Qatar accuses Saudis of barring hajj pilgrims, Riyadh says untrue

Reuters . Riyadh | Published at 11:38pm on August 18, 2018

Qatar has accused Saudi Arabia of barring its citizens from this year’s hajj, something Riyadh denies, saying a diplomatic dispute is not stopping Qataris from making the pilgrimage to Makkah.

Although 1,200 Qataris are eligible to perform the hajj under a quota system, Qatar says it has become impossible to get permits, blaming the campaign by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to cut trade and diplomatic ties with the country.

Abdullah Al-Kaabi of the state-run Qatar National Human Rights Committee said Saudi Arabia had shut down an electronic system used by travel agencies to obtain permits for pilgrims from Qatar.

‘There is no chance this year for Qatari citizens and residents to travel for hajj,’ he said. ‘Registration of pilgrims from the State of Qatar remains closed, and residents of Qatar cannot be granted visas as there are no diplomatic missions.’

A Saudi official said Qatar had blocked several registration links set up for its pilgrims.

An official at Saudi Arabia’s hajj ministry said a group of Qataris had arrived for the pilgrimage which runs from Sunday to August 24, but he did not say how many there were or whether they had travelled directly from Qatar. Last year, 1,624 Qatari pilgrims attended, he said.

Saudi Arabia says the Qatari government is using the issue for political ends and it ‘rejects any effort to politicise the haj or drag political differences’ into the pilgrimage, the official said.

Saudi Arabia, and the three other Arab countries, closed land, air and sea links with Qatar in July last year, accusing it of funding terrorism, something Doha denies.

Saudi Arabia has said Qatari pilgrims can arrive on any airline other than Qatar Airways.

But three travel agencies in Doha said they had stopped trying to sell hajj packages, which can cost up to 120,000 riyals ($33,000).

‘Last year we lost a lot of money as the crisis started after we had booked everything in Makkah and Medina and we had to pay people back,’ said a manager of one travel agency in Doha.

‘This year, nobody is really trying as people have understood there is no way to go there in these circumstances.’

Riyadh temporarily opened the land border for the hajj last year, but not this time. A travel agency catering to migrant labourers in Doha said that had hit business.

‘We sell hajj journeys by bus with accommodation for around 12,000 riyals,’ its manager said. ‘But as nobody can get visas and land borders are closed, it is zero bookings this year.’

The diplomatic crisis has defied mediation efforts by the United States, which has strong alliances with both sides and fears the split among its Sunni Muslim allies could benefit Shia Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved in proxy wars, including in Yemen and Syria, and tensions between the two have spilled over into the hajj in the past.

In 2016, Iran boycotted the haj over security concerns after hundreds of people were killed in a crush there. Iranian pilgrims returned in 2017.