MAKKAH: November will bring relief for the more than 500 Umrah companies in the Kingdom that have been badly affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has laid out the guidelines for receiving pilgrims from outside the Kingdom, to be applied from Nov. 1, in its phased resumption of Umrah services.
And now Saudia airline has announced the reopening of 33 travel destinations, most of which are green countries where COVID-19 is not spreading and preventive measures are being successfully implemented.
Ahmed Bajaifer, an investor in Umrah companies, said that an estimated 10,000 pilgrims will arrive each week in Saudi Arabia, adding that the Umrah companies can easily handle this number while applying preventive measures.
The ministry will only allow pilgrims between 18 and 50 years old to come for Umrah, in line with the requirements of the Ministry of Health. They must present a PCR test certificate proving that they have tested negative for COVID-19. The certificate must be issued by a trusted laboratory in the pilgrim’s country no more than 72 hours before departure.
Pilgrims must book their Umrah and prayers at the Two Holy Mosques, including visits to the Prophet’s Mosque and prayers in the Prophet’s Chamber. All bookings can be done through the Eatmarna app.
They are also required to have confirmed return flights that suit their Umrah programs.
The mandatory components of the service package for each pilgrim include booking accommodation that provides three full-board meals for the quarantine period, which should be at least three days, and transport from the port to the accommodation. They must also have a comprehensive insurance policy.
Pilgrims arriving from abroad will be divided into groups of at least 50 pilgrims. Unified programs must be booked for the groups, including all services that match the date of their booking to perform Umrah and visit the Two Holy Mosques.
A guide will be appointed for each group, and the Saudi agent will be obliged to provide the contracted service packages.
The efforts exerted by the government to ensure a hassle-free Hajj and the facilities provided to pilgrims at different levels were highly praised, most notably the health precautions of social distancing and adhering to health requirements. (SPA)
Kingdom harnesses all its potential to make pilgrims feel at home, prioritizing their safety: Muhammad Saleh Benten
JEDDAH: The Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry has shared some of the secrets behind what made the “exceptional” 2020 Hajj season a success, with zero transmitted cases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten said that the government utilized the latest technology to improve the pilgrim experience this season.
Speaking about his ministry’s efforts in preventing the spread of COVID-19, Benten said that it implemented precautionary measures in every phase of the pilgrimage, starting with the pilgrims being quarantined at home.
It also introduced institutional quarantine from the fourth to the eighth day of the Hajj, gave pilgrims electronic bracelets and enforced social distancing.
“For the second consecutive year, the ministry used the electronic platform through the ‘smart card’ application, taking into account the pilgrims’ special needs in terms of the journey’s organization and management,” he said. “The platform is a digital ID granted to the pilgrim that is directly linked with the ‘Smart Hajj’ application supervised by the ministry.”
He added that the digital ID contains the pilgrims’ personal, health and housing information, such as the numbers of their group, and which bus seat and bed has been allocated to them.
“It also enables pilgrims to know their special program, gathering points and times of departure. Moreover, the ministry registered pilgrims electronically by using an interactive platform that links 52 systems and is complemented by 30 governmental and nongovernmental bodies,” he added.
Relying on those services, the minister said, came as part of the ministry’s strategy to establish virtual platforms that reduce procedures, and keep pace with the technical development required to achieve the Saudi Vision 2030 goal to serve pilgrims.
With every Hajj season having its own challenges, the Hajj and Umrah Ministry has enjoyed success after success. However, the 2020 season put the ministry to an unprecedented test.
“As every year, Saudi Arabia harnesses all its potential and energies to make the Hajj season a success, prioritizing the safety and security of the pilgrims.
• When Saudi Arabia took the decision to hold Hajj for a limited number of people, it was keen to comply with all health and precautionary measures.
• This step was taken based on scientific decisions and thorough research studies that would ensure that pilgrims can perform Hajj rituals safely.
• The ministry and all Hajj-related authorities have learned many lessons from the last Hajj experience, where social distancing was implemented.
“However, last year’s Hajj was a little different with the whole world facing the COVID-19 outbreak. During the 2020 Hajj season, the Saudi government faced a rare and unprecedented challenge, and thanks to God, the Kingdom was able to address it,” he said.
He added: “When Saudi Arabia took the decision to hold Hajj for a limited number of people, it was keen to comply with all health and precautionary measures. This step was taken based on scientific decisions and thorough research studies that would ensure that pilgrims could perform Hajj rituals safely.”
He said that the efforts exerted by the Saudi government in this regard and the various facilities provided to pilgrims at different levels were highly praised, most notably the health precautions of social distancing and adhering to health requirements.
The ministry and all Hajj-related authorities have learned many lessons from the last Hajj experience, where social distancing was implemented. The minister shed light on the most notable lessons, and how they can benefit future seasons.
“The ministry implemented social distancing protocols in all phases of the pilgrims moving between the holy sites through limiting the seating capacity of buses to 50 percent,” said Benten.
As for the residence of pilgrims, officials conducted tests for all pilgrims and workers and assigned health observers to ensure guidelines were maintained.
