Limited hajj an opportunity for Iran, Muslim Brotherhood to target Saudi Arabia

Tehran, Brotherhood voices find propaganda value assailing Riyadh's pandemic-motivated decision.
Thursday 25/06/2020
A view of the white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba, inside Mecca's Grand Mosque, empty of worshippers because of the pandemic. (AFP)
A view of the white-tiled area surrounding the Kaaba, inside Mecca's Grand Mosque, empty of worshippers because of the pandemic. (AFP)

RIYADH - Iran and its allies, on the one hand, and the pro-Muslim Brotherhood media, on the other hand, could not help but exploit Saudi Arabia’s decision to limit the annual hajj pilgrimage this year to Saudis and foreign nationals already inside the kingdom as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19. Both camps launched self-serving propaganda campaigns against the kingdom.

On Wednesday, Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi group “Ansar Allah” attacked the Saudi decision as sacrilegious, saying they were denying "access of the faithful to the Sacred House of God, while the Iranian regime's mouthpieces called the prudent hajj arrangements “inappropriate." Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated media also described this year’s pilgrimage as a “sham” and complained that Saudi Arabia “monopolises” the major religious event for its own interests.

The laments over the new hajj restrictions were a thinly veiled pretext for launching insidious political attacks on Saudi Arabia.

The majority of the “jurists” and clerics affiliated with Iran and its branches in the region, as well as those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had deemed it legitimate to suspend prayer gatherings in mosques for more than two months now under the general jurisprudential guidance according to which "necessity justifies the suspension of prohibitions" and the widely-accepted rule that “preserving lives takes precedence over preserving religion." Several other jurists’ interpretations allowed Muslim countries to take preventive measures against the COVID-19 pandemic. From the perspective of Riyadh's slanderers, such precautionary stances are not supposed to apply to Saudi Arabia.

To combat the spread of the deadly pandemic, Iranian authorities closed religious shrines and stopped people from visiting them, both in Iran and Iraq. So how can they now criticise Saudi Arabia for taking a similar preventive step? Obviously, the whole hullabaloo is nothing more than political bickering and attempts at to score points at the expense of Saudi Arabia.

Observers say that there is a whole propaganda campaign under the alleged fears about the future of the largest religious event that brings Muslims together.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to restrict the number of pilgrims to limit the spread of COVID-19 was welcomed and supported by the director of the World Health Organisation, Tidros Adhanum Gebrissos, in statements issued Wednesday.

Those who are waging this cynical campaign against the Saudi decision are conveniently ignoring that there are still restrictions on global air travel and that most land borders are closed, which means that the number of pilgrims this year was going to be considerably lower than in previous seasons even if Saudi Arabia ignored the health precautions and flung open its gates to pilgrims. Most countries of the world are still implementing quarantine measures or slowly lifting them. Fears of a new wave of the pandemic are high everywhere, even in countries which remain optimistic about their economic recovery from the crisis.

The Saudi decision to limit the pilgrimage to Muslims already inside the kingdom is a wise one because it maintains the performance of an important Islamic rite while also protectecting Saudi citizens and potential pilgrims from all over the world from being exposed to the risk of another, and perhaps a more devastating wave of the pandemic. This is why the decision has found wide international acceptance. It should not be difficult for the Saudi media to reject the implausible and specious accusations by the Kingdom’s opponents.

Gulf communication professionals say that Saudi media should abandon their hesitation and engage in bold proactive moves to counter the new campaign against it. They could publish expert opinions by health professionals and religious scholars about the health dangers of bringing together nearly three million pilgrims. Above all, they should be exposing the hypocrisy of those who falsely accuse Saudi authorities of politicising the hajj, while showing no shame in politically exploiting this scared event.

On Tuesday, Saudi authorities said they will allow only about one thousand people residing in the kingdom to perform hajj this year, due to fears of another outbreak of the pandemic.

“We are still in the review stage,” Saudi Hajj Minister Mohammed Benten said at a press conference. “The number may go slightly below or above one thousand,” he added and clarified that “we do not expect tens of thousands and we do not expect hundreds of thousands.”

Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Mohammad Benten during a virtual press conference in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)
Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Mohammad Benten during a virtual press conference in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)

For his part, Saudi Health Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah announced at the conference that the pilgrimage will be limited this year to those under 65 and not suffering from any chronic illnesses.

Pilgrims will have to undergo a COVID-19 test before they arrive in Makkah Al-Mukarramah, and they will be required to home-quarantine themselves upon their return to their places of residence.

A gathering the size of the hajj is a potential major focus for the spread of infection, as millions of pilgrims from various regions of the world flow annually to the crowded religious sites in the holy city of Mecca to perform the rites.

Benten did not clarify this year’s mechanism for selecting pilgrims, but said that Saudi Arabia will coordinate with “all diplomatic missions in the Kingdom to find out the numbers of non-Saudi brothers and residents in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who meet the health conditions set by the Ministry of Health and at that time the number will be determined.”

Last year, 2,489,406 Muslims took part in the hajj. More than 1,855,000 of these pilgrims came from outside Saudi Arabia and 634,379 came from inside the kingdom, according to official Saudi statistics.