Why Pilgrims Are Dying on the Hajj

Recent deaths of the old and underprepared at Mecca were caused not just by international racketeers but by Saudi visa reforms and digitization

Why Pilgrims Are Dying on the Hajj
A Muslim pilgrim splashes water on his head to cool off at the base of Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat, during the Hajj pilgrimage. (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images)

In February 2024, Attiyat al-Mohammadi, a 68-year-old woman from Egypt, embarked on a journey to Mecca to perform the Umrah for the first time. (The Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, like the annual Hajj, but is performed throughout the year.) She had obtained a visitor visa from Abdel Hamid, a specialist in organizing discounted Hajj campaigns from Hihya in the Sharqia region of Egypt. Abdel Hamid aimed to reassure Attiyat’s family, who were skeptical about his credibility after learning that her visa was not a Hajj visa. He succeeded, and the services she received during her Umrah encouraged her to pay an additional amount to perform the Hajj as well, bringing the total she paid the broker to 130,000 Egyptian pounds (around $2,700 at current exchange rates). Tragically, she later passed away on Mount Arafat in Mecca.

Attiyat’s story is just one among 1,301 tales of pilgrims who died during this year’s Hajj. Following numerous reports by international news agencies about hundreds of deaths, the Saudi Press Agency published a statement four days after the Hajj season ended. On June 23, 2024, Saudi Minister of Health Fahad Al-Jalajel announced that 1,301 pilgrims had died, with nearly 1,080 of them being “not authorized to perform the Hajj.” He attributed the deaths to heat exhaustion, stating that these pilgrims “walked long distances under the sun, without shelter or rest,” including many elderly individuals and those with chronic diseases.

Before this statement, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had ordered the formation of a “crisis cell” headed by Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly to address the deaths of Egyptian pilgrims. According to Agence France-Presse, Egyptians made up the majority of the deceased this year, with 672 deaths. Shortly after, Madbouly explained that some travel agencies organized Hajj programs using personal visitor visas, which barred holders from entering Mecca. These pilgrims had to take desert routes on foot, without adequate accommodation, exposing them to extreme heat.

While heatstroke or old age were ruled the direct causes of death in many of these cases, the larger story involves unintended consequences, flawed central planning, the pilgrims’ determination to perform religious rites, and brokers’ greed. Before Saudi Arabia changed its visa system in 2019, unauthorized Hajj pilgrimage was mainly a local issue involving Saudi citizens and residents. After 2019, it became a global phenomenon, benefiting brokers and smugglers inside and outside the kingdom. This crisis was exacerbated by the increased digitization of pilgrim services, which began with the COVID-19 pandemic, tightening security measures and forcing unauthorized pilgrims to reach Mount Arafat on foot.

The issue of “Hajj without a permit” emerged in 1998 as a local problem in Saudi Arabia, primarily involving domestic pilgrims — both citizens and residents — who would sneak into Mecca to perform the Hajj. That year, the Saudi Council of Ministers issued a decree ratifying a decision by the Council of Senior Scholars to regulate Saudi pilgrims. This regulation stipulated that those who had performed the Hajj could not repeat the pilgrimage for another five years, and that those wishing to perform the Hajj must apply for a permit. It also required companies organizing Hajj missions not to accept pilgrims from within the country who do not have a permit. This decision created a parallel market of local brokers who provided various services, including transportation and housing, to meet the increasing demand from citizens and residents wanting to perform the Hajj without a permit.

Since this decree was issued, the stories of domestic “pilgrims without a permit” and their clashes with security services have become a staple of Hajj-related news each year. Security services began deploying checkpoints around Mecca before the Hajj season, announcing penalties for brokers smuggling pilgrims, including fines of up to 10,000 riyals per passenger (approximately $2,600), arresting the broker, and confiscating their vehicle. Despite these efforts, residents continued to perform the pilgrimage without a permit. In 2010, the Saudi newspaper Al-Eqtisadiah reported that 785,000 pilgrims, nearly 80% of all domestic pilgrims, performed the Hajj without a permit.

