The first part of this piece elicited some questions from readers. What is the best visa to use – Umrah or entry – for a Mu’tamir? After performing Umrah will I be allowed to observe my five daily prayers in the Haram? Now that the number of pilgrims is lessened due to COVID-19 and thus necessitating low demand in accommodation, what is the effect of this on the cost of board and lodging in Makkah and Madeenah? Someone even pleaded with me to state ‘how much is the fine for not using’ surgical mask ‘properly?’. I will provide answers to these questions and more in this second and final part of my narration.
I will start with the hotels; many are closed and those that open hardly operate a floor or two of the entire building. I and Malama Hauwa stayed in The Oberoi Madina, where, of course, Comerel keeps its pilgrims during the Hajj and Umrah seasons. “Oberoi is the only five-star hotel in Madeenah”, according to a travel-agent-friend of mine from the UK. Of course, there are many five-star hotels in Madeenah, but the services at The Oberoi are exceptional, top-of-the-range. Gorgeous as this place is, and bubbling with the multitude of pilgrims at peak periods to such an extent that you scarce can get a room or even a vacant seat around the reception area, it is now eerily quiet. Struck by the apparent desertion of this magnificent hotel, I became emotional. Seeing the Haram sealed off during the total lockdown of Madeenah was indeed a hard test for the inhabitants of the City of the Prophet, sallallaahu alaihi wa sallam and for the entire Ummah that saw the images on their screens!
Whatever the Saudi authorities dictate as precautionary measures against COVID-19, we hear and we obey, as such measures are of vital importance towards protecting the lives and enhancing the welfare of Mu’tamireen, residents and Saudi nationals.
Unfortunately, room rates have not fallen because of the low patronage caused by COVID-19. Many hotels, especially the five-star, maintained what they charged around the same period last year or increased it a little. Intercontinental Daral Taqwa and The Oberoi, for example, go for SAR 750 (N97,500) to 850 (N110,500) per room on a bed and breakfast basis (BB). In Makkah, Daral Tauhid Intercontinental charges SAR 850 to SAR 1,075 (N139,750) per room on BB basis. When there was no COVID, the hotels operated at about 96% of their capacity. Now, with COVID restrictions in place, there are virtually no pilgrims around to enjoy any discounts or low rates that they may offer. Some hotels with 300 to 500 rooms may, on a good day, have 10 to 15 rooms occupied. The big brands – Hilton, Marriot, Fairmont, Raffles, etc. therefore, I learnt, chose to safeguard their reputation and standard in prosperity and in adversity, rather than advertise rates that are likely to imperil their business in the future. Does this make any economic sense? I am not certain.
The choice of where to stay while in Saudia is only for holders of my type of visa. If you have an Umrah visa, your package has been determined by the choices you must have made with your agent from Nigeria. The era of just getting the visa and arranging your accommodation in Saudia is over. Everything is now online and strictly controlled by the Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry on the Maqam portal that provides Umrah services through the platforms of approved Online Travel Agency (OTA) in the Saudi Global Distribution System (SGDS). Hotel rates are advertised by the OTA where your agent in Nigeria, otherwise known as External Agent (EA), having satisfied all conditions stipulated by Saudi Hajj authorities and is licensed by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), will book and pay for the Umrah services that you and other members of your group will enjoy. That done, the system will generate a twenty-digit Booking Reservation Number (BRN) which shall be used in securing your visa and other logistics within the holy cities. Visa only arrangement is dead for good! You are intricately tied to the BRN and every type of service attached to it. All the agencies listed here add various levels of profit margins to the original rate of the hotel, transport services, etc. plus 15% VAT which will be added to the cost of your Umrah package. I will leave further details here on this for another article, suffice it to say that Umrah is now monitored strictly, more than any time in the past, by three Saudi Ministries – Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The eatamarna app, as mentioned last week, has segmentalized the Masjid an-Nabawy into three parts – prayers could be observed without clearance, but for Ziyaarah and Raudah you must have a permit which has distinct date and time with a barcode on the righthand corner of the page. It is very easy to get the tawakkalna clearance once your self-isolation period has elapsed. That is your first step on a long ladder. Your problem starts when you commence the online application on the eatamarna platform even at the end of the isolation period and you are denied every time you try. The system automatically regulates the number of worshipers at every given time in these prime places within the Masjid an-Nabawy. Many could not get the permit however much they tried. There is no way one can beat the security personnel at the gates to the Haram in Madeenah to conduct Ziyaarah or pray at the Raudah. Those with a permit cannot go before the time allotted to them; the ever-vigilant eyes of the men at the gates will spot the anomaly and send you back. Do not jubilate yet, in case the men at the first checkpoint allow you in by mistake; the second checkpoint is manned by people who will scan the barcode on the permit with their phones to ascertain the veracity of the details you claim. If any inaccuracies are detected they will send you back, and they are deaf to entreaties, so, just leave and do not waste your time otherwise the shurtah (police) are there to disperse the obdurate.
