Saudi Arabia pushes for haj season void of politics

“There is no precedent that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has politicised haj or prevented a Muslim from performing it.” - Arab League spokesman Mahmoud Afifi
Sunday 22/07/2018
Beyond politics. Muslim worshippers gather at the Grand Mosque in Islam’s holiest city of Mecca, on June 14. (AFP)
Beyond politics. Muslim worshippers gather at the Grand Mosque in Islam’s holiest city of Mecca, on June 14. (AFP)

LONDON - With Saudi Arabia already welcoming the first pilgrims ahead of the estimated August 19 official start, this year’s haj season has begun.

Coordinating a religious gathering in which millions of Muslims from around the world assemble in Mecca to perform one of the five pillars of Islam is a daunting task with year-round preparations to ensure that infrastructure, organisation and safety requirements are in place.

Riyadh has often wrestled with issues beyond organisational preparations of the haj, including the politicising of the event. That has often been attempted by Iran and, if the rhetoric coming from Tehran is an indication, this haj season will not be any different.

The “haj is the best opportunity to display that religion and politics cannot be separated… the real haj is a combination of unity and seeking deliverance from infidels,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an interview televised July 16. Khamenei also disputed Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty with regards to the holy cities.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposite sides of proxy conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon and Tehran is facing turbulent times domestically, both politically and economically.

Iran has seen the United States withdraw from its nuclear deal, threatening the collapse of the entire agreement and the introduction of sanctions. Deteriorating economic conditions, including the plummeting of the rial, have led to mass protests in Iran, which continue despite a government crackdown.

With Tehran looking for a scapegoat for its domestic woes, Khamenei blamed Saudi Arabia and stoked the fires of sectarianism.

Conflicts between the two countries date to the days of the shah but ties then were comparatively cordial. Relations worsened after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, in which Saudi Arabia and the United States backed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

In 1987, hostilities escalated during the haj when Iranians in Mecca staged a political demonstration and clashed with Saudi riot police. More than 400 people died in the incident and mobs attacked the missions of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and France. Diplomatic ties were cut in 1988 but were restored two years later.

Conflicts have erupted sporadically but tensions were highest in 2015 after a stampede during the haj resulted in the death of more than 2,000 pilgrims, including hundreds of Iranians. Tehran blamed the incident on Saudi authorities and banned its citizens from the 2016 haj.

An agreement between the two countries the following year allowed Iranians’ participation in the pilgrimage.

Iran’s ally Syria, for a seventh consecutive year, is claiming that Saudi Arabia is blocking Syrians from performing the haj. Arab League spokesman Mahmoud Afifi dismissed the claim by the Syrian government, saying: “There is no precedent that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has politicised haj or prevented a Muslim from performing it.”

Afifi stressed the importance of dismissing anonymous sources pushing political agendas. He said Saudi Arabia was preparing to receive approximately 18,000 Syrians at this year’s haj.

Another country that has politicised the haj is Qatar. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and three regional Arab allies severed ties with Doha over its connections with radical Islamic groups and Iran.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued directives to open the kingdom’s border crossing with Qatar to allow pilgrims to reach Mecca by land. Riyadh also offered to send aeroplanes to transport Qatari pilgrims to the haj at the king’s expense but the Qatari government would not allow the planes to land.

After what Saudi authorities viewed as a lack of engagement from Qatar’s Ministry of Religious Endowments concerning this year’s haj, the Saudi Ministry of Haj and Umrah initiated a website designed for Qatari nationals to register for the pilgrimage.

The ministry said the decision was to provide more facility and convenience to Qatari pilgrims due to the “lack of response and cooperation” from the Qatari Ministry of Religious Endowments, Al Arabiya news channel in Dubai reported.

“The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under the instructions of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, welcomes all Muslims who come for haj and umrah,” the ministry said in its statement.

“The kingdom’s stance on haj and pilgrims as a rite that has nothing to do with politics is unwavering,” Saudi Shura Council member and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Zuhair al-Harthy told the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in London.

“Saudi Arabia has a great religious responsibility and it strives to facilitate access to the people of Qatar to perform this ritual in all ways and means possible,” he said.