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Faith, LIFE

Is Umrah Visa-Free?

Posted: Jun 26, 2015 at 12:40 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Whenever I intend to write on Hajj and Umrah related subjects on this page, I get perplexed concerning what information to pass and what to keep for some other purpose. There is this fear of being an unpaid consultant of sort to non-professionals who think they can go into Hajj and Umrah business by just copying what serious professionals in the industry are doing. When my company returned from a successful Summer Umrah and Saudi tour in April this year, I intended to write on our experiences in travelling with, hitherto, the largest number of contingent, mostly children, but I rescinded that decision for the above reasons. 

You cannot buy experience in this industry or in any other; you have to acquire it through yearly participation in the pilgrimage, by offering decent services to Allah’s guests, persistence in fulfilling your promises to pilgrims even in the face of evident loss, hard work, etc. A sedentary visa-trafficker, a lazy plagiarist has no room in modern Hajj and Umrah service delivery industry!

Whenever you get your Umrah or Hajj visa it is marked “Free” from the Saudi Arabian Embassy or Consulate. The question that I want to address today is how free is that “free visa”?

Each Umrah company around the world has to sign contract with a Saudi Arabian Umrah operator, a company licensed by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj to provide services to Umrah pilgrims. The ratification of this contract entails a bank guarantee of SAR100, 000 (N6, 000, 000) or, for some companies, SAR2000, 000 (N12, 000, 000). Often times, this value of the guarantee is lost due to over-stayers of the Umrah visa; people who will travel to Saudia for Umrah only to disappear into thin air or hide within Makkah until they perform Hajj or even remain for as long as they can evade the immigration police, becoming a source of embarrassment for Nigeria; the tour operator bears the brunt. Furthermore, this guarantee attracts charges against the tour operator for the duration of its validity, for the period of one year of the Umrah season. Some banks in Nigeria will insist on issuing the guarantee in US dollars, and effect the bank charges in the same currency. Also, the Umrah contract involves travel by the serious tour operator, to Saudi Arabia for physical inspection of places of accommodation for pilgrims in Makkah and Madeenah, in order to assess the distance of hotels to the Two Holy Mosques, and making payment for accommodation, transport, and, where applicable, feeding. In addition to this, the Saudi partner will charge the foreign company, (any tour operator outside Saudia), a certain amount of money ranging from $100 and above for logistics in the visa process and airport meet and greet during pilgrims’ arrival at Jeddah or Madeenah international airports. The Saudi partner actually makes e-payment of certain amount of money to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to get an online number (called MOFA number) for Umrah companies outside the Kingdom to use for final upload of visa request, through the ministry’s website, and submission to the Saudi Embassy.

To arrive at the cost of the Umrah package, which includes the visa, the tour operator has to put all the above into consideration, his own overhead and profit margin. Therefore, no Umrah visa is free. Yes, the Saudi Embassy or Consulate can stamp ‘Free’ on the visa because there is no payment you make to the embassy in Nigeria, but a lot of money has been expended before this ‘Free’ visa was issued including what the Saudi partner paid directly to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I can say the same thing and more concerning the Hajj visa; it is only free at the embassy level as stamped on the passport.


Visa Only

There is nothing like ‘visa only’ in the parlance of Hajj and Umrah operations. The phrase is a euphemism for arranging your Umrah visa with attached accommodation so poor you cannot use it. Instead of signing for decent accommodation, most operators go for the cheapest, remotest from Haram, no star apartments, where they know many pilgrims cannot stay; yours truly has been forced to patronise these in the past before signing my company’s own Umrah contract with a reputable company in Saudia.

The same thing applies to Jeddah-Makkah-Madeenah transport. They sign for old 49-seater buses for transporting pilgrims. When a pilgrim arrives at Jeddah airport, after all the trouble he goes through during screening, stamping of passport, seizure and photocopying of the passport by the Saudi agent, etc. the pilgrim will have to wait for 48 other pilgrims whose time of arrival may be from that time until Allah knows when, before he departs for Madeenah or  Makkah as the case may be in a stuffy old bus. So, rather than to go through this uncertainty, the pilgrim has no choice but to accept the ‘visa only’ option and forfeit the purported accommodation and transportation attached to the visa. He pays for the ‘visa only’ from around N100, 000 to N160, 000, and even more (subject to the period of travel), secures accommodation on a separate arrangement, and arranges for his transport within Saudi Arabia. Of course there are those who see things in a different light; they say Umrah is worship and they do not mind the hassles. These forget that Allah has not attached those hassles to the worship; they are man-made. I understand if all you can afford is this kind of visa, accommodation and transport, just do not tell me this is part of the ‘ibaadah.

People have now become so used to this charade of visa only arrangement that it has become the norm for Umrah pilgrimage.


Limited Visas For Umrah

The Saudi Ministry of Hajj has decided to reduce the number of Umrah pilgrims coming from outside the Kingdom during Sha’abaan and the holy month of Ramadan and allowed 14 days for such pilgrims to leave the Kingdom after performing Umrah rituals. The decision was attributed to the expansion project being implemented in the Grand Mosque in Makkah. The period of this restriction of number of pilgrims is not confined to Ramadan; it covers Hajj, hence the slashing of Hajj slots not only for Nigeria but for all countries all over the world.  This reduction means great loss to tour operators around the world who have signed contracts with their Saudi partners for rooms in proportion to the number of pilgrims they normally serve during these seasons.

As I write this piece the visa quota to Umrah companies for pilgrims coming in the months of Sha’baan and Ramadan has been reduced from the online electronic platform where we process such visas. Prior to this reduction we could process a group of 20 and more pilgrims to get the online Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) number. Now, all agents are restricted to only 5 in a day. Unless this is changed, many families travelling in Ramadan may not be able to undertake the journey especially where they have a limited number of mahrams. Each group of four female pilgrims or underage children must be attached to a mahram during the online request for MOFA number which will be used to generate the E-MOFA number (slang for the alphanumeric code generated from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs website upon successful uploading of a pilgrim’s details) for onward submission to, and issuance of the visa by the embassy. You cannot split a group of 6 which has only one mahram, for instance; so, the law as it is now will impede the Ramadan Umrah of many families.

Moreover, not all tour operators have Umrah contracts to issue visa. If your passport is with an agent who does not have licence issued by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) to conduct Umrah and who cannot issue visa with a valid contract from a Saudi partner not to mention opening a file with the Saudi embassy or consulate, you are on your own because at the end of the day that agent will not be able to get you the visa due to the shortage of allocation for the company he intends to use. You will not know this until when it is too late.

The validity of the Umrah visa is also restricted to only 15 days with a duration of stay ranging from 15 to 30 days- depending on your luck, really. This means your request for Umrah visa should not be made until you are ready to travel within 14 days of the issuance date of the visa, otherwise its validity will expire. Those who think they have their Umrah visa for Ramadan from now should know that they are in possession of expired travel documents; unless the Saudi government reverses the current policy which came into effect less than two weeks ago. In such a case, the airline may not carry you, and if you are lucky to reach Jeddah or Madeenah, you will be denied entry with an expired visa. The validity of such visas used to be 1 month; not anymore! At least until the expansion project of the Ka’bah is finished in the next 3 years.

Intending Umrah pilgrims must be careful concerning the validity of visa before travel, and the duration of your stay in Saudi Arabia after your arrival. Anyway, Umrah visa is not free.