Despite an increase in applications from Qatar residents who wish to perform Hajj this year, Saudi Arabia has frozen the number of pilgrimage visas available to Muslims in the country.
Some 19,000 Qatar residents have applied for a Hajj visa this year, but quotas set by Saudi Arabia mean only 1,200 of them will be able to make the trip, according to Al Raya. Of that amount, the majority of the visas – 900 – are reserved for Qatari citizens.
The 1,200 spots are the same number that Qatar was allocated in 2014, but is only a fraction of the 9,000 visas that were available to residents here a few years ago, a local tour operator told Doha News.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has cut down the visa quotas granted to different nations to better accommodate pilgrims since announcing a massive expansion of the Grand Mosque in Makkah and Medina a few years ago.
Saudi officials previously said that the QR39 billion (US$11 billion) expansion of the mosque is expected to take at least until 2016.
The freeze means more local residents are having their visa requests rejected, as Al Raya said applications were up by some 4,000 people over last year.
The move also has spelled financial losses for some of the local companies that transport pilgrims, as well as some mergers.
One such operator – Fahd Al Kawari, who heads Al Fahd Hajj Group Operator – said he merged with Al Hatem Hajj Group Operator last year and knows of at least two Hajj operators who didn’t operate last year due to an insufficient number of customers.
The decrease in Hajj visas has also lead to a hike in prices in the cost of the pilgrimage. Last year, the prices ranged from QR12,000 ($3,296) to QR37,000 ($10,165) for the trip, according to Al Raya.
The newspaper added that only nine Hajj groups out of a total of 30 operators were operational last year.
Speaking to Doha News, Al Kawari said there have been calls from his industry and local residents to increase the quota.
The urging has worked in the past, he said, as Saudi Arabia doubled the number of visas available to expats in Qatar from 500 to 1,000 in 2012, only two days before the pilgrimage. That brought the total number of Qatar-based pilgrims to 2,000.
The three-week online registration process to apply for the pilgrimage closed on Tuesday. A random draw will be held within the next few days to pick the approved applicants, who will be sent an SMS notification by the Department of Hajj and Umrah Affairs.
Applicants can follow up on their visa applications online. The Department of Hajj and Umrah Affairs also has a hotline number – 132 – to answer any inquires about the Hajj.
Qatar residents who are not approved can still apply to attend Hajj through their home countries, but they have to must go through Saudi embassies there.
Al Kawari said that in this case, applicants would also have to travel to Hajj from their home country and join a local Hajj company there, adding that they can’t travel or obtain the visa from Qatar.
Hajj restrictions for expats include:
- A female applicant below 45 years should be accompanied by a mohram, a male relative; and
- Expats should be at least 18 years old and should have completed three years’ stay in Qatar and should not have performed Hajj in the past five years.