August 18, 2018 / 8:13 AM / a month ago

Qatar accuses Saudis of barring haj pilgrims, Riyadh says untrue

RIYADH (Reuters) - Qatar has accused Saudi Arabia of barring its citizens from this year’s haj, something Riyadh denies, saying a diplomatic dispute is not stopping Qataris from making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

FILE PHOTO: Muslim pilgrims attend Friday prayer at the Grand mosque ahead of annual Haj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 17, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Although 1,200 Qataris are eligible to perform the haj under a quota system, Qatar says it has become impossible to get permits, blaming the campaign by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to cut trade and diplomatic ties with the country.

Abdullah Al-Kaabi of the state-run Qatar National Human Rights Committee said Saudi Arabia had shut down an electronic system used by travel agencies to obtain permits for pilgrims from Qatar.

“There is no chance this year for Qatari citizens and residents to travel for haj,” he told Reuters. “Registration of pilgrims from the State of Qatar remains closed, and residents of Qatar cannot be granted visas as there are no diplomatic missions.”

A Saudi official said Qatar had blocked several registration links set up for its pilgrims.

An official at Saudi Arabia’s haj ministry said a group of Qataris had arrived for the pilgrimage which runs from Sunday to Aug. 24, but he did not say how many there were or whether they had traveled directly from Qatar. Last year, 1,624 Qatari pilgrims attended, he said.

‘LOST MONEY’

Saudi Arabia says the Qatari government is using the issue for political ends and it “rejects any effort to politicize the haj or drag political differences” into the pilgrimage, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Saudi Arabia, and the three other Arab countries, closed land, air and sea links with Qatar in June last year, accusing it of funding terrorism, something Doha denies.

Saudi Arabia has said Qatari pilgrims can arrive on any airline other than Qatar Airways.

But three travel agencies in Doha told Reuters they had stopped trying to sell haj packages, which can cost up to 120,000 riyals ($33,000).

“Last year we lost a lot of money as the crisis started after we had booked everything in Mecca and Medina and we had to pay people back,” said a manager of one travel agency in Doha, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“This year, nobody is really trying as people have understood there is no way to go there in these circumstances.”

Riyadh temporarily opened the land border for the haj last year, but not this time. A travel agency catering to migrant laborers in Doha said that had hit business.

“We sell haj journeys by bus with accommodation for around 12,000 riyals,” its manager said. “But as nobody can get visas and land borders are closed, it is zero bookings this year.”

The diplomatic crisis has defied mediation efforts by the United States, which has strong alliances with both sides and fears the split among its Sunni Muslim allies could benefit Shi’ite Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved in proxy wars, including in Yemen and Syria, and tensions between the two have spilled over into the haj in the past.

In 2016, Iran boycotted the haj over security concerns after hundreds of people were killed in a crush there. Iranian pilgrims returned in 2017.

(Corrects month that boycott was imposed to June, not July.)

Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Robin Pomeroy

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