Vastavam web: More than 1.7 million Muslims from around the world have arrived in Saudi Arabia for the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage this week.Once in Mecca the site of Islam’s holiest place of worship they will be reminded that the ruling Al Saud family is the only custodian of this place.Large portraits of the king and the country’s founder hang in hotel lobbies across the city. A massive clock tower bearing the name of King Salman’s predecessor flashes fluorescent green lights at worshippers below.A large new wing of the Grand Mosque in Mecca is named after a former Saudi king, and one of the mosque’s entrances is named after another.
For nearly 100 years, the ruling Al Saud family has decided who gets in and out of Mecca, setting quotas for pilgrims from various countries, facilitating visas through Saudi embassies abroad and providing accommodation for hundreds of thousands of people in and around Mecca.The kingdom has received credit for its management of the massive crowds that descend upon Mecca each year and blame when things go wrong at the hajj. All able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the pilgrimage once in a lifetime.Saudi kings, and the Ottoman rulers of the Hijaz region before them, all adopted the honorary title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a reference to sites in Mecca and Medina.The Syrian government, however, says Saudi authorities continue to place restrictions on Syrian citizens looking to take part in the hajj.
Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic ties with President Bashar Assad’s government and since 2012, requires all Syrians seeking to make the hajj to obtain visas in third countries through the “Syrian High Hajj Committee,” which is controlled by the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition political group.The hajj became further entangled in politics following the fallout between Saudi Arabia and Qatar when the kingdom and three other Arab countries cut all diplomatic and transport links with the small Gulf state this year.
The Saudis, however, announced the goodwill measures unilaterally and did so after meeting with Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, a Qatari royal family member who resides outside Qatar and whose branch of the family was ousted in a coup more than four decades ago.”Bringing out a senior member of the Qatari royal family member was a political coup really,” said Shihabi.Experts say that by promoting Sheikh Abdullah, the Saudis were attempting to delegitimize Qatar’s current emir.