In August, over 2.4 million Muslim pilgrims journeyed to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to perform the Islamic ritual of Hajj. This year’s annual pilgrimage came amid calls for a boycott in the Muslim world, reflecting the growing ambivalence some Muslims feel toward Saudi Arabia, as liberalising reforms in the country fail to mask human rights abuses.
Every year over 2 million Islamic pilgrims journey to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, making it one of the largest human gatherings on earth. The Hajj pilgrimage is the fifth pillar of Islamic practice, an obligatory ritual for every Muslim who possesses the capability to make the journey once in their lifetime. There was a substantial decrease of pilgrims in 2016 due to a human stampede that occurred in 2015, resulting in the deaths of 2,400 people. The massive organisational project of Hajj is not the only challenge for the Saudi government, as geopolitical tensions with Shi’ite majority Iran has spilled over to Hajj, often leading to violence and bloodshed.
Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on dissent continues to marginalise the local Shi’ite population, as evidenced with the execution of Saudi Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016. Since then, Iran has discouraged citizens from making the Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia despite being an obligatory religious practice. This resulted in some Arab countries criticising Iran for attempting to politicise Hajj by sowing discord and sectarian division. A deal was signed this year by both countries, lifting the quota of Iranian pilgrims to 86,500, making better arrangements by preventing the problems they encountered in previous years.
While Iran was criticised for politicising the Hajj, the Saudi’s blockade imposed on Qatar in 2017 barred Qatari citizens from entering Saudi Arabia, even for obligatory religious observances. The effect of this blockade inspired neighbouring Gulf states to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead as the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain severed ties with Qatar for its support of terrorism and Islamist organisations. The imposed air, land and sea blockade did not enfeeble Qatar’s economy, as Qatar weathered the economic storm. The tensions appear to be mitigating between Saudi Arabia, with an attempt to facilitate Qatari pilgrims to Hajj this year, although Doha has labelled these superficial.
The diplomatic hostility between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is emblematic of the broader issues at play in the region. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the war in Yemen started in 2015. The local Shi’ite Houthi rebellion against the Yemen Government has its roots in the 2011 Arab Spring, as the deposed authoritarian President Saleh was replaced by his deputy who struggled to meet the political, economic and social challenges facing Yemen. As the Houthi rebellion began to successfully seize towns and capital provinces in Yemen, Saudi Arabia along with eight Arab states, backed by some Western governments intervened to preserve the regime. The impetus behind this correlates to geopolitical tensions between Saudi Arabia and archrival Iran, as a successful Shi’ite rebellion in Yemen is seen as a threat to Saudi’s Sunni dominance in the region.
Qataris state media outlet Al-Jazeera has been persistent in its reporting on the humanitarian crisis erupting in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s culpability - a crisis described as the worst of its kind by the United Nations, characterised by widespread famine, disease and violence.
The responsibility of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen War, its arms sale with the Trump Administration and crackdown on dissidents as epitomised with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, has alienated the global community of Muslim adherents. This was clearly highlighted with pressure to boycott Hajj this year, as Libyan Sunni Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gharawani implored Muslims not to travel to Saudi Arabia as this would boost its economy and contribute to further massacres in Yemen.
This was followed by a worldwide social media campaign, hashtag #BoycottHajj. Saudi Arabia’s economic benefit from the pilgrimage is estimated to be as much as $USD16 billion in annual revenue and further investments into Hajj infrastructure and logistics to accommodate more pilgrims will only increase those estimates. It is unlikely that an obligatory religious ritual like the Hajj would ever be abandoned by adherents to an extent that will impact the Saudi economy.
However, the growing antipathy toward Saudi Arabia, despite recent liberalising reforms like lifting the women driving ban, has enabled Turkish President Erdogan to fill the void as the “defender” of Muslims worldwide. Erdogan’s outspoken criticisms of the Netanyathu Israeli Government, condemnation of Trump’s peace deal plan in the Middle East and leading investigations into Saudi Arabia’s role in the Khashoggi murder, has elevated his support in the Muslim world.
While it may be pre-emptive to claim Saudi Arabia has lost legitimacy in the Middle East, the recent Hajj boycott may provide an extraordinary prescience into its decline. Turkish President Erdogan always envisioned a broader geopolitical role than being limited to domestic affairs, however China’s encampment of more than 1 million Muslim Uighurs has been met by resounding silence across the Muslim world, which begs the question if there even exists a spokesperson for the Muslim world?
Ibrahim Taha is the Middle East and North African Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.