He added: “Moreover, 49-seat buses were assigned to each group of 22 passengers, and Hajj routes were fixed in a way to achieve social distancing. These measures resulted in zero transmission of COVID-19 between pilgrims and their service providers.”
As many government officials have said in the past, preparations for the next Hajj season begin as soon as the previous iteration ends.
One of the advantages of the extraordinary 2020 season was that the ministry could accelerate projects in the holy sites.
Benten told Arab News that his ministry works every year on developing the services provided for pilgrims, to enrich their experience through providing diverse programs and initiatives.
“The ministry always benefits from the accumulated experiences, large-scale projects and personnel to provide the finest services with the best levels for pilgrims,” he said. “One of those initiatives that benefited the ministry, which will continue to implement it in the future, is the preparation and improvement of the holy sites, the preparation of a comprehensive scheme to expand the capacity and receive the largest number of pilgrims in order to achieve comfort, security, safety and environmental dimensions, reduce pollution and study spatial dimensions.”
He added that the ministry aims for a record time reception of pilgrims through the unified center to analyze data, enhancing crowd control efficiency and rapid intervention, reducing time to organize pilgrims, and distributing them equally.
The Hajj and Umrah companies have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; with some failing to meet their obligations towards their employees.
“The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has provided a myriad of facilities to these companies since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic through developing work and encouraging mergers and investments in Umrah companies,” Benten said.
He added that the ministry has also contributed to reducing the value of financial security for nondefaulting active Umrah companies to SR250,000 ($66,666) for six months.
“The ministry also authorized Umrah companies to reduce their capital in the commercial register to SR500,000 ($133,332), close their doors for one year, and postpone payment of nonessential violations for six months,” said Benten.
The ministry launched the business clinics unit, which is one of its programs aimed at helping companies review their mechanisms and operational plans.
“The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah will also be organizing many workshops and training programs for Umrah companies on strategies to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and the means of developing their business with efficiency,” he concluded.
MAKKAH: When the pilgrimage season begins, pilgrims’ guides temporarily leave behind their regular jobs and professional titles to serve visitors of all nationalities. It is a solemn and blessed role that many Makkans inherited from their parents and grandparents.
The male and female guides find comfort and pleasure in serving pilgrims, despite the lack of financial reward. They consider their service an honor they are granted each year.
Dr. Talal Qutub, for example, normally works as an internal medicine consultant. He said that he has been blessed to serve pilgrims since early childhood, inheriting the job from his family. They cultivated within him the love of pilgrims and caring for them, from the moment they arrive in Makkah until they depart.
He said that there is a mutual love, appreciation and respect between pilgrims and their guides, and to the guides those feelings are like the oxygen they breathe.
Qutub stated started out in 1973 as an independent guide, before becoming a member of the board of directors of the Institution of Iranian Pilgrims’ Guides and then serving as its president for many years.
“I became the head of the coordinating body of the institutions of the sects’ leaders, during which I was able to complete my studies in medicine and obtain my Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree in Pakistan without interruption to the service of pilgrims,” he said. “Then I joined Saudi Airlines as a doctor in medical services and became general manager of the medical services.
“I was practicing my profession as a doctor and obtained a doctorate in the field of the digestive system and liver while studying Austria, but continued serving pilgrims during my studies there by coming to the Kingdom during the pilgrimage season.”
He said that serving pilgrims is an important part of his life and he could not give it up. It is also a calling that he has passed on to the next generation.
“My son, Dr. Hadi, has inherited the profession from me,” he said. “He is a digestive and liver disease consultant, and a member of the board of directors of the Institution of the Iranian Pilgrims’ Guides.”
Guide Ahmed Halabi, a journalist who specializes in pilgrimage services, said: “Pilgrimage guidance has been linked since its inception in 683 AH/1284 AD to providing special services to the pilgrims of the sacred house of God, including reception, circumambulation and supplications.
“This is what Al-Qasim Bin Youssef Al-Sabti refers to in his book ‘The Beneficiary of Expedition and Expatriation.’ He quotes the traveler Ibn Rashid, who performed pilgrimage in 683 AH/1284 AD: ‘The people of Makkah and their children receive pilgrims and teach them rituals. They train their boys on that, so they teach pilgrims prayers and supplications.’”
Halabi added: “We find many guides who have inherited the profession from their fathers and grandfathers, and are proud of it because it was limited to the judges and scholars in the beginning.”
He said that beautiful words of praise and gratitude increase the sense of pride that guides take in their work. Swiss traveler and historian Jean Louis Burckhardt, for example, said: “The guides are the leaders of the pilgrims during the rituals of pilgrimage and while visiting the holy places in the Prophet’s city.”
In his book ‘The Gentle Pleasures in the Mind of the Pilgrim to the Holiest Place,’ Shakib Arslan wrote: “There are two groups in the honorable Hejaz that visitors of Hijaz need and must have a relationship with: Guides in Makkah and Madinah.”
Lady Evelyn Cobbold, a convert to Islam who in 1933 became the first British Muslim woman to perform Hajj, describes in her book “Pilgrimage to Mecca” the details of her visit.
