Manama: Saudi authorities have apprehended more than 44,500 would-be pilgrims on their way to Makkah and Medina with fake permits.

Under Saudi regulations, people planning to perform pilgrimage (Haj) are required to travel with a licensed operator and must have special permits.

The procedures are used to streamline the number of people who can perform Haj and to ensure that new applicants are selected ahead of those who have already performed the annual rituals.

The 44,673 who were apprehended near the two Haj cities did have permits, but they were not genuine, local Arabic daily Okaz reported on Tuesday.

The latest group of people to be apprehended included 1,300 non-Saudi would-be pilgrims travelling on 26 buses coming from the capital Riyadh and Al Ahsa in eastern Saudi Arabia, the passport directorate said.

Investigations revealed that each of the would-be pilgrims paid SR3,500 to a fake agency, believed to be based in Jeddah, to sign up and perform the pilgrimage.

The passport authorities said that they had launched “a massive campaign to ensure there is no tampering with the Haj permits and that 12 checkpoints had been set up to scrutinise them.

“The smuggling and fake permits business will intensify on the last days before the deadline,” they said. “Some people will try to blend in with regular would-be pilgrims while others will try to enter the Haj areas on foot and avoid the road checkpoints. However, we do have the teams that work together on monitoring the situation.

In some cases, Asian nationals put on women’s abyas –overalls - to disguise themselves and sneak into the Haj areas.

Those who stand behind the schemes will be brought to justice, the passport authorities said.

Official figures said that more than 1.7 million foreigners have arrived in Saudi Arabia to perform Haj. The total number is expected to exceed three million when Saudis and foreign nationals based in Saudi Arabia join them.

Islam requires all physically fit and financially able Muslims to perform Haj at least once in their lifetimes.

The Haj season starts on Wednesday and culminates on Thursday when worshippers go to Mount Arafat for daylong prayers. Eid day and the two or three following days are also used by pilgrims in prayers and getting closer to God.

Muslims who do not go to Haj are encouraged to fast on Thursday, the Mount Arafat Day.