Umrah no longer affordable for Egypt’s poor

Sunday 07/05/2017
Lucky few. Egyptian pilgrims at Cairo Airport preparing to leave for Saudi Arabia as the minor pilgrimage season starts. (Saeed Shahat)

Cairo - Four months ago, the 6,000 Egyptian pounds — ap­proximately $333 — retired civil servant Mohamed Ali had saved were enough for him to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform umrah, the minor pilgrim­age done by Muslims any time of the year to holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
That amount now, however, is hardly enough for the sexagenarian to perform the ritual, the cheapest redemption option for Muslims in Egypt, compared to the much more expensive haj.
“I had really hoped to perform the umrah after months of saving,” Ali said. “Perhaps I can do it next year.”
The roots of Ali’s inability to achieve his dream of visiting holy sites in Mecca and Medina this year can be found in last November’s de­cision by the Central Bank to free-float the Egyptian pound to eradi­cate a rampant foreign currency parallel market and boost foreign currency reserves.
By leaving its decades-old con­trolled foreign currency exchange rate regime, Egypt caused its na­tional currency to lose more than 50% of its value.
There are advantages to the move. Egypt has turned into a su­per-cheap destination for foreign tourists and its products have an unprecedented competitive edge in terms of price in foreign markets.
Exports, including agricultural crops, construction materials and textiles, more than doubled after the pound flotation. Construction materials exports, for example, were up 470% in January, com­pared to January 2016, said Walid Gamal Eddin, the head of the Con­struction Materials’ Export Coun­cil, a section of the national Federa­tion of Chambers of Commerce.
There are drawbacks, too, and the unprecedented rise in travel costs for Egyptians is one of them. This is most clear when it comes to umrah and haj. The umrah season usually starts two months before the Muslim fasting month of Ram­adan, which this year begins near the end of May, and lasts for about five months. This is the time of the year when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the less costly ritual.
Last year, 1.3 million Egyptians performed it but this year only 400,000 people have registered to travel to Saudi Arabia for umrah, said Basel al-Sisi, the head of the Religious Tourism Section at the Federation of Chambers of Com­merce.
“This amounts to less than one-third of the number of people who travelled last year,” Sisi said. “Travel companies organising umrah are in for unprecedented losses.”
About 2,200 companies work in umrah and haj organisations in Egypt. The companies employ thousands of workers.
Nasser Turk, the owner of one of the companies, said some workers in the sector would be laid off as the economic recession continues.
“True, umrah is an important ritual but, as prices shoot up, people will have other priorities,” Turk said. “Everybody is going down to satisfying basic needs, even as these needs become diffi­cult to satisfy day after day.”
Turk said he was laying off almost one-third of his com­pany’s workforce of 50. He said he planned to shift his business from a focus on umrah and haj to domestic tours, especially to the southern provinces of Luxor and Aswan and the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Even here he has a problem be­cause fewer Egyptians are contem­plating travel inside the country as they struggle to make ends meet.
Before the pound flotation, a Saudi riyal equalled 2.4 Egyp­tian pounds. Now, the same riyal equals 5 pounds.
Egyptians have been spending $1.1 billion on umrah and haj every year, a huge amount of money for an economically struggling coun­try. Although almost one-third of those who travelled for umrah in 2016 will travel this year, the um­rah bill is expected to remain near the same level.
Ali said he was still hoping to make the journey, believing it would have contributed to his as­pired redemption but said the cost was becoming far higher than he can afford.
“I had always dreamed of visit­ing the holy sites in Mecca and Medina but it seems that umrah is no longer for the poor,” he said.