Qatar Accuses Saudi Arabia Of Blocking Access To Hajj

Qatar has accused Saudi Arabia of blocking Qatari citizens from performing this year’s Hajj. Since June 2017, Qatar has been under a land, sea, and air blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations that accused the country of sponsoring terrorism and being too friendly with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival. As a result, travel and trade between the two nations has been cut off, including travel to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, a religious pilgrimage Muslims are required to make once in their lifetime if they’re physically and financially capable. Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry made an exception to the travel ban and opened a website in June for 1,200 Qataris to register for the Hajj under a quota system. However, multiple Qatari officials now say the website has been shut down, making registration impossible. Abdullah al-Kaabi of the Qatar National Human Rights Committee said, “There is no chance this year for Qatari citizens and residents to travel for Hajj.” He explained that “[r]egistration of pilgrims from the State of Qatar remains closed, and residents of Qatar cannot be granted visas as there are no diplomatic missions.” The Saudi government has denied these claims and accused Qatar of trying to politicize the Hajj for its own gain.

The recent dispute has reignited longstanding tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, highlighting the ongoing diplomatic conflict between Qatar and its neighbors. It is important to understand why the dispute escalated to a full-on blockade. The diplomatic restriction of Qatar was initiated by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in June 2017, purportedly over Qatar’s close relationship with Iran and its funding of extremist groups. The claims regarding Qatar’s connections with Iran likely arose from two incidents. First, after the Qatari government was hacked, a statement was posted on the country’s website that contained comments sympathetic to Iran. However, the Qatari government rejected the statement and claimed it was created by hackers, an opinion shared by much of the US intelligence community. Second, Qatar paid $700 million in ransom to free 26 Qatari royals who had been kidnapped in Iraq, and the money allegedly ended up with the Iranian government, although Iraq’s government claims it still has the money in its treasury. Additionally, weeks after the blockade was initiated, Mohammad bin Salman, who had historically pushed for a regional anti-Iran alliance, became the Saudi Crown Prince.

The claims that Qatar has been supporting terrorism are also partially true. The Qatari government has been accused of aiding extremist groups in countries like Syria, Libya, and Yemen. In Yemen, the claim that Qatar supported Houthi rebels is suspect, given that the day before the blockade was started, Qatar was part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting against these rebels. In Syria, Qatar has assisted a variety of rebel groups, including the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front in the civil war, though their support decreased after the blockade was put into place because the Syrian government gained momentum, reducing Qatar’s incentive to try to swing the conflict in favor of the rebels. Additionally, Qatar has, at various times, helped groups affiliated with ISIL, Hamas, and Al-Qaeda throughout the region. Broadly speaking, the divergence between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other blockade participants stems from the countries’ foreign policy responses to the 2011 Arab Spring, in which a series of uprisings ousted leaders throughout the Arab world. Since the Arab Spring, Qatar has routinely supported Islamist groups that aim to institutionalize Islam in the political systems of their countries. Notably, they supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and its allies have condemned Islamist groups as extremist terrorists, and pushed for non-Islamist leaders in the region. This fundamental divergence provides a compelling explanation for the blockade – Saudi Arabia wanted to pressure Qatar to revise its foreign policy be more in line with the Saudi vision for the region.

One other potential explanation for the blockade is that it was a prelude to an invasion of Qatar that was averted by the United States. In a detailed piece of investigative journalism, The Intercept outlined how, in the days and weeks following the blockade, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a series of phone calls urging Saudi Arabia and the UAE not to launch a military operation to invade Qatar and seize the capital city, Doha. According to the report, Tillerson succeeded in convincing Saudi Arabia to avoid military action. The operation would have severely damaged Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the US, as Qatar is a US ally that hosts the largest American air force base in the region. However, a successful invasion would have allowed Saudi Arabia to seize Qatar’s $320 billion sovereign wealth fund, mitigating the current economic crisis in which the Saudi government has been forced to sell one third of the country’s $737 billion in oil reserves.

Finally, two additional events may have played a role in triggering the blockade. First, Trump’s May 2017 visit to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and subsequent support of Saudi foreign policy while condemning Qatar in a tweet may have emboldened Saudi officials to take more aggressive action against Qatar. Second, a speech by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in May 2017 took a strongly anti-Qatar stance, and in an email released after the speech, it was revealed that the UAE’s ambassador had reviewed the speech and encouraged these comments. As a result, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could have reasonably assumed that the US would side with them in the blockade, given the close relationship between the UAE’s ambassador and officials in the Trump administration.

The question then becomes: What can be done to resolve this dispute? At the moment, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with their partners in the blockade, are unlikely to take any steps to make peace. As the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs explained in an interview, the four nations blockading Qatar (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) have acclimated to the blockade and aren’t taking any huge economic damage, while the cost to Qatar’s economy has been somewhat significant. Essentially, the blockading countries are content to wait until Qatar is willing to make the concessions demanded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the beginning of the dispute in June 2017. Among other things, these requirements include huge changes to Qatari foreign policy and the shutting down of state-run news agencies, including Al Jazeera.

Therefore, the most probable solution to the dispute lies with the US and Qatar. On the US end, Defense Studies professor Andreas Krieg persuasively argues that a major reason Saudi Arabia and the UAE imposed the blockade was because they believed President Trump was supporting them. However, as of mid-2018, Trump’s advisors have begun to convince him that the US would benefit in the fight against terrorism by ending the blockade to create a unified front against the US’s adversaries. Krieg furthers notes that although the UAE seems unwilling to cooperate with the US, the US could leverage Saudi Arabia’s need to get out of the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the rapidly deteriorating Saudi economy to push them, along with Bahrain and Egypt, to a negotiating table with Qatar. In exchange, Saudi Arabia would receive US assistance in resolving its ongoing domestic and international issues.

Qatar has already taken a number of steps to resolve the conflict. In the year following the blockade, Qatar has reduced its support for extremist groups in the Syria conflict and spent $1.5 billion on a PR campaign to get the US on its side. Additionally, the partisanship following the blockade has allowed Qatar to write off historic accusations of their sponsorship of terrorism as Saudi propaganda. As a result, Qatar has better relations with the US than before the blockade. To ensure the US takes a proactive stance in favor of negotiations to resolve the blockade, Qatar could offer to mediate some form of communication between the US and Iran over nuclear proliferation. Additionally, Qatar could play a more active role in peace talks between the US and the Taliban. Resolving that conflict would reduce the risk faced by American troops in Afghanistan and give President Trump a victory that he could spin as putting “America first.”

In addition, Qatar could ensure negotiations remain a viable option by refraining from criticizing Saudi leadership, as the Government of Saudi Arabia – and in particular, King Salman – often plays an important role in resolving conflicts in the Gulf region. Moreover, to bring the UAE to the table, Qatar could appeal to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the leader of the Emirate of Dubai. Although UAE officials have been resistant to negotiations, Qatar could potentially compel them to the negotiating table with the fact that Dubai, the capital of the UAE, is heavily reliant on Qatari gas exports to supply its energy.

In conclusion, the current dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia over access to the Hajj may not have a clear end in sight if the regional blockade of Qatar continues. Although the blockade’s causes are multifaceted and complex, the US and Qatar have a number of options for diplomatic leverage that could push Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to end the dispute and restore relations.

Chris Conrad

Chris Conrad is a rising sophomore at Haverford College. He plans on majoring in political science, with a concentration in Peace, Justice, and Human Rights.
Chris Conrad