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Cablegate: Afghanistan's Hajj 2009: Transport Ministry and Ariana

VZCZCXYZ0000
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHBUL #4029 3501046
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 161046Z DEC 09
FM AMEMBASSY KABUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4018
RHMCSUU/FAA NATIONAL HQ WASHINGTON DC
INFO RUEHAD/AMEMBASSY ABU DHABI 0004
RUEHRH/AMEMBASSY RIYADH 4323
RXFSNHQ/NATO HQ BRUSSELS

UNCLAS KABUL 004029

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR EEB/TRA, S/SRAP, SCA/FO, SCA/RA, SCA/A, NEA/ARP
FAA FOR RAY SMITH

E.O. 12958 N/A
TAGS: EAIR PGOV PREL AF
SUBJECT: Afghanistan's Hajj 2009: Transport Ministry and Ariana
Execute Well But Hajj Minister Under Investigation

Ref: A) 08 Kabul 2977
B) 09 Kabul 3346

1. Summary: In a marked improvement from last year's Hajj,
logistics for the 2009 Afghan pilgrimage proceeded smoothly, due to
extensive planning by the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation
(MOTCA). State-owned Ariana Airlines transported about 35,000
pilgrims, thanks to a last-minute deal between the Afghan and Saudi
governments that allowed Ariana to land at Saudi airports. Behind
MOTCA's success, however, looms a possible scandal at the Ministry
of Hajj and Islamic Affairs where press rumors have surfaced that
the Minister of the Hajj is under investigation for overcharging
Hajj pilgrims and pocketing the money. End Summary.

Hajj Pilgrims Returning
- - - - - - - - - - - -

2. As of December 14, 8,050 out of a total of about 35,000
pilgrims have returned from the Hajj to Kabul and Kandahar airports.
MOTCA formed a steering committee earlier this year and tasked it
to enhance preparations for the 2009 Hajj to avoid a disastrous
repeat of 2008, when the previous Minister was fired for alleged
corruption and a contracted airline struggled to transport
Afghanistan's pilgrims to Saudi Arabia (Ref A). The committee
successfully advocated for round-the-clock operations at major
airports and priority landing slots for Hajj-designated aircraft.
When Kabul International Airport (KIA) closed to official traffic
November 19 for President Karzai's inauguration, it remained open to
Hajj aircraft.

Saudi Government Relents on Ariana
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

3. Although Deputy Minister of Transport Raz Alami urged the Afghan
Government to spread profitable Hajj passengers among different
airlines, the Cabinet ultimately named Ariana Airlines the exclusive
carrier of Hajj passengers this year. Ariana attempted to charter a
Boeing 767 from rival Safi Air, but could not agree on a price and
instead chartered an Airbus 310 from a United Arab Emirates-based
airline (Ref B). The charter aircraft supplemented Ariana's four
310s, including two purchased this year with Ministry of Finance
funding.

4. Ariana's new aircraft were a key point in negotiations between
the Afghan and Saudi governments to allow the carrier into Saudi
airports despite Saudi Arabia's recognition of the European Union
safety "black list," including Ariana. Alami spent several days in
Jeddah persuading regulators to allow the carrier to land, on the
conditions that it use only new aircraft and that engineers be
present on all flights.

5. Looking ahead, Alami, who is likely to remain as Deputy
Minister, said he wants ISAF to vacate its office and ramp space at
KIA next year to allow for a dedicated Hajj terminal. In addition,
a German-funded runway improvement in Mazar-e Sharif will be
complete in 2010 and allow for direct flights to Saudi Arabia during
next year's Hajj.

Hajj Minister Under Investigation
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

6. The smooth logistics of the 2009 Hajj, however, has been may be
overshadowed by scandal that threatens to erupt over the Ministry of
Hajj and Islamic Affairs' alleged mismanagement of Hajji funds.
Credible press rumors that high-level Hajj Ministry officials,
including the Minister himself, were involved in overcharging Hajjis
and pocketing the money appeared in late November. To date,
however, there has been no warrant issued for the Minister's arrest.


Comment
- - - -

7. This year's Hajj preparations were entirely Afghan-led and
resulted in the first Hajj in recent memory without a serious
mishap. MOTCA does not publicize its accomplishments, although
EmbOffs have encouraged DM Alami to consider holding a MOTCA
ceremony in early January to welcome home the final pilgrims and
highlight the ministry's role in orchestrating this major logistical
success. End comment.

EIKENBERRY

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