these safeguards are implemented. There are taxis (of cars and buses) in the North Terminal. Passengers can move easily out of the airport to any destination around the Kingdom. In the Hajj Terminal you have to use assigned buses to Umrah companies, the same buses that transport pilgrims during Hajj, with all the inconveniences peculiar to them - of having another session of waiting for enough pilgrims to fill a 49 seater bus, with almost every other person going to a different hotel in Makkah, among other inconveniences.

The only alternative out of the Hajj Terminal is paying SAR100 to private car owners (kabu kabu), with attendant risks, to take you to the gate; a drive of about five minutes only. Some of them will ask for more that 100 riyals. These car owners are nationals who have gate passes for entry into the airport. No other persons are allowed except passengers with valid travel documents including a ticket for a flight leaving on the day of entrance, otherwise they are denied entry.

We support the initiatives of the Royal Kingdom in expanding the Haramayn and in many other projects aimed at easing the performance of Hajj and Umrah for Allah’s guests. But ease should start from the time the pilgrims arrives the airport to the time that they will leave the airport again after finishing their devotions. The Saudi authorities, therefore, will do better by making arrival and exit formalities  in the Hajj Terminal less cumbersome than they currently are for the Umrah pilgrims. 

Until the changes are made by the Saudi authorities, I will suggest to anyone who wants to perform Umrah to choose an airline which plies the Madeenah route. Airlines like Emirates, Etihad, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airline (twice a week for now), Saudi Airline and Turkish Airlines will land in Madeenah. Even if you will stay in Makkah, you will find it worth your while to land in Madeenah for now. I know the Saudi government will listen and see reason; unlike what some uncharitable columnists have written to downplay and deny their great efforts. May Allah accept our worship and may He make the changes easy to implement for the government.

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