Saudi Arabia continues to control haj pilgrimage, but what does it mean for the tangled politics of the Muslim world?
Saudi Arabia uses its oversight of the haj to bolster its standing in the Muslim world – and to spite its foes, from Iran and Syria to Qatar
More than 1.7 million Muslims from around the world have arrived in Saudi Arabia for the start of the annual haj pilgrimage this week. Once in Mecca – the site of Islam’s holiest place of worship – they will be reminded that the ruling Al Saud family is the only custodian of this place.
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.
It’s just one of the many ways that Saudi Arabia uses its oversight of the haj to bolster its standing in the Muslim world – and to spite its foes, from Iran and Syria to Qatar. Its arch-rival, the Shiite power Iran, has in turn tried to utilise the haj to undermine the kingdom.
The haj has long been a part of Saudi Arabia’s politics. For nearly 100 years, the ruling Al Saud family has decided who gets in and out of Mecca, setting quotas for pilgrims from various countries, facilitating visas through Saudi embassies abroad and providing accommodation for hundreds of thousands of people in and around Mecca.
The kingdom has received credit for its management of the massive crowds that descend upon Mecca each year – and blame when things go wrong at the haj. All able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the pilgrimage once in a lifetime.
Saudi kings, and the Ottoman rulers of the Hijaz region before them, all adopted the honorary title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a reference to sites in Mecca and Medina.
“Whoever controls Mecca and Medina has tremendous soft power,” said Ali Shibahi, executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi centre in Washington. “Saudi Arabia has been extremely careful from day one not to restrict any Muslim’s access to haj so they never get accused of using haj for political purposes.”
The Syrian government, however, claims Saudi authorities continue to place restrictions on Syrian citizens looking to take part in the haj. Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s government and since 2012, requires all Syrians seeking to make the haj to obtain visas in third countries through the “Syrian High Haj Committee”, which is controlled by the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition political group.
The haj became further entangled in politics following the fallout between Saudi Arabia and Qatar when the kingdom and three other Arab countries cut all diplomatic and transport links with the small Gulf state this year. In a surprise this month, Saudi Arabia announced it would open its border for Qatari pilgrims seeking to perform the haj and that King Salman would provide flights and accommodation to Qataris during the haj.
The Saudis, however, announced the goodwill measures unilaterally and did so after meeting with Sheikh Abdullah al-Thani, a Qatari royal family member who lives outside Qatar and whose branch of the family was ousted in a coup more than four decades ago.
“Bringing out a senior member of the Qatari royal family member was a political coup really,” Shihabi said.
Others have gone further, saying that by promoting Sheikh Abdullah, the Saudis were attempting to delegitimise Qatar’s current emir.
Gerd Nonneman, a professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, says the Saudi move was “a transparent propaganda stunt”.
“Given that Qatar’s haj attendance has inevitably been affected by the boycott, the haj was de facto politicised – there’s no way around it,” he said.
Qatar’s government publicly welcomed the move to facilitate the pilgrimage, but also called on Saudi Arabia to “stay away from exploiting [the haj] as a tool for political manipulation”.
Qatar’s human rights committee had previously filed a complaint with the UN special rapporteur on freedom of belief and religion over restrictions placed on its nationals who wanted to attend the haj this year. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Qatar’s complaint amounted to a “declaration of war” against the kingdom’s management of the holy sites, and the kingdom accused Qatar of trying to politicise the haj.
While the haj is a main pillar of Islam, the custodianship of its holy sites is a pillar of the Al Saud family’s legitimacy and power. Iran has consistently tried to call that into question.
Two years ago, a stampede and crush of pilgrims killed at least 2,426 people, according to an Associated Press count. Iran, which lost 464 pilgrims in the stampede, immediately used the disaster to call for an independent body to take over administering the haj. Those calls were vehemently rejected by Saudi Arabia, which accused Iran of politicising the haj.
The haj took place last year under the shadow of the two countries’ rivalry. Saudi Arabia and Iran severed ties in 2016, and as a result, no Iranians were at the pilgrimage last year.
It wasn’t the first time Iran and Saudi Arabia sparred over the haj. In 1987, Saudi police opened fire on Iranian pilgrims protesting during the haj, killing more than 400 people. For two years after that, Iran did not send pilgrims to the haj.
Ahead of this year’s haj, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei essentially called on pilgrims to hold protests again, saying the pilgrimage offers “Muslims with a great opportunity to express their beliefs”.
“Where else, better than Mecca, Medina ... can Muslims go to express their concerns regarding Al-Aqsa and Palestine?” Khamenei said, referring to one of Islam’s holiest and most contentious sites in Jerusalem.
Senior Saudi clerics were quick to respond, saying the pilgrimage should not be exploited and reminding worshippers that the ultimate goal of the haj is “to spend all their time and effort in worshipping Almighty Allah”.