Image: PIA

Pakistan’s government is reportedly considering surrendering 40,000 seats out of the total 179,210 Hajj quota assigned to Pakistan by Saudi Arabia for this year’s Hajj due to a shortage of foreign exchange reserves. The decision was discussed during a meeting chaired by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to review progress on the Hajj Scheme for the current year. The government is contemplating this proposal as Hajj expenses this year are expected to be over $270 million, which is significantly higher than earlier expectations of $90 million.

The government had introduced a scheme to pay Hajj expenses in US dollars to reduce reliance on the reserves held by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP). However, the scheme failed to live up to expectations, and only 15% of the seats offered through this scheme have been availed so far. The government has already extended the last date for submission of Hajj applications under the sponsorship scheme to April 7 in a bid to attract more applicants.

Out of the total quota assigned to Pakistan, the government equally divided the quota between private Haj operators and the government’s scheme. However, contrary to the low interest in the sponsorship scheme, the government has received an overwhelming response for the regular scheme, receiving 72,869 applications against 44,190 seats.

One proposal put forth by the religious affairs ministry is to accommodate pilgrims who have applied for the regular scheme on the unutilized quota of the sponsorship scheme. However, this will only happen if the finance ministry covers the expenses in US dollars.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony and the Ministry of Finance are deliberating over options to resolve the situation and no final decision has been made yet. The shortage of foreign exchange reserves is not a new problem for Pakistan, and it has struggled to meet its import bills and debt repayments over the last few years.

In conclusion, the Pakistani government’s consideration of surrendering 40,000 seats out of its quota of 179,210 this year assigned by Saudi Arabia for Hajj due to foreign exchange shortage is a worrisome development. It remains to be seen what decision the government will make, but it is clear that it faces significant financial challenges in meeting its Hajj expenses.

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