Last year, more than 2.35 million pilgrims arrived in the holy city of Mecca to perform the five-day Hajj ritual, a number expected to rise again this year. The annual pilgrimage is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims to be carried out at least once in a lifetime, by physically and financially capable adults. It is one of the five pillars, or duties, of Islam.
In the Islamic calendar, Hajj begins every year on the 8th day of the Dhu al-Hijjah lunar month – the twelfth and final month in the Islamic calendar.
This year Saudi Arabia’s High Judicial Court announced August 19 to be the first day of pilgrimage after reviewing moon sighting reports.
Hajj is a huge event in the kingdom. It is both a major religious holiday and a massive logistical challenge to host millions of people from every corner of the globe in one place.
As part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman’s 2030 vision, the kingdom has focused on religious tourism as a vital source of non-oil revenue,with plans to significantly boost pilgrim numbers.
But over the past several years, and for the pilgrims’ safety, Saudi Arabia has been operating Hajj on a strict quota system due to the undergoing expansion work inside the Grand Mosque.
The Saudi government sets quotas for the number of citizens of acountry who can go on Hajj every year but it is then up to countries to decide how they will fill those quotas. The quota is a percentage of the number of Muslims in each country. In some countries, the process is rife with corruption and inequity.
However, in the past two years, media reports suggested that the kingdom’s aggressive foreign policy moves mightlead to a politicisation of Hajj.
Regional spats in the way?
In June 2017, Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia imposed a historic land, maritime, and air blockade on Qatar. The measures were designed to strongarm Doha into complying with a list of demands that involved alleged support for Islamic extremists throughout the Middle East.
In 2017, an estimated 60 to 70 Qataris traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj, a sharp drop compared to the 12,000 from the previous year, according to a member of Qatar’s state-linked National Human Rights Committee (NHRC). Media reports in Saudi Arabia have put that number at up to 1,200.
Earlier this month, local Qatari daily Arrayah reported that Qataris would not be able to perform Hajj this year on account of the hurdles created by the Saudi authorities.
Local Qatari companies organising and operating Hajj trips often receive their share of visas according to the country’s allocated quota. However, the companies claimed that their chances “evaporated as the season is approaching its end and the Saudi authorities are still insisting on politicising the religious rituals”, the owners of a number of companies told Arrayah.
This fear appeared to be echoed by the headlines of Okaz, a leading Saudi daily newspaper with close ties to the rulers, which gave the Qataris an ultimatum: “You either choose God’s house or the Hamads,” in reference to the Qatari ruling family.
“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 ceases to intervene, conspire, indulge in illusions and support and finance terrorism,” an editorial published in Okaz on August 9 warned.
However, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah countered that claimandissued an official statement saying that Qataris will be granted passage.
Saudi authorities said they set up a website to handle requests from Qataris intending on taking the holy pilgrimage after accusing Qatar’s Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs of “wasting time”.
Qatari authorities have refuted these accusations in the past, saying Saudi Arabia refuses to communicate with them directly to coordinate arrangements.
The Lebanese case
In Lebanon, reports in local media circulated last weekend suggesting that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement and once Saudi Arabia’s main ally in Beirut, had not received his annual share of the visa quota.
Hariri’s relationship with Riyadh changed after November 2017 when Saudi Arabia effectively detained the prime minister for several weeks.
A voice recording of Ahmad Hariri, Secretary General of the Future Movement and Hariri’s cousin, emerged on social media and was later played on local news channels, in which he declared: “Maulana (word of choice for addressing Muslim religious scholars), the situation is disastrous this year. We collected the passports and sent them to the Saudi embassy to get our share of visas but they called back saying there is no preferential treatment. This is a huge problem. They did the same with Dar al-Fatwa (the country’s highest Sunni Muslim authority). We are returning the passports to the people.”
On August 12, Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s press office rejected these declarations. “Some posted on social networking sites and electronic news, false information about Saudi Arabia’s refusal to grant Lebanese pilgrims a visa to perform Hajj in Saudi Arabia presented by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Future Movement. The Kingdom has granted 3,000 visas to the office of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, adding to 2,000 visas announced by the embassy,” the communique clarified.
A source in the Future Movement, speaking to FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity, said: “Every year, aside from the quota allocated to each country, there is the ‘preferential treatment’ where figures close to the kingdom are offered a certain number of visas to distribute among their people. The recording of Ahmad Hariri was expressing concern because there is a delay in the process, and the Future movement is worried it doesn’t fulfill its promise towards its people. We hope that the prime minister’scommunique set the record straight.”
The Hajj has been hit by numerous incidents over the years that have resulted in the deaths of pilgrims, usually through overcrowding.
The most recent incident, a stampede in 2015, left at least 2,000 people dead, although the final death toll has been disputed. The largest number of victims were from Iran, after which diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran hit an all-time low.
Iranian pilgrims were told by their government not to attend the Hajj in 2016 — the first time it has ever done so — after the tensions between Tehran and Riyadh continued to worsen.
This year, and despite the lack of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, around 85,000 Iranian pilgrims are planning to make the Hajj pilgrimage, an Iranian official told Iran Daily.