Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Misusing the hajj

Qatar has accused Saudi Arabia of restricting access to the holy sites ahead of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, taking the crisis between the two countries to a new level, writes Nehal Al-Ashkar


Misusing  the hajj
Misusing the hajj

A new crisis developed this week in the two-month stand-off between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, when Qatar accused Saudi Arabia of “politicising the hajj” by limiting travel to Mecca next month as part of the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Only two weeks ahead of the hajj next month, Doha called for the “internationalisation of the hajj” after accusing Saudi Arabia of restricting access to the Muslim holy sites and limiting travel by Qataris.

The accusations were rejected by Saudi officials who described the Qatari move as a “declaration of war.”

“Qatar’s demands to internationalise the holy sites is aggressive and a declaration of war against the kingdom,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir was quoted as saying by the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news site on Monday.

Though Qatari officials denied the accusations, Qatar has also approached the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion on the matter, expressing concerns about obstacles facing Qataris who want to attend the hajj this year.

The complaints are meant to draw international attention to Saudi Arabia’s alleged violations of religious freedom and the right to worship.

Al-Jubeir commented in a press conference with the other three foreign ministers of the four Arab countries boycotting Qatar in the present crisis – Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain – by rejecting Qatar’s accusations.

“Saudi Arabia does not accept the politicisation of the hajj rites. We reject attempts by Qatar to politicise the issue and consider it disrespectful to the hajj and pilgrims,” he said.

While Qataris are free to attend the hajj this year, the Saudi authorities said last week that they would allow access to Qatari pilgrims via just two airports, regardless of where they had originated.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain the UAE and Egypt earlier severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing Doha of fostering extremist Islamist groups and of ties to Saudi arch-rival Iran. The allegations have been denied by the tiny oil-rich emirate.

The four Arab states have recalled their ambassadors from Doha, ordered all Qataris to return home from their countries, and banned Qatar from using their airspace.

Mohamed Nagi Abbas, the editor of Iran Digest, a source of information on Iran, did not rule out the idea that Iran could be trying to exploit the situation for its own political and economic ends.

Talks between Iran, Turkey and Qatar took place this week in Tehran between the Iranian minister of communications, the Turkish minister of economy and the Qatari economy minister, issuing in a communique saying they had discussed a joint transit route.

Saudi Arabia and its allies on Sunday accused Qatar of “complicating” the hajj for its own citizens, who cannot take direct flights from Doha to Saudi Arabia under the sanctions.

The Qatari Islamic Affairs Ministry in a statement published by the official QNA news agency on Sunday said the Saudi side had “refused to communicate regarding securing the pilgrims’ safety and facilitating their hajj”. 

Around 20,000 Qatari citizens have registered to take part in the pilgrimage this year.

According to Mohamed Abdel-Kader Khalil, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the Qatari move is designed to put Saudi Arabia in a defensive position and portray the kingdom as acting against the right of worship of Muslims.

He added that Iran had been the first to create this strategy and that Qatar had then followed it in order to accuse Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism and highlight developments in relations between Qatar and Iran.

According to Mustafa Al-Labbad, director of the Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies, a think tank, Iran raised the issue two years ago after the deaths of Iranian pilgrims during the hajj.

It demanded that a collective Islamic administration be set up for the holy sites as a way of putting pressure on Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Qatar has raised the issue because of its sensitivity to Saudi Arabia, although the balance of power in the region will not allow Qatar to force the Saudi hand.

Qatar does not have the regional capabilities of Iran, and its use of the pilgrimage card is a temporary one. Iran is more likely to continue to press the idea of the internationalisation of the holy sites and the setting up of an “Islamic Council” to manage the hajj as part of its ongoing conflict with Saudi Arabia.

However, the majority of Islamic countries are unlikely to support the Iranian proposals.

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