Qatar moves closer to Iran, blocks transportation of haj pilgrims, causing crisis to further escalate
London- The crisis between Qatar and a quartet of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia escalated with Doha appearing to politicise the haj and restoring diplomatic relations with Iran.
A major point of contention for the quartet is Doha’s relationship with Iran, viewed by most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members as a destabilising force due to its support of radical Islamic militias, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are fighting a Saudi-led coalition that supports the country’s internationally recognised government.
Following an attack on the Saudi Embassy in January 2016, Riyadh and several other regional countries, including Qatar, severed diplomatic ties with Iran. However, on August 23, Qatar announced that it would reinstate full diplomatic ties with Tehran, going against one of the boycotting countries’ chief demands for negotiations to commence with Qatar.
“The state of Qatar announced today that its ambassador to Tehran will return to exercise its diplomatic duties,” a statement from Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said, adding that Doha intended to strengthen bilateral relations with Iran in all fields.
Gulf sources viewed Doha aligning itself with Tehran over its Gulf Arab neighbours as an escalation. The sources said the move to normalise relations with Iran comes at the expense of Kuwait, which had been attempting to mediate in the crisis.
Kuwaiti officials closed Iran’s cultural mission and military offices and requested that the Iranian Embassy reduce its diplomatic mission from 19 representatives to four after the uncovering of a Hezbollah-sponsored terror cell, some of whose members had direct ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa questioned Doha’s logic in restoring relations with Iran.
“On the same day Qatar refused to allow its citizens to perform haj, (it) reinstated its ambassador in the country that falsely claims it fights for Islam and Muslims,” Sheikh Khalid wrote on Twitter.
He was referring to Qatar’s efforts to apparently use the haj as a political pawn in the dispute by blocking a Saudi initiative that would allow Qatari pilgrims to be transported to the pilgrimage on Saudi Arabian Airlines flights.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ordered the opening of the Salwa border crossing for Qatari pilgrims wishing to travel by land to the haj. He also directed Qatari pilgrims be admitted without requesting an e-visa and for the kingdom’s national carrier to send aeroplanes to Qatar to transport pilgrims as royal guests.
However, Qatari officials refused to allow Saudi planes to land in Qatar.
“Qatari authorities have not allowed the aircraft to land as it did not have the right paperwork, although the paperwork was filed days ago,” a statement attributed to Saudi Arabian Airlines Director- General Saleh al-Jasser said.
Qatari officials initially denied that a Saudia flight had been refused permission to land at Doha’s Hamad International Airport; however, a follow-up statement said the plane was not cleared to land because required paperwork was filed with the wrong ministry.
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry called the Saudi gesture “un-Islamic” in a statement.
“Limiting the transfer of Qatari pilgrims to Saudi Arabian Airlines only is unprecedented, illogical, surprising and contravenes the teachings of Islam,” said a statement from the ministry, which gave no details why King Salman’s offer ran counter to Islamic doctrine.
The orders by King Salman followed talks in Jeddah between Qatari ruling family member Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassem al-Thani and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.
“My brothers and my children, I deeply regret that you have been denied transport from Doha by Saudi planes to perform pilgrimage. I hope the brothers in Qatar will cooperate to facilitate pilgrimage for the citizens,” Sheikh Abdullah wrote on Twitter following Doha’s refusal to allow the Saudi flight to land.
He said there were opportunities for Qatari pilgrims to enter the kingdom, either by air or land via Al-Ahsa or the eastern provinces.
Saudi news channel Al-Ekhbariya reported that 442 Qatari pilgrims had entered the kingdom via the Salwa border crossing, with that figure expected to grow.
The stand-off began June 5 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Doha over what they described as Qatar’s interference in their countries’ internal affairs and support for radical groups such as Hamas, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood, charges that Doha denies.