ARRIVAL OF MILLIONS: Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque
during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. Picture: Reuters
More than two million Muslims are in Mecca ahead of the annual Hajj, which began on Sunday. Before the mid-1950s, the number of overseas pilgrims rarely exceeded 100 000 and modern Saudi institutions were still developing. Yet by the early 2000s, the total number of Hajj pilgrims had passed the two million mark, peaking at just over three million in 2012.

Unlike all Muslim-majority nations, Muslim minorities in the West are not restricted to a Hajj quota of 1000 pilgrims per million of population. The number of British Muslims performing Hajj each year rose to about 25 000 in the mid-2000s. About 100 000 now go annually for Umrah (the year-round, non-obligatory minor pilgrimage).

During the early 2000s, in a bid to improve services to pilgrims, the Saudi authorities insisted that anyone organising Hajj in the West should form a registered company and be properly licensed. By the mid-2000s, they also made buying a “package” from one of these organisers the only way for Muslims in the West to perform Hajj.

Today there are around 117 UK Hajj organisers licensed by Saudi Arabia. Each is responsible for their own annual quota of 150-450 Hajj pilgrim visas. But UK pilgrims wanting to perform Hajj this year probably spent as much as £5-6000 (R92 000 to R110 000) on their package. Overall, the cost of Hajj-going has increased by about 25% in recent years. Pilgrim welfare charities such as the Association of British Hujjaj complain that high prices reflect UK organisers’ profiteering.

But the bigger picture is that the restructured Hajj industry in Saudi Arabia is increasingly privatised and commercialised. The Muslims arriving in Mecca create a huge demand for travel, accommodation and other services. And for all its investments in pilgrimage infrastructure, the Saudi government does not control the pricing of flights, rents and so on. Members of the UK’s newly formed Licensed Hajj Organisers national trade association are in a risky business. In the tourism industry, payments are usually made in arrears, but UK Hajj organisers often make large down payments before packages are even sold. And because they lack the bargaining power of large Muslim governments, Hajj organisers in the West can pay a premium for some services.

The new leadership of Licensed Hajj Organisers are keenly aware of the complex issues faced by the Hajj and Umrah industry. Few UK Hajj organisers can sell their entire quota without maintaining relationships with networks of sub-agents. Spot checks for “Hajj fraud” by Trading Standards staff suggest that long selling chains and a lack of proper documentation can encourage “over-selling” and even criminal scams. That there is a new willingness in the trade to hold fellow organisers to account in this regard is clear from a new code of conduct launched by Licensed Hajj Organisers before Hajj this year. At the same time, many Hajj organisers still argue that the European Package Travel Regulations, intended to regulate “package holidays”, cannot account for the logistical and business complexities of Hajj.

Transformations in the organisation of Hajj-going in Britain represent only a local case study of challenges the Hajj and Umrah industry is facing worldwide. For some, this suggests a need for greater international governance of the Hajj and Umrah.

* Seán McLoughlin is a professor of the anthropology of Islam, University of Leeds

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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