This phenomenon expanded after the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries eased restrictions on the movement of their citizens across borders in the late 2000s. In 2014, security authorities turned back nearly 220,000 citizens and residents attempting to infiltrate Mecca, according to the Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh. Most of the non-Saudis attempting to infiltrate Mecca came from other GCC countries, as Mecca Police Director Khaled Al-Ghamdi told The New Arab in 2017. Among them was Abu Muhammad, an imam of a Kuwaiti mosque, who admitted to The New Arab that for 25 years he had performed the Hajj regularly without once obtaining an official permit.

The issue took on a new dimension with the Saudi launch of Vision 2030 in 2016, which aimed to diversify the kingdom’s revenue sources by expanding tourism and easing entry restrictions. Saudi Arabia’s focus on the tourism sector began in 2000 with the formation of the Supreme Commission for Tourism. Over the years, this body was strengthened, eventually being renamed the Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in 2008. A tourism law was issued months before the death of King Abdullah in 2015. However, the tourism sector remained inadequate due to the laxity of the Saudi bureaucratic apparatus and the hesitation of decision-makers in issuing tourist visas.

These administrative and organizational problems were gradually addressed with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who concentrated political and administrative powers in his hands. In September 2019, the head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Ahmed Al-Khateeb, announced that Saudi Arabia would begin issuing tourist visas, including online visas, to citizens of 49 countries, followed by further regulatory decisions. This period also saw the establishment of various entities, including the Saudi Tourism Authority and the Tourism Development Council.

One significant measure impacting the growing problem of pilgrims without permits was the simplification of entry procedures. In December 2022, the Ministry of Tourism issued a list of tourist visas, dividing the countries of the world into three sections. The first section included citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council countries, who do not need a visa to enter Saudi Arabia. The second section included citizens of European, North American and other countries, allowing them to apply for a tourist visa electronically or upon arrival for 395 Saudi riyals. The third section included citizens of other countries, primarily from Arab and Islamic nations, who could apply for a tourist visa from Saudi embassies or consulates or an authorized travel agency. However there was considerable overlap between the three sections and regulations allowed many citizens from this third section to apply for an electronic visa or obtain one upon arrival if they resided in a Gulf country, the European Union, the United Kingdom, or the United States, or had previously obtained a European Schengen visa or an American or British visa.

It was this new system for tourist visas that a young Egyptian man named Hussein used to enter the kingdom on the morning of June 12, 2024, for the purpose of Hajj pilgrimage. On that day, Hussein arrived from Italy at Jeddah Airport and obtained a Saudi tourist visa upon arrival, after the airport employee verified his valid Schengen visa. Hussein, who spoke to New Lines’ sister publication Alpheratz via Signal after completing the Hajj, knew that a tourist visa would not legally allow him to take part. Yet he wanted the experience, especially since several of his relatives and friends just arrived in the kingdom to conduct the “Hajj without a permit” this year.

Hussein had an easier time entering the kingdom via a tourist visa for the Hajj than his relatives who did not have EU, U.K., or U.S. visas in their passports. Many of his relatives came from the Sharqia region in Egypt to the kingdom using what’s known as a “personal visitor visa.” In the two years preceding the 2024 Hajj, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Saudi media had urged citizens to use these visas. This system allows any Saudi citizen to extend an invitation to any person from any country to visit the kingdom via an electronic platform dedicated to this process, aiming to increase the number of incoming visits to the kingdom.

These new visas and the ease of obtaining them electronically have created an international parallel market, making it easier for people who cannot get a Hajj visa to come to Mecca and perform the “Hajj without a permit.” In Egypt, brokers coordinate with Saudi intermediaries, who charge up to 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($625) for each invitation they extend to individuals wishing to perform the Hajj without a permit, according to Ibrahim Al-Sayed, director of religious tourism at a major travel agency in Cairo. One such broker in Egypt is Sheikh Abdel Hamid from Sharqia. Through him, Attiyat al-Mohammadi and Hussein’s relatives who did not have a Schengen visa were able to obtain visitor visas to enter the kingdom, according to Attiyat’s son and two of Hussein’s relatives. They described Abdel Hamid as having worked in pilgrimage for 20 years, traveling to Saudi Arabia annually. He promoted a program called the “Visitor’s Hajj,” which included flying from Cairo to Jeddah and staying in the kingdom for 41 days, including four days in Medina, for 130,000 Egyptian pounds.

