Manama: Saudi Arabia’s interior minister has dismissed concerns about any fallout of regional tensions during the Haj season and said he was looking for an incident-free pilgrimage season.
“I do not expect any tension and the Iranians have assured the Saudis that they were keen on the well-being of all pilgrims,” Prince Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz told the local media when asked about a possible Iranian escalation. “Everything will be fine from the Iranian side,” he said as he inspected security preparations for the Haj season.
Direct and proxy conflicts and worsening political disputes in the region have raised concerns that the gathering of more than three million pilgrims in Makkah could be exploited for political, religious or ideological agendas.
Prince Ahmad denied reports that security was being reinforced specifically in the case of Iranian pilgrims. “We treat all pilgrims equally and we do not believe that a specific category or a delegation from a certain country can impact the pilgrimage or use it for political purposes. We have always reinforced security in specific areas to facilitate traffic and provide better services,” he said.
The minister’s statement on Saturday came days after Saudi coast guards detained 15 Iranians who were reportedly trying to enter the country clandestinely. The boatpeople were arrested after they disembarked in Khafji, 10 kilometres south of Saudi Arabia’s border with Kuwait.
Coast guard officials said they started monitoring the movements of the boat early on Thursday and seized the vessel once they had ensured it had no chance of getting away.
However, Saudi authorities said that the detained Iranians did not harbour any harmful intentions and were only looking for better living conditions. The men were in fact trying to reach Kuwait but they had been steered by a trafficker — who was also arrested — into Saudi Arabia’s maritime limits, local Arabic daily Al Sharq reported.
Sources, quoted by the newspaper, said that Saudi coast guards anticipated a rise in illegal immigration as more Iranians attempted to flee their country in search of jobs and better living conditions.