Scores of UAE residents await refunds one month after Haj operator fails to deliver promised pilgrimage

It now appears that this is not the first instance in which the tour operator has abandoned pilgrims, leaving them stranded and without providing refunds

by

Mazhar Farooqui

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Published: Thu 3 Aug 2023, 8:32 AM

Last updated: Mon 30 Oct 2023, 9:43 AM

Over a month has passed since Haj, and several UAE residents who booked pilgrimage packages through a Sharjah-based tour operator could neither embark on the holy journey nor get their hard-earned money back.

On June 28, Khaleej Times reported on the heartbreaking situation faced by nearly 150 UAE residents who were left devastated after the travel agency, Baitul Ateeq, failed to fulfil their commitments for Haj despite having received full payments from the pilgrims.

In response to the mounting complaints, Shebin Rasheed, representing Baitul Ateeq, apologised for the "inconvenience" caused by what he claimed was a “last-minute change in visa issuance”. He assured all affected individuals that they would be promptly refunded. According to Shebin, the accommodations initially booked for the travellers have been resold, and the funds from these resales will soon be available in the UAE for repayment.

However, after several weeks, the reality is different. The hopeful Haj travellers are still left waiting for their refund. Two weeks ago, Rashed claimed to have refunded 20 individuals, but he failed to provide evidence in terms of names and contact numbers despite repeated requests by Khaleej Times via phone calls and messages.

One such affected individual is Abdul Hannan Chouhan, a Dubai resident and chartered accountant, who paid Dh52,000 in February. He has diligently followed up with the company but has not received a firm answer. "They keep promising, but they haven't refunded the money yet," he said.

A widow in Sharjah who prefers to remain anonymous pegged her loss at Dh130,000. "I paid Dh90,719 initially, but five days before the scheduled departure to Saudi Arabia, I received a call from Baitul Ateeq's office asking for an additional Dh40,000 due to visa issues concerning my children who were supposed to accompany me. They promised to arrange everything from visas to tickets, hotel accommodation, and food, and I believed them."

Her dreams were dashed, and the woman has since been pursuing the tour operator for refunds. "They keep dilly-dallying," she said. "Left with no choice, I filed a police complaint, after which they grudgingly deposited Rs400,000 in my Indian bank account, which is only 13 per cent of what I originally paid.”

Canadian citizen Aqrar Khan paid Dh50,000, but his wish to travel to Saudi Arabia remained incomplete. Talking with Khaleej Times, Aqrar narrated how he and his wife travelled from Toronto to Abu Dhabi on June 5, spending Dh8,400 on air tickets, fully convinced everything was in order.

He now feels they were taken for a ride by the travel agency. "The trip never happened, and our money is gone."

Dubai resident Mohammad Saqib, who paid Dh20,000 for the pilgrimage, also awaits a refund. “Out of over 120 people in a WhatsApp group who booked through Baitul Ateeq, only one person has been paid so far,” he said.

Humera Hussain, who paid Dh42,000, regrets choosing the company. “All they have been doing is making promises. The other day Baitul Ateeq sent a message offering to give a 50 per cent refund but with the condition not to file any complaint. When I refused to sign it, they called and said I had a mental block. This is preposterous,” she said.

Humera Hussain
Humera Hussain

As the case unfolds, it has come to light that this is not the first time that Baitul Ateeq has left Haj pilgrims stranded and without refunds. Individuals such as Fazlullah (Dh50,400), Kamil Tahir Gani (Dh30,000), and Mohammad Ashram (Dh25,000) have provided evidence of unpaid Haj trips promised and paid for as far back as 2020.

While Saudi Arabia barred foreign pilgrims from performing Haj in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 pandemic, those who paid Baitul Ateeq in 2020 claim to have received only empty promises over the years.

Fazlullah took matters into their own hands and went for Haj on their own this year due to the unfulfilled promises. "All these years, they have told me that they will refund or accommodate me in this year's Haj. When neither happened, I went to Haj on my own," said Fazlullah.

Earlier, Shebin Rasheed remained elusive when asked if Baitul Ateeq has ever sent anyone to Haj. He also couldn't succinctly explain why his company operates from Dubai when it has a Sharjah license. "Our volunteers are everywhere. They are in Mecca too. Our intention is not to cheat anyone," he said, adding, "We are in the business of khidmat (serve); we can help our clients by giving free Hijama service too."

Hijama (Cupping) is an ancient, holistic method to relieve pain and treat various diseases. A session typically costs anywhere between Dh150 and Dh400. Shebin also urged Khaleej Times not to mention his company's name, saying Baitul Ateeq is a "very pious name" and is commonly used for the holy Kaaba.

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