More than 1.7 million Muslims from all over the world have arrived in Saudi Arabia for the start of the annual Haj pilgrimage this week. Once in Mecca – the place of the holiest worshiping place of Islam – it will be remembered that the Al Saud family is the sole guardian of this place.
The great portraits of the king and the founder of the country hang in the corridors of the hotel through the city. A huge clock tower with the name of King Salman’s predecessor blinks green fluorescent lights to the following worshipers.
A large new wing of the Great Mosque of Mecca is named after a former Saudi king, and one of the entrances to the mosque bears the name of another.
This is one of the many ways Saudi Arabia is using its control of the hajj to strengthen its position in the Muslim world and in spite of its enemies, from Iran and Syria to Qatar. His file, the Iranian Shiite power, has in turn tried to use the hajj to undermine the kingdom.
The Haj has been part of Saudi Arabia’s policy. For almost 100 years, the Al Saud family decided to enter and leave Mecca, set up quotas for pilgrims from various countries, provide visas through Saudi embassies abroad and offer accommodation for hundreds of thousands of people in and around Mecca .
The kingdom has received credit for its management of the massive crowds that come down every year to Mecca – and guilt when things go wrong with hajj. All valid Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage once in a lifetime.
The Saudi kings and Ottoman rulers of the Hijaz region in front of all of them adopted the honorary title of guardian of the two midwives, a reference to the places of Mecca and Medina.
“The one who controls Mecca and Medina has enormous sweet power,” said Ali Shihabi, executive director of the Saudi Foundation, a pro-Saudi center in Washington.
“Saudi Arabia has been extremely cautious since day one not to restrict the access of all Muslims to Haj, so they are never accused of resorting to hajj for political ends.” However, the Syrian government says that Saudi authorities continue to impose restrictions on Syrian citizens who want to participate in hajj.
Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic ties with the government of President Bashar Assad and since 2012 requires all Syrians to seek hajj for visas in third countries through the “Syrian High Haj Committee”, which is controlled by the National Coalition Group Syria.
The Haj became more entrenched in politics after the outbursts between Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the kingdom and three other Arab countries severed all diplomatic and transport relations with the small Gulf state this year. In a surprise this month, Saudi Arabia announced that it would open its border for Qatar pilgrims seeking to carry out the Haj and that King Salman would provide flights and cover to Qataris during the Haj.
The Saudis, however, unilaterally announced the measures of goodwill and did so after meeting with Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family who resides outside Qatar and whose family branch was overthrown in a coup of four decades.
“Obtaining a high-ranking member of the royal family member of Qatar was a truly political movement,” Shihabi said. Others went further by saying that in promoting Sheikh Abdullah, the Saudis were trying to delegitimize the current emir of Qatar.
Gerd Nonneman, a professor of international relations and Gulf studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, said the Saudi movement was “a transparent propaganda trick.” “Since participation in Qatar has inevitably been affected by the boycott, hajj has been politically political – there is no way to do it,” he said.
The Qatari government publicly welcomed the movement to facilitate the pilgrimage, but also called on Saudi Arabia to “stay away from exploitation (hajj) as a tool of political manipulation.”