Hajj row fu­els more sus­pi­cion in Qatar rift

African Independent - - NEWS - TOM FINN

AROW over ac­cess for Qataris to Islam’s an­nual hajj pil­grim­age is fur­ther poi­son­ing re­la­tions be­tween their coun­try and Saudi Ara­bia and ag­gra­vat­ing a wider diplo­matic rift with other Arab pow­ers.

Qatar has ac­cused Saudi Ara­bia, which hosts and su­per­vises the hajj, of de­lib­er­ately mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for its pil­grims to ob­tain per­mits to go to Mecca.

Saudi Ara­bia says Qatar is seek­ing to politi­cise the rit­ual for diplo­matic gains.

A deal last week to let some Qataris cross the desert bor­der into Saudi Ara­bia ini­tially ap­peared to sig­nal an eas­ing of ten­sions, but sub­se­quently led to even more ac­ri­mo­nious ex­changes.

Many would-be Qatari pil­grims say they will not travel to the hajj out of safety con­cerns, or be­cause they fear be­com­ing pawns in the po­lit­i­cal strug­gle.

“We are tired of this. Of course we want to go to Mecca but who should we lis­ten to? Pol­i­tics has bro­ken down,” said Ahmed al-Rumahi, 31, a stu­dent of Is­lamic stud­ies at Qatar Univer­sity.

For Saudi Ara­bia, cus­to­dian of Islam’s holi­est places, much is at stake. The king­dom ven­tures its rep­u­ta­tion on or­gan­is­ing hajj, a pil­lar of Islam which ev­ery able­bod­ied Mus­lim who can af­ford to is obliged to un­der­take at least once.

Qatari of­fi­cials say only a hand­ful of Qataris are ex­pected to at­tend this year’s event, which runs from about Au­gust 30 to Septem­ber 4, de­pend­ing on sight­ings of the moon.

The hajj dis­pute has added a new point of con­tention to the wider diplo­matic stand-off in the Gulf. In June, Saudi Ara­bia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE) im­posed sanc­tions on fel­low US ally Qatar and cut all trans­port links with the coun­try, ac­cus­ing it of sup­port­ing Iran and back­ing Is­lamist ter­ror­ism – charges Doha de­nies.

The dis­pute has de­fied me­di­a­tion at­tempts by the United States and Kuwait.

‘Ha­tred on both sides’ Af­ter last week’s bor­der cross­ing deal, which Riyadh said was bro­kered by a mem­ber of Qatar’s rul­ing fam­ily, Saudi tele­vi­sion showed dozens of Qataris driv­ing across the fron­tier in white SUVs.

It then emerged the deal­maker was Ab­dul­lah bin Ali al-Thani, a de­scen­dant of Qatar’s founder, who was wel­comed in Riyadh by Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man and then by a hol­i­day­ing King Sal­man in Morocco.

Qatari of­fi­cials ex­pressed sus­pi­cion at his role and the praise lav­ished on him by Saudi me­dia, say­ing the sheikh, a busi­ness­man who lives over­seas, was on a per­sonal visit and did not hold a po­si­tion in the gov­ern­ment.

“The Saudis put him on a pedestal and we see this as an at­tempt to un­der­mine our royal fam­ily,” said a Qatari diplo­mat.

The boy­cotting coun­tries deny seek­ing regime change in Doha, and Sheikh Ab­dul­lah de­nied act­ing out of per­sonal in­ter­est.

Saudi of­fi­cials say over 400 Qatari pil­grims have ar­rived through the land bor­der, but Qatari me­dia said most were Qataris.

Up to 1 200 Qataris are el­i­gi­ble for the hajj un­der an an­nual quota sys­tem.

Qatar has also crit­i­cized a Saudi of­fer to fly Qataris to the hajj on Saudi Ara­bia Air­lines, rather than al­low­ing Qatari or other car­ri­ers to take them to Mecca.

The diplo­matic rift has hurt busi­nesses and sep­a­rated fam­i­lies across the Gulf, and some con­ser­va­tive Qataris are an­gry the in­fight­ing is pre­vent­ing them from ful­fill­ing re­li­gious du­ties.

Some Qataris fret about their safety in the king­dom, a con­cern Saudi au­thor­i­ties say has no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

“There is ha­tred on both sides now, so I wouldn’t feel com­fort­able show­ing my pass­port in ho­tels or other places in Saudi,” said Mo­hammed, who de­clined to give his sec­ond name.– Reuters

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

HOLY TASK: Gen­eral view of the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Ara­bia.

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