By Neil King
Founder of Hajjnet, Ali Dabaja, explains how he is using apps to help pilgrims get the most out of their Hajj experience
Every year millions of Muslim pilgrims focus their attentions on one place – Makkah.
Ever since Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) first led his companions on the first pilgrimage from Medina to Makkah in the year 629, the ‘major pilgrimage’ – Hajj – has been an integral part of Islam.
Today, devotees from around the world make their way to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage, performing various rituals along the way.
Indeed, it is one of the religion’s five pillars, and as such is a duty which must be carried out by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so at least once in his or her lifetime.
Taking place each year during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah – the last month of the Islamic calendar – Hajj is the largest gathering of Muslims in one place at one time, with more than 3m people attending annually.
Add to that the number of people performing Umrah – the non-compulsory ‘lesser pilgrimage’ which can take place any time – and Makkah regularly welcomes several million people to the Al-Masjid al-Haram mosque, and other sacred sites, each year.
Logistically tricky at the best of times due to the sheer numbers, performing Hajj and Umrah has an added layer of difficulty due to the specific rituals and actions required during the experience. And this is all on top of ensuring you have the correct clothing, hotel booking, flight details, and much, much more.
With so much to remember, and such importance placed upon it, it’s no surprise that a raft of books, websites, and now apps have emerged over time to help people navigate their way successfully through the pilgrimage.
With varying levels of quality and user-friendliness, however, there was a sizeable gap in the modern market for a comprehensive, interactive, fun, and visually stunning app to be launched.
Which is where Ali Dabaja comes in.
Previously a high-flier in the banking and finance world, Dabaja turned his attention to smartphone apps, launching Hajjnet in January 2012 after hearing numerous stories from pilgrims about the challenges they faced.
When he took time to look at the facts and figures that would be associated with launching a business in this area, he says it made immediate sense.
“Today Muslims are a quarter of the world’s population, and almost all are using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Islam is a way of life and when it came to something as integral to the Muslim as the fulfillment of the Hajj pilgrimage it became something of a no-brainer.
“A quarter of the world’s population must perform this religious obligation which involves travel, can be dangerous, for many is extremely expensive, and for the majority of people doing it for the first time they have no idea what exactly they need to do.
“I believed we could change that.
“I believed there was a way of creating something for people like me who want to fulfill this integral part of my life with confidence and not be too reliant on other people – to be as independent as possible. It’s an empowering event if one can do that.”
Aiming to provide guidance and support to the millions of people undertaking Hajj and Umrah, Hajjnet’s apps (HajjSalam and UmrahSalam) offer a number of features to help make the process easier.
Interactive maps not only help pilgrims find their hotels, tents, and important sites, but also give a wealth of information about key landmarks, helps them find the nearest mosque or hospital, and is equipped with full GPS functionality.
Videos show you how to wear the traditional Ihram towels, a counter keeps track of your number of circuits around the Kaaba, you can input a collection of personal Duas (prayers), packing lists make sure you take everything you need, and much more.
What’s more, a full camera has been built into the app, and there is full social media integration.
“We think we’ve organised the content in a way which is easy to understand, helpful, and also really fun to use,” says Dabaja.
“All the content is delivered in context. Whether making preparations for travel, or when you’re at the airport, what you need to pack – it’s all there. And not just from a religious perspective. The app shows you where to change money, get phone credit, and so on. It really helps the entire experience.
“It gives you the level of comfort to be able to focus. If you’re taking a test you need to be comfortable, otherwise you’ll not do it correctly.
“Our maps are really beyond anything else we’ve seen. They give historical background, can ping your hotel, and many other things. Another thing is that everybody is taking pictures, so we put the camera into the app so you don’t have to leave the app in order to take a photo – you stay in the app, it stores it there, and you can share it easily.
“We’ve tried to make the whole thing as easy to use and as beneficial as possible. We’ve tried to be creative with it.”
Creativity is one of the reasons Dabaja decided to move away from his career in banking.
A distinguished roll-call of positions at Standard Chartered Bank, including an instrumental part in launching and growing Standard Chartered’s Private Bank in the Dubai International Financial Centre, didn’t quite satisfy him in the right way.
He explains: “I always enjoyed banking and finance but at the same time I have always considered myself a business person, and really wanted to create and do something myself. Something creative.”
