As hundreds of thousands of Muslims from all around the world gather this week in Mecca and Medina to complete their Hajj pilgrimage, Iranians will be noticeably absent during this holy and spiritual journey. Hajj is a mandatory religious visit, that is to be fulfilled by all able Muslims.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been escalating for quite some time, flaring even more after last year’s Hajj, where a stampede killed 474 Iranians, some of which were Iranian officials.
In its aftermath, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released a statement accusing the Saudi monarchy of “murder” and negligence in taking necessary action to investigate the cause of the stampede that killed more than 2,000 worshipers.
The 2015 stampede incident opened the doors to hostile Hajj negotiations for this year, with Iran looking to increase security for its citizens while Saudi put forth several obstacles for Iranians who would partake in the annual pilgrimage.
In one article, it was stated, “The Saudis did in fact go out of their way to make Iranian attendance difficult, if not impossible” by denying several standard amenities and courtesies given to other Muslim Hajj attendees. For example:
- Not granting standard VIP courtesies at the airport – Iranians would be subjected to normal immigration and customs procedures, that would force them to wait in long lines for passport stamps
- Saudi dictated that a significantly less number of Iranians would be allowed to enter the country for Hajj
- Saudi would require that Iranians be kept in a closed camp – isolating them from fellow Muslims of other countries. The social aspect is often the most memorable part of the pilgrimage outside of the standard religious duties
- Saudi Arabia would require Iranian pilgrims to travel to a third country to obtain a Saudi visa and would not allow Iranian planes to be used to transport Iranian pilgrims
- Saudi wanted Iranians that were able to go to Hajj to be banned from displaying any signs, symbols, or flags. Usually country flags are used to locate other fellow pilgrims and assist in reaching accommodations and routes to take to holy sites.
Negotiations between the two countries were not able to produce a solid, viable process for Iranians to visit, thus were completely unable to attend this year’s pilgrimage.
According to Saeed Ohadi, the head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, it took “three hours of negotiations for Saudi Arabia to agree to allow Iranian pilgrims to use Iranian planes for travel.”
The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah denied any wrongdoing, accusing Iranian leaders of refusing to sign an agreement resolving these issues – though it was unclear which issues it resolved.
While the 2015 Hajj stampede sparked the bitter negotiations between the two regional powers, a well-documented power struggle between the two countries has long existed, especially in recent years.
Though some attribute the hostilities to sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict, as Iran predominantly has adherents to Shia Islam, while Saudi Arabia follows Sunni Islam — the issues are deeper than that. That’s not to say, however, that this doesn’t play some role in the escalating tensions.
Saudi has long been the dominating Arab power in the region, using its wealth to influence several other Arab countries as well as funneling weapons to various regional conflicts. Iran, with its recent sanction lift and promising outlook of U.S.-Iran relations, poses a threat to the Saudi powerhouse.
The Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, especially, have the two countries at opposites ends of the violence and war. Loosely put, Iran supports the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi provides support for the rebel factions; Iran supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen, while Saudi backs the Yemeni government.
The power struggle in Yemen has become an increasingly worrisome human rights and humanitarian disaster for the largely impoverished country. It’s reported that Saudi Arabia, since its bombing campaign began in March 2015, has been directly responsible for the majority of the 4,500 deaths. The humanitarian crisis is so intense, the Red Cross has donated morgues to hold all of the dead bodies.
To add fuel to the fire, top religious leaders of both Iran and Saudi Arabia are going at it with their words as well. Earlier this week, Khamenei urged the Muslim world to reconsider Saudi Arabia’s management of two of Islam’s most holy sites, Mecca and Medina. “Because of Saudi rulers’ oppressive behavior towards God’s guests, the world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj,” Khamenei’s statement said.
In response, top Saudi cleric Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh said, “We must understand these are not Muslims, they are children of Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one. Especially with the people of Sunnah.” (The Magi remark references the Zoroastrian history of Iran.)
When relations with the two regional powers will normalize is yet to be seen, given the ever-increasing exchanges that go on between the two. One thing is perfectly clear: the rift between the two has caused Iranian Muslims to miss this year’s opportunity to fulfill one of their Islamic duties, the Hajj pilgrimage.