British Muslims who booked travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage have been turned away at UK airports amid chaos over a new booking system introduced by the kingdom.
Frustrated travellers told of being denied boarding as airlines had no record of their bookings despite paying thousands of pounds through a Saudi government system.
A last-minute overhaul to Saudi rules meant European Muslims had to book hajj through an official government website called Motawif instead of travel agents, after the kingdom cut down pilgrim numbers from 2.5 million in 2019 to only 1 million this year in response to the Covid pandemic.
Would-be pilgrims are then entered into a lottery that allocates places, but the system has been beset by problems leaving travellers in limbo – and thousands of pounds out of pocket. The late rule, announced in April, meant many who had already arranged their own travel for the hajj are now unable to go and tour operators have been left facing liquidation.
But even those who secured places for the pilgrimage through Motawif have encountered problems. One Muslim from Bradford told The Independent her group of seven was twice turned away from their flight from Manchester airport despite paying £66,500 between them for travel and accommodation through the Saudi system.
“We had no reason to believe we wouldn’t get on their flight,” said the woman, who asked not to be named.
But despite multiple attempts at contacting Motawif, the group still had not received their flight booking confirmation less than 24 hours before they were due to take off. With “terrible” communication and no way of contacting the agency, the group decided to go to the airport and hope they could sort the booking there.
As they headed to the airport on Saturday morning, the group called the company and after waiting for an hour on hold, Motawif told them their Saudi Airlines flight from Manchester airport had been cancelled.
“They told us it’s a technical fault and no one will be travelling,” she said. “But I thought they were being dishonest.”
At the airport, airline staff confirmed the flight was not cancelled but was overbooked. “We asked if we could be put on business class because we knew there were 12 empty seats, but they refused. We had to go home.”
The group was advised by Motawif to head back to the airport the next morning, assuring them they would be on the flight.
By this time, their original PCR tests had expired. The group had to redo their tests with same-day results, costing them a total of £420.
As they made their way to the airport a second time, they received emails from Motawif with expired flight tickets for the original flight they were meant to be on.
At the airport, Saudi Airlines staff confirmed the group did not have tickets for that day’s flight.
“It has been a disaster. To be turned away from the airport twice is just ridiculous,” the woman said.
“I had to go back to work on Monday for one day, and it’s embarrassing. People are confused about what’s happening. It’s just silly.”
The portal has rebooked the group on a flight on Tuesday, but has also changed their original return date. One member of the group will miss her son’s graduation because of this change.
Benaras Ali, a 55-year-old operations manager who is travelling with the group, said his confidence in Motawif has been “dented completely”.
He said: “The staff at Saudi Airlines told us that Motawif had not sent them the money for the flight.
“We thought we were going to do this blessed journey together, but my sisters have been in tears.
“We feel traumatised.”
Ali-Haider Abdul Rashid, a pharmacist from Sheffield, was also turned away at the airport.
He said he was on the phone to Motawif when the airline staff at Manchester Airport told him he was not booked on the flight.
“I kind of feel sorry for the Motawif agents on the phone, they have no authority to do anything,” he said. “The agent just told me they will try to get us on a flight as soon as possible.”
But on Monday night he had heard nothing from the agency. The pharmacist made the decision to arrange his own route to Saudi Arabia, but it has cost him extra money on top of the £18,500 he had already paid to Motawif.
Mr Abdul Rashid and the others have been given no reassurance that they will be reimbursed for their cancelled flights or even accumulated charges such as airport parking, travel expenses and multiple PCR tests.
“We haven’t even broached the subject of annual leave, childcare etc. It has all been an absolute nightmare,” he said.
“But there is no alternative. Our hajj is an obligation that we have to fulfil. If there was a choice, there would be zero chance of me going with Motawif.”
The Independent contacted Motawif for comment but had received no response at the time of publication.