The Hajj is a pilgrimage to the cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia which all Muslims are encouraged to undertake at least once in their lifetimes. This year’s Hajj season comes amid several major domestic and international challenges for the Saudis.
Standoff with Qatar: Saudi Arabia is one of several Sunni Muslim nations currently estranged from Qatar, which stands accused of supporting Islamist extremists, seeking to destabilize its neighbors, and working too closely with Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran.
The Al-Jazeera news network (a Qatar-based operation that Qatar’s adversaries would like to shut down) reports that Saudi Arabia did not make the necessary security and logistical arrangements for Qataris to visit Mecca this year, effectively shutting them out of the Hajj.
“There should be no mixing between political disputes and Muslims’ natural and human right to perform their religious duties. Politics and human rights must be separated,” objected Saad Sultan al-Abdullah of Qatar’s National Human Rights Commission.
Al-Jazeera quotes Abdelmajid Mrari of the Alliance for Freedom and Dignity describing Saudi Arabia’s conduct as “a clear violation of Islamic values and norms, as well as all international human rights agreements and conventions.”
However, Al-Jazeera also notes that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz sent Saudi-owned airplanes to ferry Qatari pilgrims to Mecca at his own personal expense. The Saudi king also ordered the land border with Qatar reopened for the Hajj two weeks ago.
The UK Guardian notes this decision was made after recently-elevated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with an envoy from Qatar, in what has been seen as either a welcome thawing of the Saudi-Qatari cold war or Saudi Arabia yielding to widespread outrage in the Muslim world by various observers.
But even that touching gesture of international goodwill was laced with intrigue because the Qatari envoy in question was Sheikh Abdullah al-Thani, whose family was driven from power in a coup decades ago. This particular sheikh doesn’t even live in Qatar. The Saudis liked the old Qatari royal family much better than its replacement.
The Qatari emirate is still angry with Saudi Arabia because the Hajj opening was so pointedly marketed as a gift to the people of Qatar rather than cooperation with its government and because the Saudi government made it logistically impossible for many Qataris to undertake the pilgrimage by failing to make the necessary arrangements in advance.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in July that Qatar’s complaint to the United Nations about being excluded from the Hajj amounted to “a declaration of war against the Kingdom.”
Tensions with Iran: Iran returns to the Hajj this year after skipping 2016, in part because of a stampede that killed hundreds of Iranians in 2015. Iranian leaders sharply criticized Saudi stewardship of Mecca and Medina after the incident, while the Saudis accused Iran of attempting to politicize a tragedy. The Saudi execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, followed by a riot at the Saudi embassy in Tehran, also increased tensions and led to last year’s exclusion of Iran.
As with Qatar, the Saudis have denounced Iranian criticism of Hajj management as an effort to “internationalize the holy sites,” meaning “steal them from Saudi Arabia.”
In another similarity to the Qatar situation, optimists have expressed hope that Iran’s return to the Hajj marks a thawing of relations between Riyadh and Tehran. Some 86,000 Iranian pilgrims are expected this year, and they sounded upbeat in interviews with news outlets like Lebanon’s Daily Star, which notes the Iranian government has encouraged its citizens to avoid “arguments” with Saudi staff during their visits.
That is a bit different from the advice given to Iranian pilgrims by their religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Where else better than Mecca, Medina, or Mash’ara can Muslims go to express their concerns regarding Al-Aqsa and Palestine?” Khamenei asked in late July, encouraging pilgrims to turn the Hajj into a political demonstration against Israel.
For good measure, Khamenei instructed pilgrims to express bigotry and contempt toward non-Muslims during their journey and lashed out at the U.S. government, calling it “more impudent and appalling than all terrorist movements.”
The imam of the Makkah Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia shot back that Muslims should “spend all their time and effort in worshiping almighty Allah and carrying out their Hajj rites with devotion and sincerity of purpose,” rather than playing international politics.
War in Yemen: Even if the Hajj goes smoothly for Iranian pilgrims, Tehran and Riyadh are still at odds over some weighty issues, including a shooting war in Yemen.
Conditions in that country are so miserable that the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning about Yemeni pilgrims bringing cholera to Mecca and Medina, which become very crowded during the holy season. On the bright side, WHO experts noted that Saudi Arabia is generally very good at avoiding cholera outbreaks, with years of experience at receiving pilgrims from afflicted countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Unfortunately, Mecca is receiving more than pilgrims from Yemen. Rebel forces have launched several missiles in the direction of Mecca, the most recent one landing only a few weeks ago. The Saudis have denounced these missile launches as a “desperate attempt by Shiite Houthi rebels to disrupt the Hajj.” They have also accused Iran and its Houthi insurgent proxies in Yemen of smuggling missiles in defiance of a U.N. embargo.
The Houthis have also been accused by Yemen’s internationally-recognized but displaced government of preventing Yemeni pilgrims from traveling to Saudi Arabia.
Chaos in Syria: Another sore point between the Saudi and Iranian power structures is Syria. Iranian-backed dictator Bashar Assad has no formal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. This led the Saudis to make what Syria regards as unfair paperwork and visa demands of Syrian pilgrims.
The Syrian government blasted Saudi Arabia last month for “politicizing” the Islamic pilgrimage and denying Syrians their essential religious right to visit the holy cities. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani piled on by denouncing Saudi Arabia’s “support of terrorists in Yemen and Syria” on Tuesday.
Politicizing the Hajj: It is difficult to avoid giving some credence to complaints by Iran and other Saudi adversaries that the Kingdom politicizes the Hajj because they obviously do.
The Associated Press couldn’t help but notice that pilgrims hit more P.R. for the Saudi royal family than old-time motorists driving past a series of Burma-Shave signs on the highway:
Large portraits of the king and the country’s founder hang in hotel lobbies across the city. A massive clock tower bearing the name of King Salman’s predecessor flashes fluorescent green lights at worshippers below. A large new wing of the Grand Mosque in Mecca is named after a former Saudi king, and one of the mosque’s entrances is named after another.
The AP further notes that the Saudi monarchy has never hesitated to use access to the Hajj as an instrument of international relations, controlling everything from access to the best accommodations to quotas for pilgrims. The Saudis generally pull up short of blatantly denying access for purely political reasons, although this year’s unpleasantness with Qatar comes closer than last year’s mutual dispute with Iran.
The Saudis have also been criticized for monetizing the pilgrimage, to the tune of some $10 billion per year. Luxury travel and hotel arrangements can cost well-heeled visitors to Mecca and Medina over $11,000 apiece. (It’s a price that only the wealthiest can pay easily since Islamic law forbids taking out loans at interest.) Fundamentalist Muslims — of which Saudi Arabia has no shortage — have accused the government of destroying historic and holy architecture to make room for luxury hotels and shopping malls.
Arab News found Jordanians complaining that a mix of Saudi and Jordanian regulations has choked off the supply of buses available for Jordanian pilgrims. Transit companies are having a difficult time buying new vehicles because most other profitable non-Hajj destinations have been closed off for political or security reasons, including Syria and Lebanon.
Hundreds of Bangladeshi pilgrims reported visa problems that canceled or delayed their flights to Saudi Arabia this year. Pakistanis complained of problems with lodgings and transportation when they reached Saudi Arabia, including hotels that packed six to eight people into a single room “like sheep.”
Some of the Pakistanis were reportedly told by Saudi officials that their difficulties were “from Allah,” which doesn’t sound likely to placate irate pilgrimage customers.