A muslim pilgrim prays while others circle the Kaaba and pray at the Grand mosque ahead of annual Haj Image Credit: REUTERS

Cairo: Almost two years after a boycott of Qatar for sponsoring terrorism began, the Gulf state is systematically barring its citizens from going on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, in a glaring bid to stir religious sentiment, officials and experts have said.

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt broke off diplomatic and transportation links with Qatar over its support for extremist groups.

The quartet has set several conditions to mend ties with Qatar, including the emirate’s severance of links with militant and terror groups.

Doha has rejected the conditions, saying they violate its sovereignty. The tiny Gulf emirate has since tightened curbs on its nationals’ travel, including going to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, and falsely accused its heavyweight neighbour of barring Qataris from performing Haj and Umrah.

Doha has lodged a series of complaints with international bodies against Saudi Arabia, requesting the reopening of their border and re-operation of direct flights between the two countries.

Saudi officials have repeatedly denied the Qatari charges and reiterated their keenness to offer facilities for pilgrims from all over the world, including Qatar.

“Saudi Arabia refuses to politicise Haj,” a senior official said last week. The kingdom has never prevented anyone from performing the Haj or Umrah and will never do this,” Abdul Fattah Mashat, the Saudi deputy minister of Haj, told pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

“The strongest rebuttal of politicisation claims is the wide-scale efforts that Saudi Arabia is making in order to facilitate procedures for pilgrim arrivals and to enable them to carry out the rituals comfortably. There is no obstacle to Qataris’ arrival in the kingdom,” he added.

In a move aimed at streamlining pilgrimage procedures for Qataris, the Saudi government last month said they could arrange Umrah services following their arrival in the kingdom without having to register in advance.

Saudi Arabia has also set up a new website to receive applications from Qataris wishing to perform Umrah after their government blocked a similar site.

The number of Umrah pilgrims peaks in Ramadan, which started on May 6.

Over the past two years, Saudi authorities have done their best to facilitate Qatari pilgrims’ entry into the country.

Months after the eruption of the row with Doha, Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz ordered the reopening of a land border crossing with Qatar in order to allow Qatari pilgrims into Saudi Arabia for the Haj.

Muslims are expected to perform it at least once in their lives if they can afford it and are physically able.

Despite Qatar’s attempts to manipulate the pilgrimage in its dispute with Saudi Arabia, Qataris have not stopped going on pilgrimage. Nearly 1,000 Qataris performed the Haj last year, according to unofficial figures. Qatar has a quota of 1,200 Haj pilgrims based on its population of around 2.6 million.

“Qatari people pay no attention to hurdles or intimidation. All that the Qatari regime did was that it recorded in its black history its attempt to prevent our citizens from pilgrimage,” said Sultan Bin Sahim, a prominent Qatari dissident. “All their attempts are unsuccessful and boomeranged on them [Qatari regime]” he tweeted.

By politicising the pilgrimage, the Qatari government is seeking to distract attention from the fallout of its policies at home, according to Salah Al Hadi, an Egyptian political expert.

“The four countries’ boycott has left shattering economic and political effects on Qatar,” Al Hadi told Gulf News. “The absence of Gulf visitors to Qatar has harmed its economy. The Qatari government has also failed to attract foreign tourists to make up for the Gulf citizens’ absence,” he said.

“Moreover, Qatar’s policies of supporting terrorist groups have increased its isolation in the world. Therefore, it is now speaking about alleged Saudi restrictions on pilgrimage trips for Qataris, in the hope of gaining sympathy from Muslims and whitewashing its image.”