The Hajj: Iran and Saudi Arabia

Summary: Iranians to participate in the Hajj again this year, despite continuing disagreement.
On 17 March the Saudi and Iranian authorities announced that agreement had been reached between the Saudi Ministry of Hajj (pilgrimage) and the Iranian Hajj Pilgrimage Organisation that Iranians will take part in the Hajj this year, due at the end of August. According to the Iranian announcement more than 85,000 pilgrims will go from Iran (a relatively small number in a total likely to be approaching two million).
In previous postings (16 September 2015 and 19 August 2016, available on the Arab Digest website) we considered various aspects of this colossal enterprise: its religious and spiritual significance, its importance for the prestige of Saudi Arabia whose King’s preferred title is “Custodian of the two holy mosques”, the sheer scale of the preparations (more than 20,000 toilets, 6,635 surveillance cameras, etc.), health and safety preparations, the international quota system agreed by the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation in 1987, as well as preparations in other countries, e.g. Bangladesh expected to send over 100.000 pilgrims.
In 2015 a crowd crush or stampede at Mina just outside Mecca reportedly killed more than 2,400 pilgrims, including more than 464 Iranians. Iran accused Saudi Arabia of mismanaging the holy places. In January 2016 Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran (following the execution by the Saudis of a Shia cleric and an Iranian attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran), and in 2016 for the first time in many years no pilgrims made the Hajj from Iran.
There are many pilgrimage centres and pilgrimages in the Muslim world, perhaps relatively more in Shia than in Sunni Islam but often involving both. In Iraq since 2003 Shia pilgrimages have often been the target of sectarian attack. But none compare in scale with the Hajj, if only because all Muslims have a religious obligation to perform the Hajj at least once, wealth and health permitting (very many perform it more than once). Now nearly a millennium and a half old, it has often caused problems, attracting as it does pilgrims from a variety of sects all over the Muslim world, many of them speaking only a language other than Arabic and many of them inexperienced and vulnerable travellers.
The Saudi authorities in particular have faced a dilemma since they took over Mecca and Medina in 1925. On the one hand the Wahhabi religious establishment, an essential pillar of the Saudi regime, detests Shia, sometimes going so far as to declare them to be unbelievers. They must find the notion of admitting Shia contingents to the holy places abhorrent. On the other, the Saudi regime treasures the paramount position Saudi Arabia enjoys in world Islam because of its custody of the holy places, and knows that it would not be possible to discriminate against Muslims, Shia or not, without untold damage to that position.
The dilemma has been sharpened by the political hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran which has become something of a Saudi obsession in recent years. Iran is the largest Shia-majority state, but there are more in the Indian subcontinent than in Iran, and over one million in each of twenty countries (including of course Saudi Arabia itself).
In the modern world running the pilgrimage inevitably involves negotiation with governments; for example so far this year the Saudi Hajj Minister has held meetings with state or religious representatives from Croatia, Malaysia (negotiating an increase in the Malaysian quota), USA, UK, France, Yemen, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Benin, Macedonia, Lebanon, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Libya, Mali, Singapore, Bangladesh, Thailand, Niger, Tunisia, Mauritania, Egypt, South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Palestine, Guinea, Azerbaijan, Cameron, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia, China, Turkey, Senegal, Nigeria, Jordan, Tajikistan, the Maldives, and Iraq.
In December the Saudi minister issued a statement: “With regard to the invitation addressed to the delegation of Hajj affairs in Iran…  Saudi Arabia welcomed Iranian pilgrims and all pilgrims of the Islamic world… the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques welcomes pilgrims, Umrah [the “lesser” pilgrimage, performed out of season] performers and visitors regardless of their nationalities or their religious affiliation.” Negotiations with Iran reportedly began last month. On 10 March the Iranians said they had not been finalised and were still discussing “some remaining issues mostly the issue of Iranian martyrs in Mina stampede tragedy in 2015… Iranian pilgrims could not perform their great religious duty in 2016 due to sabotage of the Saudi officials… Iran has set certain conditions… [which] included ensuring the pilgrims’ security, paying the blood money to the families of those who were killed in 2015”.
The Iranian announcement on 17 March of agreement that Iranian pilgrims will be accepted this year added “Details of talks on ample other issues, including martyrs of Mina incident and of Haram Mosque, will be announced later.” On 19 March Seyyed Ali Qazi-Askar, representative of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said “it has been agreed that the Saudi Binladin group pay blood money to the victims’ families in two tranches… pilgrimage is a religious obligation that has nothing to do with the status of diplomatic ties.” The bin Ladin group operated the crane which collapsed and killed 115 people in Mecca just before the 2015 Hajj, but have no obvious connection with the Mina stampede.
We have seen no Saudi confirmation of these details. Further negotiations seem likely and may be at risk of other negative developments in Saudi/Iranian relations.

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