'They just left us on our own': How Hajj pilgrims were left stranded, stressed and out-of-pocket in Saudi Arabia after Motawif's neglectful service

Hajj Mecca
6 min read
15 July, 2022

Last month, the Saudi government put the Hajj pilgrimage travel plans of thousands of British, European, and American Muslims into chaos when it announced, without warning, that it would no longer be accepting bookings made through travel agencies.

Instead, applications would have to be made through an online portal operated by Motawif, a technology company tied to India’s far-right ruling party.

"For many of those who made it through and over these hoops and hurdles, their problems had only just begun"

The move meant those with previous bookings had to seek a refund from their respective travel agencies, and then enter Motawif’s randomly selected, automated lottery system, from where they can rebook their accommodation and transport after receiving a successful Hajj application.

But for many of those who made it through and over these hoops and hurdles – their problems had only just begun.

Live Story

Faisal Khan (who asked not to reveal his real name because he and his wife are still in Saudi Arabia), a business owner from Phoenix, Arizona, said that not only did it take “dozens of attempts” for the website to process his payment, but also the company did not confirm his flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Jeddah until just a few hours before take-off, which he described as “incredibly stressful.”

But he wasn’t the only one. He said he had encountered dozens of other pilgrims who arrived at LAX from cities across the United States without their ongoing flight to Saudi Arabia confirmed, leaving many with the cost and hassle of finding accommodation in LA while they waited to hear from Motawif.

“We thought we were one of the lucky ones, as we ended flying out on the day we had booked – July 4 – but later we discovered the return date on our ticket shows August 29, not July 18, as requested. This means we could be stuck here [Saudi Arabia] for an additional 40 days if Motawif doesn’t change it. And we’ve still had no success [in doing so],” Faisal told The New Arab. 

"Many are now faced with having to choose between paying exorbitant hotel costs, upwards of $1,000 per night, or be tossed to the street”

He shared a WhatsApp group he had started while in Saudi Arabia for American Muslim pilgrims to talk about their experiences, general Hajj-related information, and advice.

The chat is filled with clearly distraught pilgrims who are faced with mounting and unexpected travel costs because Motawif has yet to confirm their return flights to the US.

A pilgrim named Sumera said Motawif finally confirmed her flight on Saudi Airlines, but only after extending her stay for four additional days at her own expense, and without booking the JFK to LAX leg she had paid for. “Four more days off work. Who’s going to pay for that? Time to call the [US] embassy,” she texted.

Faisal revealed that many are now faced with having to choose between paying exorbitant hotel costs, upwards of $1,000 per night, or being “tossed to the street.”

Live Story

Another in the WhatsApp group complained, “This is unfair for those who have jobs and have saved [money] to make this journey. Motawif needs to be sued. We had to book my mum a [return] ticket out of our own pockets.”

Faisal says some have had no choice but to pay upwards of $10,000 for a single ticket to the US.

Adding to their frustrations is a near-total absence of Motawif representatives on the ground.

“The situation is worse than can be described," he said. "After paying, for some nearly up to $40,000, we have been left on our own by Motawif since the first night when they met us with a rose, water, juices, and brand-new buses with the plastic still on the seats and the Motawif logo on them. But after that, we never saw again. We even had to wait for hours for rides on our own and walk hours to reach the camp in Mina," Faisal adds. 

“They have no Hajj experts guiding or leading us through the different stages of the pilgrim. They just left us on our own.”

Complaints about bus and train services, along with hotel bookings and luggage are widespread in conversations between pilgrims in the WhatsApp group, with problems made worse by a lack of assistance from Motawif.

Live Story

“We were left with a website and phone numbers to call again and again, but only to get the same messages; ‘we are working on it,’ ‘no updates at this time,’ or ‘call again in a day or two’,” Faisal said. “Sometimes we would call Motawif and they would tell us to call Saudi Airlines. When we would call Saudi Airlines, they would tell us to call Motawif.”

The Saudi government added insult to injury when it boasted that the current Hajj season is “safe and successful,” while praising “all those involved in serving pilgrims,” including, presumably, Motawif.

A pilgrim named Samar said their current lives would be made far easier if Motawif gave all pilgrims a refund or credit, giving them the option to rebook their onward travel plans independently.

“Yeah, they should do that, but you know they won’t,” replied another pilgrim.

But many believe that the responsibility falls on the Saudi government as it chose to outsource the Hajj applications and therefore deny pilgrims the option to make their own travel plans, which had been the way for all previous seasons.

It also disrupted the lives of thousands of Muslim pilgrims, while causing them financial and emotional distress, many of whom now face employment loss, during what is meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime journey in fulfilment of their religious obligations.

“They sold us a package they could not deliver,” Faisal expressed. “They have changed my return flight from LAX to JFK without my request, which means I now have to pay for the JFK to LAX flight out of pocket, but worse – my flight is now July 21, not July 18," he added. 

“This has disrupted my work, and the sad thing is the exact same thing is happening to so many who are still here in Saudi Arabia."

CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America, God Hates You, Hate Him Back and Koran Curious, and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman