Who is using the haj for political gains?

Doha continues to hammer the victimisation narrative even if it means altering facts and reversing realities.

2017/08/27 Issue: 121 Page: 5

The Arab Weekly
Amine Ben Messaoud

Doha has found another occa­sion to continue its campaign of denigration against Saudi Arabia by accusing it of using the haj for political gains. Such behaviour is in line with Qatar’s stubbornness in refusing all well-intentioned initiatives towards reaching a solution to the boycott crisis.

Saudi King Salman bin Ab­dulaziz Al Saud’s offer to trans­port Qatari pilgrims from Doha to Jeddah on Saudi aeroplanes was motivated by a desire to leave politics out of religion and spare the Qatari people from paying the price of regional isolation brought on them by their ruler’s actions.

While Saudi Arabia is placing religious considerations above politics, Qatar has chosen to manoeuvre and use the haj for political gains and thus deny its citizens the chance to fulfil the fifth pillar of their faith. What is even more serious is that these manoeuvres only worsen the crisis with Saudi Arabia.

Doha misread the Saudi mon­arch’s initiative and dealt with it in the same arrogant style it has displayed throughout the dispute. Instead of getting off its high horse, Qatar chose to escalate the crisis by tapping into a strategic and sensitive file, one with a great potential for mending relations when good intentions are present but also with enough destructive potential when hearts and minds are filled with doubt.

A closer look at haj seasons over the last few years reveals that Qatar receives special attention from Saudi authorities, perhaps because of its shared geographi­cal, historical and anthropologi­cal ties.

This special treatment was absent from the Saudi approach to the cases of pilgrims from Iran and Syria, for example. Despite their long-standing differences and seasonal disagreements with Iran and Syria, Saudi authorities put aside political differences to welcome pilgrims from those countries but they have not gone so far as to formally offer to airlift them back and forth from Mecca as they did with the Qatari pilgrims.

By launching the haj initiative for Qatar, Riyadh proved that close ties carry real weight in determining its approach to the political crisis with Qatar. Doha, on the other hand, has categori­cally refused the Saudi initiative, proving that neither brotherly ties nor religious dictates can stand in the way of its political moves.

Doha continues to hammer the victimisation narrative even if it means altering facts and reversing realities. By doing so, it deprives its citizens of their God-given right and duty to perform the pilgrimage and turns them into hostages in a war aimed at removing Saudi Arabia’s religious legitimacy in managing haj af­fairs.

During the United Nations’ opening session speech, Qatar brought in its heavy diplomatic, political and media artillery to consecrate the victimisation nar­rative. It is also using this year’s haj to reinforce its victim status and garner the widest possible support from the grey states.

The irony here is that these same countries that are clamour­ing about the need to place haj under international oversight — perhaps within an arrangement like that of the Vatican, in which a religious power exists within the boundaries of a secular state, Italy — are themselves ruled by clerics and do not believe in the separation of religion and politics. An even bigger irony lies in the fact that these countries implore Saudi Arabia to embark on reli­gious reforms while they have not dared to reform, even partially, their own religious discourse and practices.

Saudi authorities are well aware that this year’s haj season is special in more than one way. The expected number of pilgrims for this year has increased 25% from last year and many political pun­dits inside and outside the Gulf area are betting on the failure of this year’s season.

However, whether they come in through King Abdulaziz Inter­national Airport in Jeddah or Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Airport in Medina, pilgrims will be immediately struck by Saudi authorities’ readiness to deal with all possible scenarios, from the direst prospects to the best.

Amine Ben Messaoud is a Tunisian writer.

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