Easing tensions? Saudi Arabia 'allows permit-free Hajj to Qataris'

Easing tensions? Saudi Arabia 'allows permit-free Hajj to Qataris'
King Salman issues decree offering concessions to Qatari pilgrims following talks between Saudi crown prince and Qatari royal.
3 min read
17 August, 2017
King Salman issued the royal decree following mediation efforts on Wednesday [Anadolu]

Qatar and Saudi Arabia appeared to thaw relations slightly on Wednesday when Riyadh announced that Qatari Hajj pilgrims would be allowed to enter Saudi Arabia by land without electronic permits.

The ongoing blockade of Qatar had raised serious questions about whether Riyadh could prevent Muslims from Qatar from taking part in the annual pilgrimage. Doing so would likely have sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world and further weakened Saudi Arabia's international reputation.

The royal decree giving the instructions followed talks between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Qatari royal Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassem al-Thani, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

It has not yet been confirmed if al-Thani was designated as an official interlocuter by the royal court in Doha.

King Salman also reportedly ordered that Qatari pilgrims arriving at King Fahad International Airport and al-Ahsa International Airport be provided with free airport transfers on arrival.

Riyadh's state-run news agency also reported that the king had ordered national airline planes be sent to Doha to transport Qatari pilgrims directly to Jeddah at his own expense.

The report has yet to be confirmed.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have for several months been enforcing a blockade on Qatar, which includes restrictions on Doha flights through its airspace.

Despite the meeting being reported as an occasion during which the Qatari royal "affirmed that the brotherly relations between the kingdom and Qatar are deeply rooted in history", it is not likely to be indicative of a broader warming in relations between the two states.

While Bin Salman has been at the centre of Saudi Arabia's recent foreign policy decisions, Bin Jassem al-Thani is a cousin of the current Qatari emir, but is not from the leader's inner circle.

A cousin of Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Bin Jassem's father's status as Qatar's heir apparent ended when his grandfather was ousted in 1972 by the current ruler's grandfather.

In light of this, Saudi efforts in recognising some sections of the Qatari ruling family while isolating other wings may also be part of the kingdom's manoeuvrings to influence royal politics in Doha.

Since the beginning of the Gulf crisis in May, it has been widely speculated that the hacking of Qatar's official news agency was an attempt to instigate a palace coup.

The intended coup, it is assumed, would see Emir Tamim replaced by a Qatari royal more inclined toward the UAE and Saudi Arabia's foreign policy.

Since May, Qatar has been locked in a diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt over Doha's alleged support for terrorism, notably the Muslim Brotherhood - a pan-Arab organisation outlawed by Riyadh and its allies, but accepted in European and other Western capitals.

Qatar has vehemently denied the charges levelled against it by the four Arab states, and has slammed the crisis as an effort to undermine the state's independent foreign policy and general sovereignty.

Blocking entry to Hajj piligrims from a country for political reasons would be a highly controversial move for Saudi Arabia and its custody of Islam's holiest sites might subsequently be called into question.