Qatar: Politicizing Haj, again!


Since King Fuad of Egypt decided to discourage Egyptians from attending Haj, in response to King Abdulaziz’s prevention of army escorts and musical bands in Makkah (1926), other leaders over the years followed suit. First it was, Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, then Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, Iranian Supreme Leaders, Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, and finally, the Emir of Qatar.

It is amazing how people can lie to your face, knowing that you can see through their lies. I wondered, as my Qatari counterparts kept repeating false claims, such as: Saudi Arabia will not give Haj visas to Qataris; Saudi airports are closed to them; those who make it to Makkah and Madinah are mistreated; and some are threatened, abducted or kicked out!

All these contradictory, insulting statements were repeatedly delivered in various debates that I have attended with Qatari representatives on TV and radio. Not once did they flinch, apologize or clarify, even after program hosts pointed out their falsehoods. For example, when told that Qatari official statements admit that no one was harmed or sent back from Saudi Arabia, they just changed the subject and resorted to other claims.

I find myself in an awkward position when asked to respond to such illogic. Since answering every lie is impossible, I usually focus on delivering a coherent narrative based on publicly known facts.

Qatar, like Iran, has tried to use Haj as leverage in a political game. Its government has made a fuss about how Qataris are unable to reach Makkah with Saudi borders closed. They also claim that their citizens will not be safe unless they are escorted by security guards, diplomats and officials. They demand that Hajis must travel on Qatar Airways, since Saudi airlines is not safe enough! And that their embassy and consulate should be opened to take care of them. Above all, they insist that the Saudi government must provide guarantees that Qataris will not be prosecuted or mistreated!

All of that is meant to obtain a lifting of the embargo. In this way, Qatar could play the victim, call for international management of Haj, win their people’s sympathy, channel public anger toward Saudi Arabia, and use the episode as a tool in its propaganda machine.

Last year, King Salman allowed Qataris to enter the Kingdom without visas or Haj permission, aboard Saudi airplanes, as his guests. A hosting committee headed by Qatari royals was assigned to provide any assistance Qataris might need, whether for Haj or private interests, as well as a free hotline.

When Qatar refused to grant Saudi planes permission to land in Doha, the Kingdom provided direct flights from Dammam and Al-Hasa airports - a short distance from the Qatari border. Qataris were treated as royal guests and provided with transportation, accommodation and escorts.

The Qatari government’s response was shocking. First, they tried to persuade their citizens to refuse the offer. When this failed, they claimed that Qatari Hajis’ intentions were not pure. “Those who pretend to go for Haj were actually going to visit their relatives or to do business,” accused Qatari spokespersons, like Dr. Al-Hail.

Instead of thanking the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques for his generous hospitality, they charged the Kingdom of politicizing Haj. “Saudi Arabia has all the wrong intentions in their loaded, evil, treacherous offer to host our Hajis,” protested Dr. Al-Hail. “They are trying to interfere in our internal affairs and force our people to give allegiance to dissenting royals. If they truly had good intentions, they would have lifted the blockade against Qatar. And why did they allow Iran to send 10 escorting diplomats and none from our side?” argued the Qatar University professor.

This year, too, the same propaganda is being used. Saudi Arabia, not Qatar, is being accused of politicizing Haj. Even after Qataris were allowed to get their visas on arrival at Jeddah and Madinah airports, the Qatari government and media claim they are being prevented from going, and that those who decide to go, without Qatari official permission and security escorts, are risking their lives!

Now, all the fuss is about 1,500 Hajis among millions of Muslims from all over the world. Iran sent around 100,000, Indonesia 200,000, and more from India. None asked for an army of escorts or demanded safety guarantees. Moreover, it is not the first time that Qataris have come to perform Haj. They reported no concerns before, so why these worries all of a sudden?

Dear Qatari government, here is free advice: Find other ways to lift your neighbors’ embargo, such as cutting ties with terrorists and stopping your intervention in your neighbors’ affairs. Playing the victim and the “poor, small, innocent kid, hated and put under siege by elder brothers for his talents, smartness and success,” won’t work. Neither will politicizing Haj. Others tried the same trick before and failed - as you did! It won’t work this time either! Forget it!

— Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at: Follow him on Twitter: @kbatarfi