Having grown up in the US, Dabaja moved to Dubai in 2006, and before long the idea for Hajjnet started to form.
“Once the idea came along, we developed it, started to build a team around it, and very quickly it became more and more compelling as a business,” he says.
But things didn’t start moving in earnest until a trip to London provided them with a Hajj expert.
“We went to the world Hajj and Umrah Convention in London a couple of years ago, and had the good fortune to meet a revered and global expert who was speaking there.
“We described to him what we were doing, and he liked it so much that he not only invested in the business but moved himself and his family to Dubai to be part of it.
“He was informing and teaching us with so much. He has performed Hajj I think 20 times, so has the insights of not only knowing the process, but having taken groups he knows the various problems that people face, the questions they ask, and at what point they ask them.”
With the right level of knowledge now available to them, Dabaja and his team were ready to build the app itself.
Despite using storyboards to piece it together, the entrepreneur soon saw that the most effective way of ensuring they go the product right was to put it in a real-time environment.
“We had to get the beta prototype in a Hajj situation,” says Dabaja.
“As well as the features, we had to test how well it worked on 3G. Hajj is one of the largest gatherings of people on earth, and most of the people there have cell phones with them - they’re all using them at the same time for various things, and we didn’t know what technical obstacles that would present for us.
“We discovered that one of the challenges was the flow of it all - what difference is made when you alter it? How do we make it easier to use? I struggled with that in waking and sleeping hours. I was constantly thinking about it. In the end we came up with something that worked for people and was pretty simple”
Dabaja reveals that the feedback from the first test also led to some difficult operational decisions, primarily with the data.
“We had to pull the app off the store,” he says.
“It was logging into Facebook but the data wasn’t working, so we had to pull it and make everything local to the app, rather than relying on 3G. It increased the size of the app a lot but it had to be dependable. The only way to do this was to make everything local to the device. Now you only need data for maps or sharing on social media.
“It was a tough pill to swallow but we had to do it. Otherwise we risked damaging our reputation before it even got into people’s hands.”
Despite the “constant barrage of challenges” Dabaja faced, and still faces, he is confident about Hajjnet’s potential.
“We knew form the beginning that we’re a global company, not a local one,” he says, alluding to both the scale, influence and popularity of the business, as well as the make-up of its personnel.
He continues: “We had to open up to recruiting team members from around the world. Dubai is a global player now and we live in a global society. If you don’t have something here, you can bring it in from somewhere else.
“We did that, and it really helped us.”
A worldwide perspective might have benefitted Hajjnet, but that doesn’t mean that Dabaja believes Dubai should look to copy other cities or countries.
Quite the contrary. In fact he sees Dubai and the UAE as having established a business environment which it can comfortably call its own.
“Too often we want to mirror other things without contextualising,” he says. “It’s really not going to work like that.
“I you take a look at Dubai properly, for me the most inspirational thing is that the leadership has really done something incredible. Look at the infrastructure, businesses, environment that’s been built here. It’s really amazing.
“The pure fact that we are able to do something like Hajjnet here is really inspiring.”
On the subject of the leadership, Dabaja claims people sometimes expect too much from the government, expecting it to “promote entrepreneurship”.
“I don’t think that works anywhere,” he says. “Should you go to the government to ask for help with your business plan? No, I don’t think so.
“The way the government is supporting security, and the environment where somebody like me can recruit from the US or Canada, and they want to mover and live here - that’s where they are really succeeding. And that’s more than enough.”
This sense of security appears to be serving Dabaja well, having recently grown the team, and made plans for the future of the app.
Having notched up enough downloads to enter the travel category’s top ten for Apple apps in 40 countries, with daily downloads in excess of 1,000, Hajjnet has had a very strong start.
But according to Dabaja, he and his team have barely touched the tip of the iceberg.
“We’ve got so much to do - it’s so exciting,” he says.
“It’s really fulfilling at the moment, and we’re having such a great time within the team, and we have a lot of plans for the future.
“On the technical side, we only recently launched in Arabic, so that’s a big development for us, and we’re currently only on iOS so we’re working on getting our Android offering out as soon as possible too.
“That should really help us go into many more markets.
“What you see now is basically version one. What we have for features for version two is really incredible.
“We have a portfolio of web features which are integrated with apps, which will also be very exciting.
“This really is just the beginning.”