This offer from Abdel Hamid seemed very attractive and reliable compared to its alternatives. The cost of attending the Hajj officially in Egypt during the last Hajj season started at 235,000 Egyptian pounds by land, and a minimum of 270,000 by air. Because of the popularity of performing the Hajj, there are always many more people who wish to do so than allotted visas. The Egyptian government divides its share of Hajj visas — 51,000 in the last season — into four main categories: The first category, nearly 14,500 visas, is issued by the Ministry of Interior through a Hajj lottery with a subsidized price starting from 184,000 pounds. The second category, around 23,000 visas, is supervised by the Ministry of Tourism and distributed by travel agencies. The third category, managed by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, includes another 7,500 visas distributed by charitable organizations. The fourth and final category is given to unions, associations and the state bureaucracy to be distributed to their members and staff.

Over the past five years, Attiyat had submitted applications to the Ministry of Interior, hoping to win the Hajj Lottery, as well as to various travel agencies, but she was consistently denied the opportunity to perform the Hajj legally.

The reliability of the “visitor visa Hajj” program, promoted by people like Abdel Hamid, lies in its exploitation of the new Saudi system for visas and the ease of obtaining them, as confirmed by one of Hussein’s relatives to Alpheratz. The visitor Hajj program included an invitation from a Saudi national they did not know, a barcode from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism, and tickets from Saudi airlines. Mahmoud, Attiyat’s son, mentioned to Alpheratz that he was aware of the problems associated with “Hajj without a permit” and the fact that Saudi authorities warned against it. “I spoke to [Abdel Hamid] by phone and insisted that we want an official Hajj and not the one where people are being thrown out in the desert.” However, Abdel Hamid continuously reassured Mahmoud that all travel documents were authenticated by both the Egyptian and Saudi sides.

After these reassurances, Attiyat and her son began the process of fulfilling her dream of performing the fifth pillar of Islam — the Hajj. Abdel Hamid asked Mahmoud to pay an advance of 30,000 Egyptian pounds for the Hajj program. Attiyat traveled from Cairo to Sharqia in November 2023 to meet Abdel Hamid at his home and pay the amount without receiving any official receipt. A week later, Abdel Hamid asked Attiyat to return to Sharqia to join approximately 50 pilgrims, men and women, accompanied by a supervisor named Mohamed Abdel Nabi. They traveled together to the Saudi Embassy in Giza Governorate for fingerprinting and iris scans to complete the visa process. The supervisor did not specify the type of visa they would receive, and Mahmoud added, “The entire group was composed of women and old men, most of whom cannot read or write.” About a month after visiting the Saudi Embassy, ​​Abdel Hamid called Mahmoud to inform him that the visa had been issued and asked him to collect the passport from the embassy. Mahmoud said, “We received a passport with a personal visitor visa, and the purpose of the visa was written as ‘a personal visit to a Saudi national named M … Al Shayea.’”

Disappointed with the visa status, Mahmoud almost declined to complete the Hajj procedures. However, Abdel Hamid convinced him to continue, claiming that the visa allowed his mother to perform the Hajj and the Umrah. He added that he was organizing an Umrah trip for the month of Shaban and suggested that Attiyat join another group performing the Umrah to test the visa’s validity. In February, Attiyat traveled to Mecca and received good service, including a three-day stay in a hotel near the Great Mosque in Mecca and another hotel in Medina for one night. The visit included transportation between regions and cities of the kingdom, performing Umrah rites, and visiting religious and historical sites. After this trip, Attiyat’s family gained confidence in the broker. In March, Abdel Hamid then asked them to pay 130,000 Egyptian pounds for the Hajj journey, up from the original 100,000. He explained that the price increase was due to the Egyptian government’s decision to unpeg the exchange rate of the pound, which led to a change in the dollar exchange rate and an increase in the prices of accommodation, transportation and other services, including air-conditioned tents on Mount Arafat and in Mina.

