Controversy about haj presents a new twist in the Qatari crisis

Sunday 06/08/2017

London- As the annual haj draws near, it seemed Qatar was trying to politicise the event to get back at Saudi Arabia amid an ongoing row pitting Doha against a group of Saudi-led Arab countries.

Tensions over the haj, one of the main pillars of Islam, erupted af­ter Qatar’s government-financed media reported that Qatari nation­als were not welcome this year be­cause of the diplomatic crisis be­tween Doha and Riyadh.

The reports in Qatari media and international media outlets funded or subsidised by Doha began circu­lating in early June, shortly after the Saudi-led boycott against Qatar began. They claimed that Qatari na­tionals were being banned from en­tering the Grand Mosque in Mecca, a claim dismissed by Riyadh, which said authorities don’t check the na­tionalities of individuals entering Islam’s holiest sites.

This was followed in late July by Doha filing an official complaint with the United Nations, claiming that Saudi Arabia was hindering Qatari nationals from performing the pilgrimage.

Saudi Director-General of Pass­ports Major-General Sulaiman al- Yahya dismissed the allegations and said people of all nationalities were welcome to perform the haj and that all services would be avail­able to Qatari pilgrims during the haj.

The only change in policy that Riyadh has introduced relates to travel: Qatari pilgrims can no longer travel to Mecca by land but need to arrive in airports at Medina or the Red Sea coastal town of Jeddah on any airline other than Qatar’s na­tional carrier Qatar Airways, which is denied entry to Saudi Arabia be­cause of ongoing sanctions.

Riyadh has vehemently rejected attempts to politicise the haj, in­cluding calls to allow for interna­tional interference in organising the event. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir compared such calls to a “declaration of war.”

Iranian nationals are returning to the pilgrimage this year after months of negotiations between Saudi and Iranian officials. The Iranian government banned them from attending the haj last year.

Riyadh severed diplomatic rela­tions with Tehran after its embassy was attacked by an angry mob in January 2016. One of the points ne­gotiated is that the haj not be used for political activities. However, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged pilgrims to have their voices heard over the “mischievous” presence of the United States in the region during the pilgrimage to Mecca.

“Where is the best place to talk about the mischievous presence of America in the region? The haj is the best place,” Khamenei said on his official website on July 30.