Saudi Arabia reopens Qatar border for hajj pilgrims
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia announced on Thursday that it is reopening its border with Qatar to allow Qataris to attend the hajj, despite a monthslong rift between Doha and four Arab countries led by Riyadh that prompted both sides to trade accusations of politicizing the pilgrimage.
The decision came after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held a surprise meeting with a Qatari royal family member whose branch of the family was ousted in a palace coup in 1972.
Saudi state media broke the news overnight. Qatar did not officially comment on the deal until its foreign minister was pressed on Thursday by reporters during a briefing in Sweden, some 12 hours later.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said he welcomed the Saudi decision, but that the measures must also include a full lifting of the blockade.
The way in which the deal was reached and announced out of Saudi Arabia raised questions about the level of the Qatari government’s involvement. Qatari officials did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment.
The official Saudi Press Agency reported that Qatari pilgrims will be allowed to enter the kingdom by land and would then be flown onward from two Saudi airports in Dammam and al-Ahsa at the king’s expense. The king also ordered that aircraft from the country’s flagship carrier be dispatched to Qatar’s capital, Doha, to fly Qatari pilgrims to the Red Sea city of Jiddah — nearest to Mecca — and to host them at his expense for the hajj.
Saudi state TV said 100 Qataris had arrived at the border crossing on Thursday.
The decision came after Prince Mohammed met with Qatari royal family member Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani late Wednesday at a palace in Jiddah. Images broadcast on Saudi media showed the two men seated and smiling for cameras.
Sheikh Abdullah, who’s lived previously for some years in Saudi Arabia and has gone back on private visits, has no role in government and his last position was as head of the equestrian and camel racing federation in the 1970s and 1980s, said Gerd Nonneman, a professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar.
Sheikh Abdullah’s grandfather, father and brother were rulers of Qatar until a palace coup ousted his branch of the royal family in 1972.
“He’s certainly not an envoy of the Qatari government. This was not a deal that was struck,” Nonneman said, describing it as a Saudi “propaganda ploy” to catch the Qatari government off-guard.
He said Saudi outreach to various individuals within Qatar’s large royal family causes discomfort and “needles the Qatari leadership.”