Abdel Hamid asked his clients to book tickets to travel to Jeddah on May 5, 40 days before the Hajj season. He advised them to bring enough food for the duration of their stay in the kingdom to avoid additional expenses. Everything seemed in order to Abdel Hamid’s clients, except for one of Hussein’s relatives, who felt anxious the day before his departure. On that day, Abdel Hamid spoke to him and asked him to send a voice message to the WhatsApp group that included all those traveling with him in the “Visitor’s Hajj” program. The message contained what Hussein’s relative described as important security advice, emphasizing not to go to the airport wearing ihram clothes or jilbabs and not to accompany family members.

The instructions stressed that when airport authorities in Cairo or Jeddah inquired about the reason for travel, the travelers should confirm that it was a visit. The broker warned that airport security was tightening up and that any indication a traveler intended to perform the Hajj might result in the cancellation of their trip.

In order for the visa brokers, whose market has flourished with the change in the kingdom’s tourism policy, to succeed in providing services to those who want to perform the Hajj without a permit, they needed to build relationships with brokers inside Saudi Arabia who specialize in transportation and housing services for unauthorized pilgrims. This market had already prospered since the permit regulations were approved in 1998. After Hussein’s relatives passed through the airport, a private car awaited them, transporting them to several locations before stopping at a residential building in the Aziziyah neighborhood in Mecca, along with 24 other people. Inside the building, they were given six-bed rooms, with a bed for each pilgrim. The travel guide informed them that he would now communicate via the WhatsApp group due to security issues preventing his physical presence.

Brokers circumvent the system that prohibits property rentals in Mecca during the Hajj season without a permit by enticing owners of old and dilapidated buildings and colluding with Saudi citizens. According to an expert who has worked during Hajj seasons for the past 10 years and who requested anonymity, brokers make agreements with unemployed Saudi citizens to put their names on rental contracts. Once the building is rented, the broker then sublets the rooms to those wishing to perform the Hajj without a permit. In such cases, the legal and security responsibility falls on the Saudi citizen in whose name the apartments are rented. In other, rare cases, the building owner may take the risk and rent the rooms directly to the broker’s clients.

ًWhen Hussein arrived at Jeddah airport from Italy several weeks after his relatives’ arrival, his journey to Mecca differed from that of his relatives. He phoned one of his relatives to coordinate with their travel organizer so Hussein could bypass security checks into Mecca. His relative called the travel organizer and several unlicensed taxi drivers, who informed him that Saudi security forces had set up checkpoints to prevent unauthorized vehicles from transporting pilgrims. Consequently, Hussein had to spend the night at the airport. The next morning, his relative managed to secure a private vehicle that took him to Aziziyah via mountain roads, for a fee of 2,000 riyals ($535). Hussein joined his relatives in their apartment in Aziziyah, paying an additional 100 riyals per night. Following the trip organizers’ instructions, Hussein made sure not to wear ihram clothes while in Aziziyah and to only wear them on the street at dawn on the Day of Arafah.

Attiyat, having arrived in the kingdom early, had a different experience. The broker was able to provide her and her group with an air-conditioned vehicle that transported them from Jeddah Airport to Aziziyah. This vehicle continued to transport them almost daily to the Great Mosque and nearby sites. As the Hajj date approached and the security campaign against unauthorized pilgrims intensified, the travel supervisor, Muhammad Abdel Nabi, warned them not to leave the residential building where the entire group stayed. Attiyat’s son mentioned that his mother shared a room with four other women. For 17 days, the pilgrims were prohibited from leaving the residence, following the supervisor’s instructions via the WhatsApp group. The instructions also included turning off the lights and pretending no one was in the residence whenever there were security patrols in the area.

