x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Deadline for haj visas leaves pilgrims grounded at airport

Pilgrims trying to fly to Jeddah for the haj were not allowed to board a plane in Abu Dhabi after missing the deadline for entry into Saudi Arabia on haj visas.

ABU DHABI // Pilgrims trying to fly to Jeddah for the haj were not allowed to board a plane in Abu Dhabi yesterday after missing the deadline for entry into Saudi Arabia on haj visas. Passengers travelling on business and family visas were also turned away from a Jeddah flight as Saudi officials sought to limit the numbers of people in Mecca for the haj.

A Saudi source said: "We are forced to clamp down on visit and family visas as some people abuse the system and use these to try and sneak into Mecca." Saudi Arabia had declared that people travelling to Jeddah on haj-specific visas had to be in the country by Tuesday. Many pilgrims were unaware of the rule. As of early yesterday, 36 haj contractors with 3,589 pilgrims from the UAE had arrived in Mecca and another 119 contractors with 5,932 pilgrims had reached Madina, Hamad al Mualla, the deputy chairman of the UAE official haj mission said, according to WAM, the government news agency.

About 20 passengers were kept off an Etihad flight scheduled to leave for Jeddah from Abu Dhabi at 1.30pm yesterday. One woman, who declined to be named, said she had obtained a business visa for a two-week trip but was not allowed to board the flight. "I waited so long to get this visa so that I could see my family," she said. "I was promised it would be smooth sailing once the visa was issued, so I was shocked when I was turned away. I was lucky because I live in the UAE. I felt sorry for the pilgrims around me who had flown from all over the world."

Some of the pilgrims, who had spent years saving to perform haj - a once-in-a-lifetime obligation that is one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith - broke down in tears after being told they could not board the flight. The woman added that one elderly man who had flown in from Morocco was distressed as he believed this would be his only chance to take part in the haj. Other passengers who had flown in from Australia and London were also denied entry. Passengers were rerouted to other cities in Saudi Arabia.

Tom Clarke, an Etihad Airways spokesman, said: "Etihad has flown thousands of pilgrims from around the world to Jeddah and Medina during the build-up to the haj, on both scheduled and additional services. Unfortunately a handful of customers were unable to make the journey due to the passing of the haj visa deadline." An Emirates Airline spokesman said there had not been a problem in Dubai. "In addition to our normal scheduled flights to Saudi Arabia, Emirates will operate 31 special haj flights to facilitate travelling pilgrims, with the last two haj flights departing Dubai today," she said. "Our staff are fully briefed on the visa requirements for haj travel, and we work closely with the airport to facilitate arrangements for pilgrims. All our flights have been operating smoothly."

Mecca is a sacred meeting point for millions of Muslims from around the world to perform the haj, the annual major pilgrimage, or umrah, a minor pilgrimage that can be performed any time. However, the increasing numbers of pilgrims have led to problems. In 2006, more than 360 people died during a stampede at Mina, outside Mecca, while in 2004, more than 250 people died in the same place during the stone-throwing ritual to reject evil.

The number of pilgrims performing the haj reached about four million last year. Saudi authorities are trying to manage the flood of worshippers by cutting haj quotas for all countries. In June, the Saudi authorities reduced the UAE's haj quota for 2008 by nearly two thirds, to 6,228 people. Companies organising the pilgrimage said that would double the cost to about Dh40,000 (US$10,900). Also yesterday, Mohammad Omran al Shamsi, the UAE Consul General in Saudi Arabia, visited the premises of the UAE's official haj mission in Mecca.

Mr al Shamsi said the visit marked the beginning of his tour to get first hand information about the welfare of the UAE's haj pilgrims. kattwood@thenational.ae