Saudi king orders reopening of Qatar border to pilgrims
Saudi Arabia's King Salman has ordered the reopening of the border with Qatar to facilitate the annual hajj pilgrimage, state media said on Thursday, in the first signs of a thaw after the region's worst diplomatic crisis in years.
The Salwa border crossing had been shut after regional kingpin Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing the emirate of fostering Islamist extremist groups.
The announcement to reopen the border for Qatari pilgrims came after Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received an envoy from Doha, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, in the first public high-level encounter between the nations after the crisis erupted.
The Hajj: pilgrims in their millions
Millions of devout Muslims are again conducting the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This year, the biggest pilgrimage in the world is being overshadowed by political tensions and safety concerns. By Janina Semenova
Religious joy: an experience that must be captured and recorded. For many Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is the crowning moment of their faith. It is the religious duty of every Muslim to carry out the hajj – a journey that lasts several days – at least once in their lives, providing the individual is in good health and can afford to do it. Saudi Arabia is responsible for organising the pilgrimage
Anti-clockwise: the final destination on the pilgrimage is the holy city of Mecca. All worshippers visit the Grand Mosque in the Saudi Arabian city. In the inner courtyard of the mosque is the Kaaba, the "House of God", in the form of a black cube. The pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times, always in an anti-clockwise direction
Buried under rubble: around two million people travel to Mecca every year. The pilgrimage has been frequently overshadowed by misfortune – for example, on 15 September 2015. Just as the hajj was about to begin, a storm caused a crane to collapse onto the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing more than 100 people
Trampled to death: the next tragedy occurred nearly two weeks later, on 24 September 2015. Thousands of pilgrims were trampled to death in a mass panic in the town of Mina near Mecca. This is where pilgrims are supposed to conduct the ritual stoning of the devil
Travel ban for Muslims from Iran: it is thought that some 469 Iranians were among the dead. Following the incident, Iranians demonstrated outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. The Iranian government accused Saudi Arabia of negligence. This further exacerbated the already tense relationship between the two nations. Iran has banned its citizens from making the hajj this year
High-tech support: in response to the fatal accidents, Saudi Arabia has tightened security procedures. These include the introduction of electronic wristbands to identify each individual worshipper in the crowd. The wristbands will store personal data including health details and location, as well as inform pilgrims about prayer times
Praying on the mountain: one of the most important stations on the pilgrimage is the walk on Mount Arafat. It is here that the faithful supplicate to Allah to forgive their sins. According to Islamic tradition, this is where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon. Another high point of the hajj is the Feast of the Sacrifice or Eid, celebrated by Muslims all over the world, regardless of whether they are taking part in the pilgrimage
The king has permitted "the entry of Qatari pilgrims to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through Salwa border crossing to perform hajj and to allow all Qatari nationals who wish to enter for hajj without electronic permits", a statement on SPA said. He also ordered that private jets belonging to Saudi airlines be sent to Doha airport "to bring all Qatari pilgrims on his expenses".
The crown prince emphasised the "historical relations between Saudi and Qatari people" after his meeting with Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani, the statement added.
Saudi Arabia had last month said that Qataris wanting to perform this year's hajj would be allowed to enter the kingdom, but imposed certain restrictions including that those arriving by plane must use airlines in agreement with Riyadh.
Qatari authorities had subsequently accused Saudi Arabia of politicising hajj and jeopardising the pilgrimage to Mecca by refusing to guarantee their pilgrims' safety.
Some observers cautioned that the diplomatic crisis was far from over, despite the apparent bonhomie.
"This is a goodwill gesture towards the Qatari people and not a breakthrough with the Qatari govt," Ali Shihabi from the Washington-based think tank Arabia Foundation said on Twitter, referring to the reopening of the border.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies shut down air, maritime and land links with Qatar and imposed economic sanctions, accusing Doha of supporting "terrorists" and of being too close to their regional nemesis Iran. Qatar denied the allegations and denounced what it called a "blockade" aimed at bringing the wealthy emirate to its knees.
The tiny emirate with a population of 2.6 million, 80 percent of them foreigners, ranks as the world's richest on a per capita basis, according to the International Monetary Fund. It holds a staggering $330 billion in a sovereign wealth fund, with assets heavily invested abroad.
The hajj, a pillar of Islam that capable Muslims must perform at least once in a lifetime, is to take place this year at the beginning of September.
More than 1.8 million faithful took part in last year's hajj. The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam and all Muslims who can must perform it at least once in their lives. (AFP)
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