Hajj amid the Saudi-Iranian debate

The Iranian government's decision to bar its citizens from pilgrimage this year may be due to its desire to avoid a new and dangerous confrontation

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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Almost every Hajj season brings a verbal Iranian war with Saudi Arabia. This year has been no exception. Recent statements have, however, been the worst in 30 years and they frankly demonstrate the situation between Riyadh and Tehran.

Perhaps the best decision the Iranian government has taken is to prohibit its citizens from performing this year's Hajj pilgrimage. This has eliminated the chances of clashes which have killed hundreds in past years. During such clashes, military men from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards would reportedly incite trouble, sometimes even killing others.

This is what happened in the mid 80's when they dragged an unarmed Saudi guard - one of the Hajj organizers - and slaughtered him with a knife before thousands of pilgrims and then engaged in clashes in which around 400 pilgrims and security men were killed.

Disagreements between governments in the region have always been there but no government in the past 70 years did what the Iranian regime has done since it seized power in 1979 as it has worked to incite problems during the Hajj season. The governments of other Muslim countries which had serious disagreements with Riyadh, including the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, the former Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki and before that the government of Saddam Hussein and the former Yemeni government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, did not intentionally turn Hajj into an occasion to settle accounts.

Perhaps the absence of pilgrims from Iran this year, who could be potentially used for the purpose of political protest is a good development that decreases chances of trouble.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Iran is the only country which attacks embassies - like when it burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran nine months ago - without any respect to diplomatic norms and international law.

The Iranian government's decision to bar its citizens from pilgrimage this year may be due to its desire to avoid a new and dangerous confrontation which the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and security apparatus, the Basij, may cause. They threatened to avenge the murder of their personnel during last year's Hajj and even reportedly said they entered Saudi Arabia using forged names and visas. The latter contributed to the tragic stampede, which killed around 800 pilgrims.

There are 57 Islamic countries in the world but Iran's is the only government, which uses Hajj to threaten Saudi Arabia. It tries to carry out political activity during every Hajj season by mobilizing hostile protests that have nothing to do with Hajj. The slogans raised usually incite against Saudi Arabia and the US and stir confrontation. It does so despite Islamic countries' objection as they consider Hajj a religious ritual which must be rid of political disputes.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia responded to Iran's official boycott of the pilgrimage. The kingdom agreed to allow Iranian pilgrims from other countries to perform Hajj from without needing their government's approval. This came after the failure of Iranian negotiators who visited Saudi Arabia to make Hajj arrangements for around 70,000 Iranians. The negotiators announced that their government prohibited its citizens from performing Hajj after it was too late. However, the Saudi government responded by allowing Iranians who desired to perform Hajj to participate without their government's permission. More than 250 Iranians arrived to Mecca from the US in addition to hundreds others who arrived from Europe and the Middle East.

Saudi-Iranian struggle

The Saudi-Iranian struggle is the most prominent feature of politics in the Middle East and its wars, disputes and alliances. The Iranians have involved Hajj in the confrontation and included it within an offensive policy that targets Riyadh.

Iran is trying to control Iraq, north of Saudi Arabia, by exploiting chaos, the weakness of the central government in Baghdad and the vacuum which resulted from the complete withdrawal of US troops seven years ago. It turned Syria into a comprehensive battle field as it sent thousands of Iranians from the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force to fight there and manage a network of extremist Shiite militias which it reportedly brought from Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.

It supplies arms and trainers to Houthi militias in Yemen, south of Saudi Arabia. These militias staged a coup against the Yemeni government a year and a half ago and have seized the capital since then. The war in Yemen is still on as Iran supports the rebels while Saudi Arabia leads an Arab military alliance that supports Yemeni legitimate forces.

Perhaps the absence of pilgrims from Iran this year, who could be potentially used for the purpose of political protest is a good development that decreases chances of trouble and reassures more than 2.5 million pilgrims who have come from across the world and may have been worried about Iran's actions.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 8, 2016.
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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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