Brokers were enthusiastic about the new market created by Saudi Arabia’s updated tourism policy and its new visa system, but they could not have anticipated the complications brought about by the digitization of Hajj services. Al-Sayed, the religious tourism director in Cairo, told Alpheratz: “The kingdom wants to deal with its visitors in an artificial intelligence-like manner. It opens its doors for visits throughout the year with easy procedures, but it expects visitors to act like robots, doing exactly what is asked of them.” He added that the phenomenon of Hajj without a permit is not new; it has been happening for years. However, this year there was an unprecedented expansion in issuing visit visas without controls to prevent their exploitation during the Hajj. Additionally, the digitization of access to pilgrim services makes unauthorized pilgrims feel like criminals, fearing persecution and unable to call on anyone for help.

The roots of digitizing services in Saudi Arabia go back to 2011, when the Saudi General Directorate of Passports, affiliated with the Ministry of Interior, launched an online service called Absher. This service allows government services, such as issuing and renewing passports and residency permits, to be carried out online without needing to visit ministry offices in person. To launch such a service safely, the Ministry of Interior had to amend the method of issuing and renewing the national card, adding a chip to make it a smart card and requiring fingerprints to be taken and stored electronically. Over time, Absher’s services expanded beyond passports to include all services provided by the Ministry of Interior, including traffic and civil status. By 2015, the Absher username and password became a means of accessing other electronic government services provided by various ministries.

As part of this digitization process, a royal order was issued in August 2019 to establish the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA). SDAIA launched several important services to advance digital transformation in the kingdom, such as the Tawakkalna application, which began operating during the COVID-19 pandemic and later expanded to become a “digital companion” allowing users — whether citizens, residents or visitors — to access many diverse services from government and nongovernmental agencies. Among the technical solutions provided by SDAIA is the Nafath service, which allows users to confirm their identity and benefit from government services without needing an Absher username and password, and the Boroog platform, which enables secure visual and audio communication between governmental and related agencies.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia embraced electronic services in 2020 through cooperation with SDAIA during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the pandemic, the number of pilgrims in 2020 did not exceed 1,000, and in 2021 it reached approximately 58,000. To organize Umrah procedures during the pandemic, the Ministry of Hajj launched an application called Eatmarna to ensure that those wanting to perform the Umrah were immunized against the coronavirus by linking to the Tawakkalna application. Anyone wanting to perform the Umrah, pray in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, visit the Prophet’s tomb in Medina, or pray in Al-Rawdah had to submit a request through these applications to ensure they were protected from COVID-19 and obtain a permit to visit. In 2022, the ministry renamed the Eatmarna application to Nusuk, turning it into a public platform for issuing permits and organizing visits for Umrah pilgrims and those wishing to visit the Noble Rawdah.

Signs of a clash between digital Hajj and Umrah policies and Saudi tourism policy emerged when the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced the launch of a new service called Nusuk Card about a month before the start of this year’s Hajj season. This card, linked to the Nusuk online platform, aims to distinguish between regular and irregular pilgrims, with Hajj services limited to cardholders. The card contains the pilgrim’s basic information, facilitating the work of security and official agencies in identifying and managing pilgrims. The Nusuk Card made it easier for security services to conduct raids against irregular pilgrims.

The Saudi Hajj security leadership held its annual conference on June 8, 2024, just days before the start of the Hajj. At this conference, the director of public security, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Al-Bassami, reported that security campaigns had stopped 64,000 people transporting pilgrims without a permit, turned back more than 97,664 vehicles at the entrances to Mecca, prevented over 171,587 people from attempting to enter Mecca and penalized 4,032 pilgrims without a permit. Additionally, 153,989 visitor visa holders who were arrested inside Mecca were deported. When a reporter for an Egyptian television channel owned by United Media Services (the media arm of the Egyptian intelligence services), asked Al-Bassami about the responsibility of companies that bring in citizens on visit visas for the Hajj, he replied, “I do not want to mention which nationality is most violating in issuing tourist visas for the purpose of performing the Hajj, but you know them better than I do.” Al-Bassami emphasized that anyone who comes with a visitor visa for the purpose of the Hajj, despite signing a pledge that this visa does not entitle them to do so, is complicit in violating the regulations.

