Qatar Accuses Saudi Arabia of Blocking Qatari Citizens from Hajj; Saudi Arabia Claims the Converse, Doha At Fault

The hajj is a religious pilgrimage performed by millions of Muslims every year who travel to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, must be performed at least once in a lifetime by all Muslims who are physically and financially capable of doing so.

This year’s five-day hajj season began August 19, and Qatar recently accused Saudi Arabia of barring Qatari citizens from participating in it.

Saudi officials have denied these claims and responded by accusing Qatar of politicizing the annual religious event, according to Al Jazeera.  

In the past, around 1,200 Qataris have been allowed to perform Hajj under the kingdom’s quota system. However, Qatari officials claim that it has become impossible for their citizens to register for the religious pilgrimage. Relations in the Arabian Gulf have been tense since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed ties, trade, and diplomatic relations with Qatar  in June 2017, accusing the small resource-rich nation of funding terrorism and cozying up to Iran.

Although the Saudi-led land, sea, and air blockade, has made it impossible for Qatari nationals to enter these states, Riyadh has supposedly made an exception for the Hajj. The Kingdom’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced the opening of a website in June, which would allow Qataris to register for the pilgrimage.

The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) issued a statement saying: “[T]hose brothers wishing to perform Hajj can register through the link, which will be [designated] on the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah’s website and will be available during of Dhu Al Qadah (from mid-July until mid-August) . . . where they can contract for the services they need, including housing and transport in Makkah and Madinah.”

The SPA’s statement also said that Qatari pilgrims could arrive and depart from King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah on any airline except the country’s state-owned carrier, Qatar Airways.

However, according to Abdullah Al-Kaabi of the state-run Qatar National Human Rights Committee, registration was impossible because Saudi Arabia had shut down an electronic system used by travel agencies to obtain permits for pilgrims.

“There is no chance this year for Qatari citizens and residents to travel for [Hajj],” he told Reuters. “Registration of pilgrims from the State of Qatar remains closed, and residents of Qatar cannot be granted visas as there are no diplomatic missions.”

Three travel agencies in Qatar’s capital Doha said that they had stopped trying to sell Hajj packages, which can cost up to $33,000 dollars, according to Reuters.

“Last year we lost a lot of money as the crisis started after we had booked everything in Mecca and Medina and we had to pay people back,” said a manager of a travel agency in Doha who chose to remain anonymous.

According to an official at Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, a group of Qataris had already arrived for the religious pilgrimage, which commenced on Sunday and will run until August 24. While he did not share how many Qatari pilgrims there are or whether they travelled directly from Qatar, he did say that 1,624 Qatari pilgrims attended Hajj last year.

Earlier this month, a Saudi official asserted that Qatar had blocked several registration links that were set up for the country’s pilgrims. According to The National, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Anwar Gargash, denounced Doha’s alleged move to block these websites on Twitter:

The Qatari government’s decision to prevent its citizens from performing the Hajj, whatever the justification has been given, reflects a clear absence of a conscious vision that distinguishes between what is political and what is most important, not to mention the politicization and intimidation of your citizens.

Last month, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said that despite the Qatari government’s alleged attempt to block its citizens from performing the religious pilgrimage that it “welcomes the Qatari people to perform Umrah rituals following a completion of registering their legal information.”

The recent dispute in the Arabian Gulf over Hajj shows no signs of dying down. Last week, the front page of Okaz, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading daily newspapers, read “To the Qataris: the house of Allah, or the Hamads,” a reference to the country’s former Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and former Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, according to Al Jazeera.

The article stated that the Qatari people needed to “overthrow their government” if they want to fulfill the religious obligation of Hajj.

“It is necessary for the Qataris to move to free themselves from a regime that does not respect our religion, does not care for the rights of its citizens, and [never] ceases to intervene, conspire, indulge in illusions and support and finance terrorism,” the article reads according to The New Arab.

Despite the fact that it has been more than a year since the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar began, the countries involved appear to be no closer to resolving their dispute. If anything, the tension in the Arabian Gulf is escalating every day, leaving nothing too sacred to use as leverage in the ongoing diplomatic crisis — not even a sacred pilgrimage that is the right of every Muslim, no matter who they are or where they live.