Arab News * MAKKAH, 26 April 2008 — The Ministry of Interior has approved new Umrah pilgrimage regulations laid down by the Ministry of Haj seeking to increase the comfort and safety of the pilgrims as well as limiting the number of overstayers.
A major feature of the new regulations is that the license of a foreign Umrah agent will be suspended if at least two percent of their pilgrims remain behind. The limit would be reduced to one percent next year, according to an informed source, Al-Madinah daily reported yesterday. The earlier limit was set at three percent.
On the other hand, the license of a Saudi agent to bring in Umrah pilgrims in collaboration with his foreign agents would be canceled if 10 percent of the pilgrims under his responsibility do not leave the Kingdom at the expiry of their visas. The limit has been lowered from 15 percent.
After the pilgrims’ arrival in the Kingdom, the concerned departments will check if every pilgrim returns before the expiry of their visas and if any pilgrim fails to do so, the authorities will immediately contact the responsible agent.
The regulations also stresses that the foreign agent should open an account in his name at a Saudi bank so that he can directly deposit the required bank guarantee and the value of the services.
A Saudi agent should, according to the new regulations, supply to the ministry clear information on his operation plans including the number of pilgrims coming every month. He will also have to specify the nationalities of the pilgrims, their entry points and the number of the agents he has in a foreign country.
The ministry will issue visas to an agent only after the details supplied by the agent is approved. The ministry would also decide the number of visas it would issue to any agent.
The other new conditions the agents have to fulfill are to submit a security permit issued by the authorities in the Kingdom, documents proving his membership in the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and his capability to send back all the pilgrims brought into the Kingdom by him.
The stipulations regarding the accommodation include that a building for the stay of pilgrims should carry a statutory permit for the purpose, and the contract for each building should specify the period and number of the pilgrims.
Overstayers, especially those who come for Haj and Umrah, are one of the main problems faced by the Kingdom’s security agencies. Every year security forces, including Passport Department officers, carry out raids in Makkah, Jeddah and Taif as well as in neighboring villages to track down overstayers and deport them.
Arriving in Saudi Arabia as a pilgrim is the most common source of entry of illegal residents. And because Saudi Arabia is compelled to allow the world’s Muslims to visit Islam’s holiest sites, especially for the compulsory Haj, authorities have no choice but to issue visas to all Muslims seeking to perform pilgrimages.
Efforts have been made to stem the amount of pilgrims coming on numerous noncompulsory pilgrimages, such as Umrah. Saudi Arabia also places a cap on the number of Muslims that can come for Haj on any given year in order to deal with the already formidable challenges of crowd control and accommodations.
After every Haj and Umrah season, the government repeatedly urges pilgrims to leave the Kingdom before their visas expire.
Pilgrims that overstay their visas are subject to heavy fines. Further exacerbating the problem is the proximity of the peak Umrah season (during Ramadan) to the annual Haj: many pilgrims enter the country to perform Umrah and then stay illegally in order to also perform Haj on the same trip.