Lack of access to Raudah or Ziyaarah is only an introduction to your problems. Well, some people have actually done their Ziyaarah from outside the Masjid an-Nabawy, making the Green Dome their guide. But the real dilemma is leaving Madeenah, donning Ihraam and making intention for Umrah at the Meeqaat without the Umrah permit.
Whatever you have so far read about how well-guarded the Masjid an-Nabawy is in this article especially for the Raudah and the Ziyaarah area, know that the Masjid al-Haraam in Makkah is more so. The entire surrounding of the Haram is barricaded with various checkpoints. If in Madeenah, as stated in the first part of this piece, you could observe the five obligatory prayers in the Mosque without a permit, in Makkah you must be cleared for each prayer and for performing the Umrah. Just as the distinction in the permits for praying at the Raudah and that of making Ziyaarah in Masjid an-Nabawy, the permit for Umrah is different from that of daily prayers. You cannot use that of daily prayers to perform Umrah. There are different entrances for daily prayers and for performing the Umrah.
One may say, for instance, if I go into the Haram with my prayer permit, can’t I evade the security personnel and perform Tawaaf? That is not possible as the barricades from the façade extend into the Haram and segmentalise the Mataaf (where Tawaaf is made) from the rest of the Haram. Only those with the Umrah permit can access the Mataaf. That is why you see the people praying around the Ka’bah or making Tawaaf are the ones in Ihraam, at least for the men, since women can use their normal apparel as their Ihraam. The prayer permit allows you into the Haram but only through the elevators leading to the first or last floor in that you can hardly even see the Ka’bah as further barriers are placed, in line with COVID guidelines, to prevent people from touching the glass walls overlooking the Ka’bah. Can I perform Tawaaf then from the first or second floor of the Haram as we used to do when the ground Mataaf was full? No, you cannot, because there are many temporary walls blocking these floors that it is impossible to go round for Tawaaf. You can also pray at the basement where all roads to the Ka’bah are as well blocked. One can confidently assert that aside from the officials maintaining low and order, everyone around the Ka’bah is a Mu’tamir. No other person can approach the Mataaf or even perform Tawaaf!
During our Tawaaf for Umrah I noticed that there were not more than 500 Mu’tamireen in the Mataaf. There are dotted lines of diverse hues – red, blue, orange, black, etc., with a distance of more than two metres between each of these lines, and every Mu’tamir moves around the Ka’bah on a designated line assigned to him by the officials of the Haram, maintaining social distancing. They are all around the place; whithersoever you turn, there is one of them gently reminding you to remain on the designated line on which you have started your Tawaaf. In the circumambulation around the Ka’bah, it is not for one Mu’tamir to overtake or outstrip another; they float each in an orbit. (Yaaseen: 40)
The Saudi authorities have ensured strict observance of COVID-19 protocols in every inch of the al-Haram al-Makky. Places that people are likely to touch have all been screened off. There are no Zamzam points here anymore. All have been removed and the taps sealed off; you find in place thereof Mobile Zamzam – people carrying a container of Zamzam on their backs dispensing the water to Mu’tamireen in disposal cups. After you finish your Tawaaf, you cannot offer the two Raka’ah prayers behind the Maqaam Ibraheem within the Mataaf. You have to move towards the upper Mas’aa (the Sa’yi area) where a place is assigned for that Naafilah (supererogatory prayer) with officials monitoring the maintenance of social distancing and directing people to the only Mas’aa access (around the first green lights from as-Safaa) as all other entry points are closed.
In the Mas’aa, the wheelchair-pushers are conspicuously absent. I trust you remember these people who throng the Mas’aa, making brisk business, charging from SAR 100 to more than SAR 200 for a complete Sa’yi. COVID-19 has blighted this business. If you are in need of a wheelchair for the Sa’yi you can now pay cash or by debit/credit card for a self-drive Electric Cart at SAR 57.5 or, if you are with another person, then a bigger cart for SAR 115. You are only given a few seconds of instruction on how to drive and make the cart to stop; your Sa’yi starts.
There is also one exit after your Umrah. Every movement of Mu’tamireen has been carefully organised in line with social distancing guidelines. And lest I forget; I have not seen barbers or their agents beckoning those who finish Umrah to follow them to their salon. All shops under the King Abdulaziz Endowment building are closed. Most of the hotels within the Clock Tower, including Fairmont itself (confirmed booking are upgraded to Raffles which is under the same management), are closed.
On the last question: the penalty of not using surgical masks properly in public places here was SAR 1000 which has now been raised to SAR 2000 the equivalent of N260,000. Once the law enforcement officer scans your Saudi residence permit or Saudi national identity card on his official phone you will instantly receive an alert on the penalty and instruction for immediate payment of same with the relevant authority.
Everything I stated here is part of what I have seen and observed during this Umrah trip to the Haramyn. Things are beginning to change for the better gradually – more hotels are opening, more successful applications on the eatamarna platform are granted and the age limit for Umrah is lightened. Now, for the Mu’tamireen coming from Indonesia, the age limit for Umrah is extended to the 60-year-olds. May such concession be extended for Mu’tamireen from Nigeria and other countries also.