Hundreds of British Muslims say they could lose thousands of pounds paid to a Saudi Arabian company responsible for this year’s Hajj travel.
Farrukh and his family of five paid more than £36,000 through the new portal ‘Motawif’ which was introduced three weeks ago.
“When my money went I thought my job was done,” said Farrukh.
“It said ‘thank you very much, we’ve collected all your money but your package has failed.’ And it stopped there.”
Ten days later, Farrukh says he is still waiting for updates. The flight he paid for was on Tuesday.
“I rang the airline and they told me I’m not on any flight. I wasn’t expecting to be because I’m not even at the visa stage yet in the process.”
Saudi Arabia unveiled the Motawif portal earlier this month, where travellers from selected countries, including the UK, had to book through a lottery system in order to travel for hajj – the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The new portal cut out UK-based tour operators who typically organised the trip for around 25,000 British Muslims each year.
Many travellers who had previous bookings for this year’s hajj had to arrange refunds before they could book through the portal.
Groups of travellers have created Whatsapp groups to share experiences. Many say they have paid with debit cards after being given only 48 hours to complete arrangements, but that despite money leaving their banks their bookings are still showing as “Failed.”
Motawif have told Farrukh: “We have been working diligently with the airline to get additional capacity and are in the process of arranging your flight.
“Kindly note we are trying our best to accommodate you on another flight or provide an alternative.
“We recommend you keep yourself ready for your hajj journey and await further information from us.”
There are concerns that pilgrims seeking refunds will lose out on exchange rate and booking fees. Some say flights have changed with less than 24 hours notice, hotel choices downgraded without notice, and in some cases people have been turned away from the airport.
“People are running around calling their banks, reading small print, and really, this is through no fault of ours,” said Farrukh.
“We’ve paid, we’ve been through the process, we’ve done everything that was asked of us. I’ve even had my PCR done – in case somebody pulls a flight out of a hat tomorrow, I’m ready to go.”
Saudi authorities did not respond 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 the Ministry of Hajj told Sky News a taskforce has been set up within the department to deal specifically with the “crisis.”
On its website, Motawif says it is the first portal in the sector to revolutionise the direct-to-consumer booking process. It is understood to be a pilot scheme for this year’s pilgrimage on a reduced quota of 3,500 British travellers.
“I don’t feel like I’ve been scammed,” said Farrukh. “I feel like a lab rat.”
Momina Khatun’s booking was successful but her package was downgraded without notice.
Asked if she is completely worry-free about her trip, Momina said: “Not entirely, no. At the back of your head you think ‘Okay I haven’t received flight confirmations or hotel bookings.’ If there was clear communication I could confidently say yes, I’m ready to go.”
“My husband and I had a talk last night and we decided to go with low expectations,” she told Sky News.
“If anything good happens then it’s a bonus. We’ll just sleep in the mosque or you know, we are just planning out worst case scenarios. That’s what it’s come to.”
The Council for British Hajjis says 90 per cent of British pilgrims hoping to perform Hajj this year were impacted by Motawif.
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