Gulf rift with Qatar deepens over hajj dispute
A row over access for Qataris to Islam’s annual haj 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 haj, of deliberately making it hard for its pilgrims to obtain permits to go to Mecca. Saudi Arabia says Qatar is seeking to politicize the ritual for diplomatic gains.
A deal last week to let some Qataris cross the desert border into Saudi Arabia appeared initially 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 haj 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 organizing haj, a pillar of Islam which every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to is obliged to undertake at least once.
Qatari officials say that only a handful of Qataris are expected to attend this year’s event, which runs from about Aug. 30 to Sept. 4, depending on sightings of the moon.
The haj dispute has added a new point of contention to the wider diplomatic standoff in the Gulf. In June, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) imposed sanctions on fellow U.S. 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.
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