“Time will not erase from my mind and my memory the scenes that I saw in Mecca and Medina, and the strength of faith, beauty of loyalty, and love of good, for both people and enemies alike, which I felt in the Holy Land,” she wrote.
A number of prominent people have served as guides through the years.
“There are many personalities,” said Halabi. “Perhaps the most prominent of them is Dr. Hamid Al-Harsani, who held the position of Minister of Health during the period from (1961 to 1962). He was not only a guide but a leader of guides.
“There was also the late Sheikh Saleh Kamel. His family worked in guidance and his father worked in the Cabinet Office, but he was keen to attend the pilgrimage season to serve the pilgrims coming from Africa. Their office was located in Al-Shabika.”
Faten Hussein, a reporter and specialist in pilgrimage guidance, said the job of guide is inherited by many Makkans by virtue of their proximity to the Holy Sites, their close relationship with the pilgrims, and knowledge of their languages and culture.
She that many begin their work as guides at a very young age, and that the most important thing that distinguishes them is their moral values. A spirit of sacrifice and unlimited benevolence in serving the needs of pilgrims have instilled in them a unique religious identity built on strong belief. They are religious role models for pilgrims, she added.
However, as times have changed, and the number of pilgrims has increased dramatically, so too has the nature of the relationship between guide and pilgrim. What was once a close, almost familial relationship, is now, by necessity, more businesslike.
“Pilgrimage guidance was initially an individual profession, in the sense that the individual and his family carried the burdens and responsibilities of guidance, from the pilgrims’ arrival in Makkah until they departed,” said Hussein.
“But the increase in the number of pilgrims (created a lot of challenges) in performing the profession as it was based on randomness and personal diligence and the individual’s ability to perform all tasks with the required accuracy. This situation led to the emergence of the guidance institutions in (1982), which are based on organized, collective work to intensify efforts and unify procedures to upgrade the services provided to the pilgrims.
“But this in turn led to a cooling in the relationship between pilgrims and guides because pilgrims were placed in distant residences completely separate from the residences of guides and their families, which formed barriers in communication and human relations and led to the shrinking or fading of the close relationship that used to exist between them in the past.”
In the old days, Hussein said, pilgrims and their families used to spend six months or more in Makkah. Female guides worked in roles such as reception and hospitality, preparing locations, accompanying female pilgrims to the holy places, looking after their valuables, providing health care or religious awareness, and even caring for their children.
“In recent years, female guides have worked in a more advanced way and performed high-quality services for female pilgrims,” she said. “Cultural- and religious-awareness meetings are provided for female pilgrims, the content of which is determined according to the needs of the targeted groups. Female guides are also trained in the art of dealing with female pilgrims, the art of speech, and in first aid and other courses.”
Sami Al-Muabber, the chief of Russeifa neighborhood in Makkah, recalled the relationship that developed between guides and pilgrims in years gone by, from their arrival on ships until their departure after spending six or seven months among Makkans. He compared the moment of parting with saying farewell to close family members.
He also highlighted the important role played by the women of Makkah, even many years ago, who went to extraordinary lengths to provide first-class hospitality, from preparing delicious meals to sewing clothes.
Al-Muabber said that pilgrims in the past would spend more time in Makkah and Madinah than in their home countries. As a result, they learned Arabic and taught others their mother tongues. This had a social impact on the way of life of Makkans, who treated the pilgrims as part of their families and essential partners in the social life of the city.
Pilgrims used to arrive at the beginning of the month of Rajab by “Babur” (ship), he added, and stay until Safar, seven months later, which gave plenty of time for them to integrate with Makkans. Pilgrims lived in the homes of their guides. The owner would vacate most of the house, keeping only a room on the roof for himself and his family, with a space in front of it.
The joy of the pilgrims’ arrival was similar to the arrival of Eid, said Al-Muabber. A great feast, called hospitality, was laid on for them, to which all the people of the neighborhood were invited. He added that Makkans would compete with each other to offer hospitality to pilgrims, who would stay, eat and drink as guests of God.
Makkan women shared the same divine rewards as male guides, he said, because they took care of their visitors, accompanied female pilgrims to textile stores and bought them what they needed, and sewed their clothes. Female pilgrims would also buy eyeliners, incense and framed pictures of Makkah and Madinah. Makkan women used to help female pilgrims choose their clothes and prayer mat. Such was the closeness of the relationship that developed over many months between pilgrim and guide, saying goodbye was painful.
“It was like saying goodbye to a family member,” said Al-Muabber. The visitors, he added, became part of the family, sharing moments of happiness and sadness.
Nowadays, the high number of pilgrims and the ways in which the wider world has changed mean that they do not get to know the Makkans in such a deep and meaningful way. Some pilgrims now arrive on the Day of Arafah and leave soon after. They no longer have the opportunity to share with the people of Makkah the beauty of meeting and getting to know each other, or create memories together that will last a lifetime.
Al-Muabber pointed out that at the beginning of the reign of King Saud the number of pilgrims was about 200,000; now there more than two million each year, and they spend much less time in Saudi Arabia. With such sweeping changes, the days when pilgrims and locals could meet, spend time together and form deep bonds that lasted a lifetime are long gone.