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Haj pilgrims in Canada scramble to find alternative flights

Cancelation of Saudia airlines flights has prompted pilgrims to find other routes last minute

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Gulf News

Dubai: Haj pilgrims coming from Canada are scrambling to alter their travel plans after a decision by Riyadh to cancel Saudia flights, a travel agent in Toronto has told Gulf News.

With Haj season quickly approaching in the third week of August, Haj travel agencies are scrambling to cope with the quickly evolving situation.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a travel agent said that tour companies are in a dilemma trying to find alternative flights at the last minute for pilgrims.

“It is a very difficult situation for us. People have saved for months and years to be able to pay for the Haj. Now, if we have to make new travel arrangements through other airlines and routes, the pilgrims may end up having to pay about C$1,200 to C$3,000 (Dh3,371 to Dh8,428) more,” she said.

However, the airlines has promised a full refund for canceled tickets beginning Monday for direct flights to or from Toronto.

The airline added that it was working to find alternate solutions to address the issue.

How did the dispute start?
The dispute is centered on a Canadian government tweet that called on Saudi Arabia to release detained women’s rights activists.

The tweet referred to Samar Badawi and her writer brother Raif Badawi. He was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and later sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for insulting Islam while blogging.

Raif Badawi’s wife and three children became Canadian citizens earlier this year.

How did Saudi Arabia respond?
Saudi Arabia has affirmed their stance that no country has the right interfere in its domestic affairs, in a growing assertive stance.

The kingdom expelled the Canadian ambassador and ordered 15,000 Saudi students, including about 800 medical trainees, to halt their studies in Canada. The Saudi state airline also announced it was suspending operations in Canada. The kingdom also cancelled new trade with Canada and barred Canadian wheat imports.

The Financial Times reported that the Saudi central bank and state pension funds instructed their overseas asset managers to dispose of their Canadian equities, bonds and cash holdings.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia said it was “considering additional measures” against Canada, adding that there was no room for mediation in the kingdom’s escalating diplomatic dispute with Canada and that Ottawa knew what it needed to do to “fix its big mistake”.

“There is nothing to mediate. A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected,” Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh.

How has Canada reacted?
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he doesn’t want bad relations with Saudi Arabia but added that Canada will continue to speak out on human rights.

Canadian hospital officials have said they will face a shortage of staff in the coming weeks as Saudis leave but other trainees and medical staff will be able to pick up the slack so patients are not affected.

Canadian schools have talked about the impact on the dislocated Saudi students rather than the hit to their budgets from the higher tuitions they get from Saudi students.

Can it get worse?
The main impact could be on the Canadian division of General Dynamics, based in London, Ontario, which signed a $15 billion deal with Saudi Arabia in 2014 to export its light-armored vehicles to the kingdom. It is Canada’s largest arms deal and a cancellation could hurt. Canada’s foreign minister said the government is awaiting a response for what it means for that deal.

Otherwise, bilateral trade between the two nations is just $3 billion a year. Canada does get 10 percent of its imported crude oil from Saudi Arabia, but that could potentially be replaced with U.S. shale oil or oil from Canada’s oil sands region - the third largest oil reserves in the world.

-with inputs from AFP

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