Saudi Arabia, Iran officials blame each other over Hajj talks’ failure while Iranian Muslims to miss out on annual pilgrimage

Tribune International Report (by Sana Jamal)

Iranian Muslims will miss out on the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in September 2016, as Tehran and Riyadh blame each other over failure of Hajj 2016 arrangements.

Iran’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Ali Jannati, said talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia were intended to “resolve the issue” of security during the hajj after 2015 stampede accident, but failed to make any progress.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the failed talks, saying “Iran is the only country that refused to sign the agreement on the hajj.”

A delegation from Tehran held four days of talks in Saudi Arabia last month to hammer out a deal so that Iranians can go to Mecca this year. But things didn’t work out.

But this is not happening for the first time. The hajj was suspended for three years for Iranians right after the Iranian 1979 revolution, when a clash between Shia pilgrim protesters and the Saudi Arabian security forces during the 1987 Hajj pilgrimage resulted in hundreds of victims from both sides.

Iranian Culture minister: Saudis not cooperating with Iran on Hajj

“We did whatever we could but .. Now the time is lost” Ali Jannati said. “The arrangements have not been put together and it’s now too late,” to IRNA news agency. “The sabotage is coming from the Saudis.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman had also hit out at Saudi Arabia, accusing it of politicizing the hajj pilgrimage, according to Tasnim News Agency.

Iran had asked that visas for Iranian pilgrims be issued in Iran, and that Saudi Arabia assure the safety of travellers, especially after the deadly stampede during Hajj 2015. “Iran’s proposals regarding visa application, air transport and security of pilgrims were not accepted by the Saudi officials,” said.

Saudi Arabia, however, reportedly refused to accept those conditions. Saudi officials asked that Iranians pilgrims have to travel to another country to make their visa applications since there are no formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, following the severance of ties between Tehran and Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia blames Iran failed Hajj talks

The Saudi hajj ministry said Tehran’s delegation had refused to sign an agreement laying out arrangements for this year’s hajj, according to a state news site Sabq.

The statement said Iran’s demands included the granting of visas inside Iran and transport arrangements that would evenly split the pilgrims between Saudi and Iranian airlines.

“Iran is the only country that refused to sign the agreement on the hajj. It insisted on a number of unacceptable demands,” Minister of Hajj and Umra Mohammed Bintin told Ekhbariya TV.

Tragedy in Mecca during Hajj 2015

Tension between Riyadh and Tehran has been rising after the Hajj 2015 disaster in which 2,000 people lost their lives, 464 of them Iranians. Iran said Saudi “incompetence” and “mismanagement” were to blame.

Iranian pilgrims and revenues in numbers

Some 500,000 Iranian pilgrims visit Saudi Arabia each year for the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina – holiest sites for Muslims. Another 100,000 Iranians travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj — Islam’s major pilgrimage— which comes after the holy month of Ramadan and is scheduled to take place in September this year.

Saudi Arabia could lose a half-billion dollars in revenue from the absence of Iranian pilgrims, Forbes calculated — unless Saudi hajj authorities distribute Iran’s travel quota between other countries.

Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry

The hajj argument is fueled by persistent tensions and rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh, currently noticeable in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen in which both support opposing sides. Both countries back different factions in the civil wars, which have come to serve as proxy battles in several Middle Eastern conflict-torn countries.

Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran after January’s embassy incident in Tehran after protesters in Iran attacked Saudi diplomatic missions there following the execution of a prominent Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia.

Religious division between Sunni and Shia Muslims is termed as the biggest drivers of conflict in the Middle East today. But there is more to the violence and tension than just religious elements as Sunni and Shia have gotten along fine for much of the Middle East’s history. The politics and power game in the Middle East is one of the important factors.

The invasion of Iraq, with the toppling of Saddam by the United States, disturbed the balance in the Middle East and created a vacuum that both Iran and Saudi are attempting to fill in to expand their power. The Arab Spring of 2011 across the Middle East fuelled more tension between two local powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are supporting violence in the region, to counter each other and become a leader in the region.