PREPARATIONS for the upcoming Haj have already begun with top Saudi officials receiving high-ranking delegations from several countries for discussions to finalize arrangements for their pilgrims. Minister of Haj and Umrah Muhammad Saleh Benten met in Jeddah on Thursday with ministers of religious affairs from Algeria and Tunisia.
Benten will sign the bilateral Haj agreement with India’s Minister of State for Minority Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi on Sunday while Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Sardar Muhammad Yusuf will head the Pakistan delegation that will arrive later this month to sign the Haj agreement. Recently, Benten held extensive talks with ministers and senior Haj officials from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, as well as Iran, Jordan, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, and Turkey. Various aspects of the Haj facilities and services, including the transportation and accommodation, figured in the talks.
Indonesia’s Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Saifuddin praised the Ministry of Haj and Umrah and the tech-savvy Benten for implementing the e-gate and other advanced IT facilities that brought about a dramatic improvement and transparency to the entire process of pilgrimage service.
Indonesia, Pakistan and India are the countries that send the highest number of pilgrims to the annual pilgrimage. Pilgrims from these three countries constitute nearly one-third of the total number of pilgrims from abroad.
Last year, out of 1.74 million foreign pilgrims, more than 570,000 pilgrims came from these countries.
As many as 221,000 Indonesians performed Haj in 2017 and this was the highest number of pilgrims that came for the annual pilgrimage in Makkah from a foreign country in history.
During the meeting with Benten at his office in Jeddah, Algeria’s Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments Mohamed Aissa and Minister of Religious Affairs of Tunisia Ahmed Azoum commended the utmost keenness and great efforts of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, in offering the best possible facilities and services for the guests of God. They underscored the qualitative leap in the facilities and services with the introduction of advanced technology that made the pilgrimage and all its procedures much simpler and hassle-free.
Minister Benten received a number of top foreign officials in Jeddah, including Sudanese Minister of Guidance and Endowments Abu Bakr Osman Ibrahim, Jordan’s Minister of Endowments Wael Arabiyat, and Nigeria’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khadija Bukar Abba Ibrahim. The ministers lauded the massive expansion projects implemented in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah as well as at the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah.
Last week, he met with Hamid Mohammadi, head of the Iranian Haj and Visit Organization. More than 80,000 Iranian pilgrims are expected to perform Haj in 2018.
Benten and Mohammadi discussed a number of issues related to the preparations for the next Haj season and the arrangements for transportation, accommodation and other facilities and services for the Iranian pilgrims.
Speaking to Saudi Gazette, Indian Consul General Mohammed Noor Rahman Sheikh said the Indian delegation headed by Naqvi will sign the Haj agreement at a ceremony at the minister’s office in Jeddah on Sunday. The ministers will discuss major aspects of Haj operation and arrangements for the pilgrims from India, he said.
Naqvi will be accompanied by several senior officials from the Ministry of Minority Affairs and the Haj Committee of India as well as officials of Civil Aviation and Air India.
Sheikh met with Deputy Minister of Haj and Umrah Dr. Abdul Fattah Suleiman Mashat in Makkah recently to discuss the arrangements for Indian pilgrims prior to the signing of the bilateral Haj agreement. Dr. Raafat Badr, chairman of the Tawafa Organization for South Asian Pilgrims, Fareed Mandar, head of the Electronic Path at the Ministry of Haj and Umrah, and Mohammed Shahid Alam, deputy consul general and Haj consul, were present at the meeting.
This year’s Haj will be the first after the government of India approved a new Haj policy. According to the policy, there will be a 5 percent increase in the number of pilgrims who come through private tour operators. A total of 170,000 Indian pilgrims are expected to perform Haj in 2018.