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Hajj: UK pilgrims turned away at airports as lottery chaos continues

British travellers denied flights bound for Saudi Arabia, despite paying tens of thousands on Hajj packages under new lottery system
Muslim pilgrims arrive at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah (AFP)

British pilgrims due to board flights to Saudi Arabia's Jeddah have been turned away from UK airports, as the chaotic rollout of the new Hajj lottery system for western pilgrims continues.

In early June, the Saudi government made a surprise decision to sideline traditional travel agencies and instead use Motawif - a government-backed portal run by an Indian company with links to New Delhi as revealed by Middle East Eye - to carry out a lottery system.

Motawif organised a random draw that Muslims from Europe, Australia and the Americas had to go through to attend Hajj this year, set to start on 7 July.

'The rollout of this service has been a complete and utter failure and this company must not be allowed to operate and take money from customers in the UK next year'

- UK Hajj pilgrim

Since then, applicants have told MEE of booking failures despite full payments going through and tour packages differing vastly from what was advertised. 

Over the weekend, the farcical scenes continued as pilgrims with fully paid packages and confirmed visas were turned away from airports - or told not to even turn up in the first place. 

A West Yorkshire-based pilgrim said that she and her group of seven had paid over £65,000 in Hajj packages, but were unable to board flights from Manchester airport on two separate days. 

“The flight on 25 June was overbooked,” the British pilgrim, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told MEE. “Saudia Airlines told us that Motawif had not booked us on to the flight. The flight was full in economy and business class had 12 seats available.”

She said that whilst at the airport, she waited for hours on the phone to Motawif, which she described as “dishonest”. 

“They told me the flight was cancelled due to a technical fault with the plane and to go home,” she said. “We were ten mins away from the airport and proceeded to go to the airport as there was no information online to say the [flight] had been cancelled.”

The flight was not cancelled, and took off one hour and 15 minutes later than scheduled on Saturday afternoon - suggesting the "technical fault" excuse may have been a complete fabrication.

“The agent who told us this told us he was the highest person who worked at Motawif in the call centre; there was no manager or supervisor to speak to.”

The seven pilgrims were told they would be put on the 26 June flight instead, but were once again turned away by Saudi's official carrier. 

'Complete and utter failure'

Scores of pilgrims shared stories on social media about similar experiences of being denied flights from Heathrow and Manchester airports. 

A healthcare worker, based in Preston in northern England, was just about to set off for Manchester airport on 25 June when Motawif emailed saying not to go to the airport. 

The email, seen by MEE, urged him “not to proceed to the airport until you have receive[d] a flight booking confirmation.” 

“They took full payment for a week and kept lying to us all week that our flights and packages were safe and meanwhile continued to book hundreds of people to the same flights and packages at a higher price,” the healthcare worker told MEE. 

Several people told MEE that they had "wasted" hundreds of pounds on PCR tests, as the start date of their journey continued to be delayed and changed. 

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The Preston-based pilgrim added that he had "wasted" two weeks of annual leave from work too, some of which he had paid additionally for. 

“Even if Motawif give a full refund including our fees that would be short,” he said, referring to the PCR testing, annual leave and phone bills racked up from calling various customer service agents. 

All those who spoke to MEE had yet to hear back about when their rescheduled flights would be. 

“The rollout of this service has been a complete and utter failure and this company must not be allowed to operate and take money from customers in the UK next year,” the West Yorkshire-based pilgrim said.

“I implore the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hajj and Umrah to look into what has and is occurring this year and advise and act accordingly with British interests at heart.”

On Monday, Seif Usher, British consul-general in Jeddah, tweeted: “We are aware that many British Hajj pilgrims are still facing problems with regards flights, logistics and hotel bookings.”

He added that he recognised this had caused anxiety, and that the UK government had raised the issues with Saudi authorities. 

Middle East Eye has reached out to Motawif and the Saudi Hajj ministry for comment.