Although the Saudi security services managed to arrest large numbers of pilgrims without permits and their brokers through multiple security campaigns, thousands of pilgrims like Attiyat, Hussein and their relatives were able to evade detection. An expert source working in Hajj missions noted that this unprecedented security campaign effectively deterred many Mecca residents who usually make a living on the Day of Arafah by transporting pilgrims without permits and using fake permits to enter the holy sites. The lack of available transportation forced pilgrims without permits to travel over 10 miles to Mount Arafat on foot under the scorching sun.

On the night of Arafah, all pilgrims without permits were waiting for the vehicles their brokers had promised would take them to Mount Arafat. As the agreed time approached, Attiyat and her group received a voice message from the trip coordinator, informing them that the kingdom had agreed to ease the checkpoints for pilgrims and that he would arrange a vehicle to transport them from Aziziyah. However, the vehicle never arrived. The same happened to Hussein, his relatives and their group, who decided to head to Mount Arafat on foot. At 4 a.m., a circular was issued to all Saudi security services allowing pilgrims without permits to enter Mount Arafat.

Those who walked to Arafat on a day when temperatures reportedly reached 49 degrees Celsius faced various fates depending on their age and health condition. In previous years, most unauthorized pilgrims were younger residents of the kingdom, accustomed to the hot climate. This year, however, the majority came from outside the kingdom, and many were elderly, unaccustomed to Mecca’s heat and unprepared for the harsh conditions. “I had a tent that could accommodate six people, phone numbers to arrange transportation when needed and enough money to pay,” Hussein told Alpheratz. He managed to complete all the Hajj rites despite the heat but vowed never to repeat the experience due to the cruelty of what he witnessed, including the deaths of many elderly people who could not manage after their money ran out.

One of these elderly people was Attiyat. Her son said that after she made a great effort to reach Mount Arafat, she informed her family of her safe arrival. She spent the entire day on the mountain without access to services, a tent or air conditioning. After descending from the mountain, her son received a call from Attiyat’s companions on the trip, telling him that she had collapsed. When the ambulance arrived, the paramedic informed them that she had died at the scene.

The Egyptian and Saudi governments held tourism companies responsible for the deaths of pilgrims without permits. On June 22, Madbouly decided to withdraw the licenses of 16 companies, accusing them of transporting pilgrims fraudulently and illegally, and referred their heads to the public prosecution. A Saudi Ministry of Interior spokesperson confirmed this in an interview with Al Arabiya news channel, stating, “Travel agencies in a number of countries have deceived holders of all types of visitor visas … and encouraged them to violate and circumvent the regulations, and to stay in the holy capital two months before the Hajj season.” Al-Sayed, who works for one of the tourism companies, criticized this decision as ignoring the roots of the problem. He explained that rural brokers in Egypt operate openly and take advantage of visitor visas to send many unsuspecting individuals to the Hajj without the state being able to intervene, relying on Saudi intermediaries.

For those who survived the experience of Hajj without a permit, their means of returning home varied. While Hussein’s visit to the kingdom and fulfillment of all the Hajj rituals took only seven days before he returned to Rome, his relative, who arrived on May 15, did not leave until June 26. In his conversation with Alpheratz, this relative refused to reveal the identities of either the Egyptian broker or the Saudi sponsor listed on his personal visitor visa, citing a desire to avoid legal responsibility upon his return to Egypt. He managed to evade Saudi authorities, who process unauthorized pilgrims by scanning their fingerprints and fining them 10,000 riyals. These pilgrims and their relatives admitted to Alpheratz that their dream of performing the Hajj led them to take risks as severe as crossing the sea on smuggling boats, making them feel complicit with those who exploited them.

For the relatives of the deceased, the ordeal is compounded by grief and complex procedures. On June 24, Mahmoud, the son of Attiyat, received her death certificate from the Saudi Consulate in Cairo. He expressed his determination to file legal action against Abdel Hamid, but he only knew the broker’s first name and had no official information about him, as the broker had since changed his phone number and home address.

“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers twice a week. Sign up here.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy