Pakistan has surrendered the Hajj quota to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for the first time in 75 years due to the worsening economic and financial crisis and drying up of the government's foreign currency reserves. Faced with a critical dollar shortage, Islamabad has failed in fulfilling its annual Islamic pilgrimage targets. For the year 2023, Pakistan was given a Hajj quota of over 179,000 pilgrims. Of these, at least 50 per cent was allocated to the private Hajj operators and the remaining target was divided between the Regular Hajj Scheme of the government and the Sponsorship Scheme.
Only 6,395 applications were received under the Sponsorship Scheme against the total 40,000 quotas. 72,000 applications were received under the Regular Hajj Scheme.
The Hajj application involves payments in dollars [USD] and due to the currency's shortage, Pakistan now lacks payment means. The country embroiled in economic meltdown, has also "drastically" reduced foreign imports as it awaits a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The exorbitant costs have deprived the Pakistani citizens of carrying out their religious obligation, and Islamabad's Ministry of Religious Affairs has returned the quota to Saudi Arabia. If availed, the hajj quota would have incurred the Shhebaz Sharif government a total cost of nearly $24 million, a price that cash-strapped Pakistan cannot afford. As fewer applications for the Hajj were received this year in 2023, Pakistan surrendered nearly 8,000 pilgrims' quota, a Pakistan observer is reporting.
This year, Saudi officials allocated a quota of 179,000 pilgrims to Pakistan. A total of 89,605 Hajj pilgrims were set under the state-run scheme. The remaining figures had to come from the private sector. Islamabad, though, failed to fill the quota as authorities fell short of more than 8,000 applications.
As Pakistani citizens struggle to afford even the basic amenities due to skyrocketing prices of commodities and crippling inflation, the Sharif government is unable to invest in the government-sponsored Hajj funds that would cost his administration approximately Rs 1.2 million PKR. Despite that Pakistan's Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony rolled out a special scheme and quota for the nationals who are willing to pay in USD, the country is unable to fulfil the allocated numbers by Saudi Arabia and has surrendered the quota as a last resort.
Pakistans's Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Senator, Muhammad Talha Mahmood, was quoted as saying by the Islamabad-based outlet that quota had to be surrendered for the foreign exchange cover in order to make payment for buildings’ rents and other dues. He added that the first batch of Hajj pilgrims will take off from the country’s federal capital on May 20. Meanwhile, the country's Secretary of Religious Affairs Dr. Aftab Akbar Durrani stated that the Hajj flight operation would conclude in mid-June.