RIYADH- In a significant development benefiting Indian citizens undertaking Haj, Saudi Arabia announced several measures on Tuesday. These include expediting the visa issuance process within 48 hours and introducing a 96-hour stopover visa.
Moreover, Indian citizens are now permitted to undertake Umrah on business, tourism, and Umrah visas, as stated by Tawfiq bin Fawzan Al-Rabiah, the visiting Saudi Arabian Minister of Hajj & Umrah, in New Delhi.
Saudi Visa for Haj Pilgrims Update
Speaking alongside Union Minority Affairs Minister Smriti Irani and Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan, Al-Rabiah mentioned, “Indians traveling to the West or Middle East (West Asia) can obtain a stopover visa for 96 hours as part of the ticket issuance process. This enables them to perform Umrah and visit any city in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
“The Umrah visa, with a validity of 90 days, permits holders to reside and visit any city in Saudi Arabia,” he emphasized.
The Saudi minister highlighted a substantial rise in the number of Umrah pilgrims from India, exceeding 1.2 million in 2023. “This marks a 74% increase compared to 2022,” he remarked.
Furthermore, discussions are underway between the two countries to expand the range of direct flight options to accommodate the growing number of Indian pilgrims.
“We are actively working on increasing capacity to meet the expected surge by introducing new scheduled flights through Saudi low-cost airlines, Flynas and Flyadeal,” he added. Additionally, plans include the opening of three new visa centers in India.
Increase in Pilgrim Quota
Later in the day, he engaged in a meeting with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, where they discussed “the seamless facilitation of the Hajj pilgrimage by Indian nationals and shared perspectives on further strengthening the ties between the two countries,” as per Jaishankar’s post on X.
During Al-Rabiah’s visit, the Haj Committee of India aims to address the potential increase in India’s Hajj pilgrimage quota. Under the 2023 Hajj quota, approximately 1,75,000 Indians undertook the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, a fundamental tenet of Islam.
Munawari Begum, Vice President of the Haj Committee of India, mentioned, “One of the objectives of the visit is to explore the possibility of increasing the Hajj quota from the current 1,75,025 to at least 2,00,000.”
Smriti Irani highlighted that in 2023, nearly 47% of Indian pilgrims on Hajj were women, including close to 4,000 women traveling under the ‘Lady without Mahram’ category.
She affirmed the government’s commitment to ensuring the inclusivity and accessibility of Hajj to all segments of society, particularly women and ‘Divyangjan’ (physically challenged).
Strengthening Bilateral Relations
The visit will play a crucial role in planning for Hajj 2024 more efficiently and seamlessly, given that the Hajj pilgrimage holds significant importance in the bilateral relationship between India and Saudi Arabia, as highlighted by Muraleedharan.
Al-Rabiah commenced his official visit to India on Monday with the objective of “strengthening collaboration and streamlining the Umrah journey for international pilgrims,” as stated by the Saudi Embassy in New Delhi.
This visit to India forms a vital component of a series of international tours aimed at demonstrating the Kingdom’s dedication to serving Umrah pilgrims globally, according to the Embassy statement.
It seeks to achieve substantial progress in simplifying procedures, improving services, and devising comprehensive plans for hosting pilgrims and Umrah participants in alignment with the objectives outlined in ‘Saudi Vision 2030.’
The embassy added that Al-Rabiah will engage in high-level discussions with Indian officials and prominent figures in the Hajj and Umrah service sector.
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