On Wednesday, August 30, millions of pilgrims began arriving in Mecca for Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site. Each year millions of Muslims enter the city from all around the world, seeking peace and fulfillment of their religious obligations. What should be a spiritual journey for worshipers, however, is often exploited as a political tool by the Saudi state.
As custodians of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia manages the entry and exit of pilgrims through strict visa applications, overseen by the Hajj ministry. As Ali Shibahi, executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi think tank based in Washington D.C., remarked in a recent article for the Associated Press, “whoever controls Mecca and Medina has tremendous soft power.”
Shibahi claims the monarchy has always been careful to avoid restricting access for Muslims to the two holy cities. But, as Saudi’s treatment of certain pilgrims demonstrates, the exact opposite is true.
In 2015, there was a tragic stampede during Hajj, which killed over 2,000 pilgrims. Over 400 were Iranian nationals, the most from any one country. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, faulted the Saudi authorities for the deaths, claiming mismanagement of the holy sites.
In 2016, the Kingdom cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic, after protests erupted outside its embassy in Tehran following Saudi’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. In the ensuing debacle, Saudi officials refused to provide Iranian pilgrims with consular support or guarantee their security during Hajj. As a result, the Iranian government was forced to prohibit its citizens from travelling to Mecca for Hajj that year.
This year, over 80,000 Iranian citizens have returned to Mecca for the pilgrimage. According to Fariba Adelkhah, a researcher from France’s Sciences Po University, Iran could not indefinitely maintain its travel ban, as it would have sparked domestic protests in the Muslim-majority country.
But, while Iranians may be able to travel to Mecca, Qatari citizens are finding themselves in an awkward position, since Saudi cut ties with Qatar in June. Although the Saudi government has said Qataris will be allowed to enter the country to perform Hajj, it has imposed several restrictions, including refusing to provide Qatari travelers with consular services for the duration of the pilgrimage. Some Qataris who could have made the pilgrimage chose not to, fearing potential discrimination in Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Qatar are relatively powerful and wealthy regional actors, but, yet, their citizens are subject to Saudi’s whims. Muslims from smaller and poorer countries, which are already subject to visa quotas set by the Saudi government, may start to fear that their admittance to Mecca is similarly under threat.