Hundreds of British Muslims say they could lose thousands of pounds paid to a Saudi Arabian company responsible for this year’s Hajj trips.
Farrukh and his family of five paid more than £36,000 through the new ‘Motawif’ portal launched three weeks ago.
“When I ran out of money, I thought my work was done,” said Farrukh.
“It said ‘thank you very much, we have collected all your money, but your package has failed.’ And that’s where it stopped.”
Ten days later, Farrukh says he is still waiting for updates. The flight he paid for was on Tuesday.
“I called the airline and they told me I’m not on any flight. I wasn’t expecting it because I’m not even at the visa stage in the process yet.”
Saudi Arabia unveiled the Motawif portal earlier this month, where travelers from select countries, including the UK, were required to book through a lottery system to travel for hajj – the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia†
The new portal put an end to UK-based tour operators who typically organized the trip for around 25,000 British Muslims a year.
Many travelers who had previous bookings for this year’s Hajj had to arrange refunds before booking through the portal.
Groups of travelers have created Whatsapp groups to share experiences. Many say they paid with debit cards after being given just 48 hours to finalize the arrangements, but that despite the money leaving their bank, their bookings are still showing as ‘Failed’.
Motawif told Farrukh: “We have been working hard with the airline to get additional capacity and are in the process of arranging your flight.
Please note that we will do our best to accommodate you on another flight or provide an alternative.
“We recommend that you be prepared for your Hajj trip and await further information from us.”
There are concerns that pilgrims seeking refunds will miss out on the exchange rate and booking fee. Some say flights have been changed with less than 24 hours’ notice, hotel choices have been downgraded without notice, and in some cases people have been turned away from the airport.
“People are running around, calling their bank, reading fine print, and this really isn’t our fault,” Farrukh said.
“We paid, we went through the process, we did everything that was asked of us. I even had my PCR done – just in case someone takes a flight out of a hat tomorrow, I’m ready to go.”
Saudi authorities have not responded to Sky News’ requests for comment, but previously a Motawif agent told us the system is designed to tackle fraud and make Hajj more accessible.
Sources close to Hajj’s ministry told Sky News that a task force has been set up within the ministry to specifically address the ‘crisis’.
On its website, Motawif says it is the industry’s first portal to revolutionize the direct-to-consumer booking process. It is a pilot project for this year’s pilgrimage with a reduced quota of 3,500 British travelers.
“I don’t feel like I’ve been ripped off,” Farrukh said. “I feel like a lab rat.”
Momina Khatun’s booking was successful, but her package was downgraded without notice.
When asked if she has any concerns about her trip at all, Momina said: “Not quite, no. In the back of your mind you think ‘Okay, I haven’t received any flight confirmations or hotel bookings’. If there was clear communication I would confidently say yes. say, I’m ready to go.”
“My husband and I had a conversation last night and we decided to go with low expectations,” she told Sky News.
“If something good happens, that’s a bonus. We just sleep in the mosque or you know, we only plan worst-case scenarios. That’s what happened.”
The Council for British Hajjis says 90 percent of British pilgrims hoping to perform Hajj this year have been affected by Motawif.