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Australian Muslims ‘devastated’ by Saudi Arabia’s new Hajj pilgrimage lottery

As 1 million Muslims have been preparing to make the journey of a lifetime to Islam’s holiest sites, the Saudi government has made a surprise announcement that has devastated Islamic communities across Australia and the Western world.

Muslims from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, North America and Europe initially rejoiced when Saudi Arabia announced in April that it would open its borders to allow foreigners in for the Hajj pilgrimage.

Pilgrimages to the holy sites of Mecca and Madinah had been closed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But once the retirement subsided, questions from both communities and travel operators arose as the Saudi Ministry of Hajj made no further announcements.

One travel operator from Melbourne, who spoke to the ABC anonymously for fear of repercussions from the Gulf nation, said he and others in the industry were not given any clear answers.

“They said they’ll confirm before Ramadan and we waited. Eid came and nothing happened,” he said.

On June 6, the Saudi government made a surprise announcement: Muslims from Western countries were told to immediately cancel any existing flights and hotel bookings.

It said anyone who wanted to go this year needed to apply through a randomized lottery system on the newly launched Motawif website — and they only had a four-day window to put in a bid.

The change of rules has shocked Muslim communities across the West.

New restrictions placed on who can travel

Each country is assigned an allotment of places every year.

Lottery systems exist in Muslim-majority countries to cope with population and religious demands, and they are government run.

But the new lottery system limits the number of places to 1 million, whereas previously Muslims from Western countries could claim their own places through travel agencies and Hajj tours.

And there are other restrictions on who is eligible to apply.

Eligible candidates are those who are under 65, have up-to-date documentation, and are triple-vaccinated against COVID-19.

People making the pilgrimage for the first time will be placed in priority queues.

Australia was allotted just over 2,000 spots for Hajj.

Feroz from Sydney was one of the lucky few who got the green light, but he said the approval had just complicated his situation further.

“Racing through my head was my work commitments,” he said.

“My leave request is yet to be approved and submitted.

“And the challenge is that you need to pay for your package within 48 hours or else you lose your spot.

“You don’t have any specific dates at the point of EOI (expression of interest). You don’t have any details about how long you’ll be allowed to stay.

“Irrespective of whether I got approved or not, having that information beforehand would have made things easier.”

Travel agents left reeling

The Hajj pilgrimage is a foundational pillar of Islam.

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