Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Hajj tensions grow

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia may lead Iranian pilgrims to miss this year’s hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

Al-Ahram Weekly

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have escalated to the point that Iranian pilgrims may miss this year’s hajj, or religious pilgrimage, to Mecca.

Iran’s official news agency IRNA has quoted Iranian Islamic Guidance and Culture Minister Ali Jannati blaming Riyadh for the impasse, while the Saudi Hajj Ministry has blamed Iran for refusing to sign an agreement laying out the arrangements for this year’s pilgrimage.

“The arrangements have not been made, and now it is too late to make them,” Jannati said.

Angry Iranians who blame Saudi Arabia for not making proper arrangements for the hajj have taken to social media to post messages criticising Riyadh. The rivalry between the two countries has meant that even the most holiest and spiritual matters have become politicised and a matter for Iranian and Saudi regional competition.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which brings together the Arab Gulf states, has condemned what it called the “politicisation” of the hajj by Iran. The comment came following what it said was Iran’s decision to ban its citizens from going to Saudi Arabia for this year’s pilgrimage, but Iranian officials have blamed Saudi Arabia for the crisis.

GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif Al-Zayani criticised Tehran for not signing a standard agreement for the 2016 hajj, the Saudi newspaper Arab News reported on 14 May.

“The GCC calls on Iran to respect the hajj as a holy ritual which should not be linked with political problems. The bloc urges Iran’s cooperation with the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] to allow Iranians to perform the hajj,” Al-Zayani said.

Last year’s hajj was marred by the death of at least 769 pilgrims, many of them Iranian, in a stampede at Mina outside the holy city of Mecca. Following that catastrophe, another report of attacks on two teenagers at a Saudi airport fuelled public anger in Iran. This was then exacerbated by Iranian protests at the execution of Shia cleric Baghir Al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia.

Demonstrators attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, and Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in February. The attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions were condemned by the international community and the UN as an attack on the Vienna Convention that guarantees diplomatic missions abroad.

The incidents caused Iran much embarrassment, such that attention was drawn away from the Shia cleric’s execution. Now it seems that Tehran has found another opportunity to put pressure on the Saudis, this time over the hajj, and appears to be attempting to gain sympathy elsewhere

in the Muslim world as a result of the dispute.

Saudi Arabia has said that it is Iran that is attempting to politicise the hajj. “Iran is the only country that has refused to sign the agreement on the hajj. It has insisted on a number of unacceptable demands,” Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umra Mohamed Bintin told the state TV channel Ekhbariya.

“The authorities in the Kingdom have done nothing to prevent the arrival of Iranian pilgrims, and a ban has been imposed by the Iranian government as a way of putting pressure on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement posted on its website.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been using various tools as a way of gaining influence in the region. However, the Muslim world as a whole does not want to see the hajj politicised, and it has largely blamed Iran for the confrontation.

For many, it is not so much the competition between these two Muslim powers that is concerning, or the threat of their wider confrontation, as the threat of racism and hostility infecting the religious rituals of the hajj.

Sooner or later, Iran and Saudi Arabic will need to restore diplomatic ties and to sit at the negotiation table over the conflict in Syria. For the time being, the damage that the present confrontation is causing may lead to further hostility that will damage both countries.

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