It is difficult to recall a time in the lives of current and surviving generations where the Hajj pilgrimage was made so chaotic and unstable as it was this year. Over the past month, decades of status quo in the Hajj arrangement process were overturned when Saudi Arabia's government announced the establishment of a digital and online portal named 'Motawif' to process, register, and select pilgrims from Western nations – specifically the United States, Europe and Australia.
Since then, all that followed was an avalanche of issues related to the Motawif portal. After the lottery system selected the pilgrims, it failed to issue and finalise many of their visas, permits, flight tickets or hotel reservations. Many were successfully issued some of those requirements, only to find themselves stranded at an airport on the date of their departure, with no departure ticket sent to them by that time.
Others successfully arrived in Saudi Arabia and the Islamic holy city of Makkah – which was often after more delays in transportation and buses – only to discover that there was no hotel reservation booked for them. Those who did manage to get a room entered it only to find that it was not one they were booked in for, with reports of female pilgrims being assigned to rooms with unknown and unrelated male pilgrims.
To top it off, many pilgrims experiencing those ordeals suffered insufficient communication from the Motawif team online and, if they were able to contact the portal, they were often told that they must put off their pilgrimage this year and try again next year. That was also with no guarantee of their payments – in the thousands – being forwarded for the following year's Hajj. In short, there were failures and obstacles on the part of the Motawif system at every step of the process.
The chaos became so prevalent that even the Saudi authorities eventually recognised the problem, with the Hajj Ministry taking over the welfare of western pilgrims from Motawif in the middle of the pilgrimage, in an effort to salvage the process.
To avoid speculating on the Kingdom's aims in initially handing the Hajj process to the Motawif system or to solely demonising the portal and its reported connections to India's extremist BJP government, the main lesson to learn from this entire debacle is one that authoritarians in the Middle East and elsewhere will find difficult to swallow: centralisation does not work.
States, militaries, beauracracies and businesses have long grappled with the debate over-centralisation, often learning the hard way that it fails to produce the results expected of it, and even leads to disastrous consequences.
What many initially believe is that a centralised system unifies potentially divisive elements under an individual, group of individuals or – in the case of Motawif – an online portal and the authority which implemented it. Focused on a singular goal, according to that reasoning, the project or process is bound to succeed.
Instead, what occurs is the formation of a bloated and stiff chain of command, major delays in the decision-making process, and poor and inaccurate judgement on the part of the centralised leadership who are often out of touch with the specific requirements and determining factors local management deal with on the ground.
It was this phenomenon which has reportedly been at the heart of many military defeats and drawbacks in recent history. The American military analysts Kenneth M. Pollack and Norvell B. De Atkine – despite any bias they may have had – wrote on this also, asserting that over-centralisation was a key factor in the Arab military defeats against Israel in the 60s and 70s.
A counter to centralisation has been popularly propagated in Western military discourse, and has been a primary factor in promoting accountability and a system of 'decentralised command'.
As the author and former US Navy Seal officer, Jocko Willink, wrote in his book 'Extreme Ownership' of his experiences, subordinate leaders "did not call me and ask me what they should do. Instead, they told me what they were going to do. I trusted them to make adjustments and adapt the plan to unforeseen circumstances while staying within the parameters of the guidance I had given them and our standard operating procedures. I trusted them to lead … it made my job much easier by enabling me to focus on the bigger picture."
In the case of Motawif, its downfall first began when Riyadh announced its handling of the western pilgrims' Hajj process a mere month before the pilgrimage was set to take place. To handle the applications of millions and then arrange the documentation and registration of tens of thousands within the space of a few weeks is a significant responsibility for any system, let alone one that has not been tested in any years, prior.
The previous system of allowing approved individual and external travel agencies, regardless of any flaws it may have had, never resulted in such chaotic management over the decades. The reason why, of course, is due to the fact that it was a decentralised process which removed the burden from both the Saudi government and any single centralised portal like Motawif.
Unsurprisingly, this entire debacle was likely meant to be part of the Kingdom's aim to digitise and centralise all processes related to government, tourism, registration and identification over this decade in order to attain the goals laid out in its Vision 2030. Its inclusion of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in that national – and in many ways global – experiment, however, proved to be unsuccessful and disastrous.
In order to avoid a repeat of this year's handling of the pilgrimage, it seems the Saudi government may be required to either revert to the previous system of outsourcing pilgrims' arrangements to travel agencies or to drastically reform the Motawif or any online portal.
The Kingdom has tasted the troubles of centralisation, and it has the opportunity to take it as a lesson to avoid implementing the same strategy with other systems in coming years.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.