Mohammed Abdullah decided to travel to Qatar from his hometown Sidi Bel Abbès in northwestern Algeria, early in November.
Although the 29-year-old Abdullah bought Qatar 2022 World Cup tickets, he skipped the sporting event and instead made a detour to Mecca, one of Islam's holiest sites.
“My target was to get to Saudi Arabia from Qatar and perform Umrah. I set my goal from the day I first read that Saudi Arabia was offering free Umrah pilgrimage visas to holders of the Hayya card,” he tells TRT World, referring to the photo-identity document given to fans attending the 2022 World Cup.
A ticket to at least one World Cup match is a prerequisite to acquiring a Hayya card.
Abdullah says he “didn’t hesitate even if I was short on my budget. I just wanted to get to Qatar to start my journey” for Umrah, the year-round pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.
The annual Hajj is different and takes place once annually.
With the card, entry to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates is visa-free.
Hitch-hiked on Salwa Road
It also allows visitors entry to the stadiums and free access to metro and bus transportation services on match days.
International fans attending the tournament can invite up to three non-ticketed fans. With that exception in mind, Abdullah called one of his friends and asked if he could invite him to Qatar as a non-ticketed fan.
“He agreed and added my name under his Hayya card,” Abdullah says.
He explains that going through an Umrah pilgrimage agency in Algeria could cost a minimum of $1,000, excluding food and other expenses.
With a Hayya card, the total estimated cost was about $500.
On December 1, Abdullah landed in the Qatari capital of Doha. He spent the night at his friend’s house and embarked on his journey the next morning.
Although prior entry to Qatar with a Hayya card is not mandatory to enter Saudi Arabia, Abdullah still took that route as tickets to Doha were cheaper from Algiers.
He hitch-hiked on the Salwa Road, from the Qatar-Saudi border, to al Hofuf in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, a distance of about 590 km.
“I then took a bus to Mecca from al Hofuf. I was still not tired and determined as ever to see the sight of Kaaba [Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in the holy Muslim city of Mecca],” he said over the phone during a break in his journey.
Eight hours later, Abdullah found himself in Mecca.
“The journey was not easy on a tight budget, but the result was amazing.”
Ahashanuzzaman Shujan, a Bangladeshi national, also performed Umrah during his stay in Qatar for the World Cup. He also went to Dubai with his Hayya card.
“I bought two tickets for football matches on November 28 and December 2. So I had a three-day gap in between to travel to Saudi Arabia [by air] and perform Umrah,” he tells TRT World.
It takes up to two hours by flight and 14 hours by road to get to Saudi Arabia from Qatar.
It costs up to $2,400 to perform Umrah from Bangladesh, according to Shujan. But he paid only $150 for the pilgrimage, excluding the airfare from Doha to Jeddah, which was approximately $200.
“It has been an unforgettable journey. I got to witness the World Cup, watch the best matches and hop on from one middle eastern country to another,” Shujan tells TRT World.
“But performing Umrah so easily and budget-friendly tops it all. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The Hayya visa is valid for entering the kingdom and other GCC countries from November 11 until December 18.