The Ministry of Hajj, in association with Ministry of Interior, Ministry for Tourism and Foreign Office in Saudi Arabia approves UMRA contracts for Saudi based and Saudi owned companies.
There are currently around 130 companies registered and licensed by Ministry of Haj. They are called UO.
The ministries, together, have two centralized organization called SEJEL and ENJAZ. The remit for SEJEL is to receive from several independent contractors, charged with operating electronic means to accept, process and issue visa approvals related to UMRA visit only. Some of them are; Bab-al-Umra; Tawaf; Way to Umra; Nesma; Gama and so on.
ENJAZ is essentially a bank with the remit to receive electronically uploaded applications for all types of entry visas except UMRA or HAJ. There is a charge for processing the application which, licensed agents, are required to pay through their credit card system online.
SEJEL generate a MOFA whilst ENJAZ generate an E NUMBER. This is done only if the pre-conditions are satisfactorily complied with by those who have the authorization to access and operate the live system.
Like any websites these two sites also suffer from hacking or failure due to overwhelming uploads or if the servers fail. When that does happen, the result is disastrous for the foreign agents as they have to wait until the system is operational again and the whole exercise is repeated with “new payment” again. There is no contingency in place to avoid the repetition nor to refund the earlier payment. Such breakdown has taken up to a week to restore which, in turn, plays havoc with a pilgrim’s planned travel schedule.
The function of UO .
The Ministry of Haj authorises the UO to appoint Umra Agents overseas. The overseas agent is called “External Agent or EA”. There is no ceiling on the number of EAs appointed by the UOs as long as a pre-set criteria/condition can be met by the EA.
The EA has to have an IATA membership, must be registered as a Trading Company in his country and must provide a Bankers Guarantee or Bond of SR200,000. The EA must also either provide contracts entered into with hotels in Makkah and Madinah. Such hotels or buildings must have passed the basic health and safety measures known as “Tashreeh” and meet the minimum space level for occupants per room known as “Tashneef”. They must also provide an agreement on how their pilgrims are to be handled logistically especially as the overseas pilgrims are NOT allowed to stay with friends or relatives nor be transported by them or by un-authorised transport service.
The EA is required to state the number of pilgrims he will be managing to send for UMRA on the basis of the whole UMRA season and broken down into average monthly basis. These numbers are matched with the housing arrangement he has made through the contracts with hoteliers in Makkah and Madinah.
The EA is EXPECTED to meet the targeted numbers which is counter checked every month. This is the “QUOTA” he has been allowed although the SAUDIs insist that there is no QUOTA for the western world and that the EAs are free to bring any number they please as long as there are management plans in place to handle them in Saudi Arabia.
In addition, his entry, on daily basis, is counter checked against the vacancy in his contracted hotels. If the hotel is full, on the day of the system upload, the application is refused until there is vacancy in the hotel contracted by the EA.
The EA can accept pilgrims who are either the citizens or are legitimately domiciled in their country. Visitors to UK from other countries including the EEC cannot apply for Umra / Haj visa from UK.
The details of the applicant are loaded onto the electronic system using one of the companies above (GAMA, Way to Umra, Nesma etc). This information is automatically transmitted to Foreign office, Ministry of Haj, Ministry of Interior, the UO and the SEJEL.
The travel schedule and the type of package are also fed into the system. This determines the duration of stay for the pilgrim, the date of his arrival and departure and the names of the hotel he will be staying. A payment of SR650 per pilgrim is then either manually deposited at a local bank or through electronic means to SEJEL. This deposit is returned once the pilgrim arrives in Saudi Arabia, to the UO. The EA also transmits appropriate payment to the UO who then settles the package payment to various parties.
The electronic system in SEJEL generates a Mofa which is transmitted to the UO, the Foreign Office, the EA and the EA country’s based Saudi Consulate.
When the EA receives the MOFA he prepares an Umra Visa application form. The pilgrim’s photograph is scanned and loaded on the website dedicated to the consulate in the EA’s country of operation along with the MOFA number. The website generates an “E Number” which is entered on the visa form and submitted with the pilgrim’s passport to the Saudi consulate. A printout of the E Number is attached to the visa form. This printout contains the e number in barcode form.
The Saudi Consulate, in London, accepts passport for Umra visas on the morning of Mondays and Tuesday s only.
The Saudi consulate reads the bar-coded number which is then reconciled with the Mofa number they had received directly from SEJEL. It combines that data with the photograph of the pilgrim and prints out a visa which is adhered into the pilgrim’s passport and which is returned to the EA on Thursday or Friday.
The Consulate occasionally query the visa application if names do not match or overseas visitor’s passports are submitted for Umra visa which is not allowed. It is essential that names of dependants must match with that of the “Mehrim”. Otherwise verified proof of relationship have to be produced for the visa to be issued.
The original MOFA is valid for conversion into an electronic number within 10 working days of its issue. The Visa issued by the consulate is valid for 30 days of HIJRA month to be utilised and the pilgrim to arrive into Jeddah within that period.
The immigration officer enters the visa detail which matches up with the MOFA details and shows to him how long that pilgrim’s visit is for. The immigration officer then issues a number on the passport but does not write the duration of the visit.
This information is logged on the SEJEL. The pilgrim is expected to leave within his package period or 28 days after entering Saudia whichever is first. If he does not leave, the UO gets notified by the SEJEL that they have “RUNNERS”. If the total percentage of the runners reach 2% SEJEL shuts down the EA’s entry system until his pilgrims exit.
If the total exceeds 4% the EA is blacklisted and could be banned from acquiring a renewal of his Umra License.
The Pilgrim MUST have a voucher of his travel schedule and hotel booking references prior to his travel. This information is transmitted to the UO. The UO arranges a “MANDOOB” or a representative at the terminal of the pilgrim’s programmed arrival.
The pilgrim is directed to the nearest “TEHSEEL” office attached to the terminal where his passport is scrutinised. Ministry officials may be around and can intervene to check that the pilgrim’s documentations are in order and that he has appropriate transport and housing to be transferred to by the UO.
Tehseel office passes the passport to the Mandoob who then escorts the pilgrim to the waiting transport for transfer to his pre-arranged destination. Pilgrim’s (from the western world) passports are rarely held back by the UO but that is a distinct possibility and the pilgrim may have an additional hassle to visit the UO’s office in Makkah or Madinah to retrieve their passport back. Passports and airline tickets from pilgrims of other nations ARE retained by the UOs (eg Pakistan/India).
There were around 40 licensed Umra Agents in UK in 2010 who, between them, generated 60,000 Umra visas.
The Saudi consulate, in UK, is known to have “lost” passports or misplacing them. They never ever accept this failing and would never issue receipts for the passport they accept from the EAs for Umra visas or Haj visas. On the average, around 50 passports are lost every year and the blame is placed on the EA.
If the lost passport is a British one, a replacement/new passport is often issued by the IPS within 36 hours. However, if the nationality is any other than British then there is often no recourse mainly because of the indefinite leave to remain in UK cannot be obtained from the Home Office for the new foreign passports and without that endorsement the holder cannot re-enter UK.
In 2007 I lost one passport for Haj. In 2009 I lost 6 passports for UMRA and last year I lost 7 passports of which 3 were Indian, one Pakistani and 3 British. Those who lost the passports were in great difficulty trying to find out whether I was telling the truth or the Saudi Consulate who denied ever losing any passports.
Be prepared for such an incident to occur and never disbelief your agent should that un-fortunate victim turn out to be you.