Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has ordered the reopening of the border with Qatar to hajj pilgrims, state media said Thursday, despite a major diplomatic crisis roiling the region.
The Salwa border crossing was closed after regional kingpin Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing the emirate of fostering Islamist extremist groups. Qatar has denied the accusation.
The announcement to reopen the border for Qatari pilgrims came after powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received an envoy from Doha, the official Saudi Press Agency said, in the first public high-level encounter between the nations since the crisis erupted.
The king has allowed “the entry of Qatari pilgrims to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through Salwa border crossing to perform hajj, and to allow all Qatari nationals who wish to enter for hajj without electronic permits”, a statement on SPA said.
He also ordered that private jets belonging to Saudi airlines be sent to Doha airport “to bring all Qatari pilgrims on his expenses”.
The announcement came after Prince Salman received a phone call from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has sought repeatedly to defuse the regional crisis, SPA reported, without revealing the details of the conversation.
Saudi Arabia last month said Qataris wanting to perform this year’s hajj would be allowed to enter the kingdom, but imposed certain restrictions including that those arriving by plane use airlines in agreement with Riyadh.
Doha then accused Riyadh of politicising the hajj, and of jeopardising the pilgrimage to Mecca by refusing to guarantee the safety of pilgrims.
– ‘Goodwill gesture’ –
Some observers cautioned that the diplomatic crisis was far from over despite the announcement.
“This is a goodwill gesture towards the Qatari people and not a breakthrough with the Qatari” government, Ali Shihabi from the Washington-based think tank Arabia Foundation said on Twitter, referring to the reopening of the border.
There was no immediate official reaction from Doha, but Qataris responded to the move on social media.
“We do not need the (Saudi) king’s charity. The Qatari right to pilgrimage is not given as charity from the king,” one Qatari wrote on Twitter.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have shut down air, maritime and land links with Qatar, and imposed economic sanctions, accusing Doha of supporting “terrorists” and of being too close to their regional nemesis Iran.
Qatar has denied the allegations and denounced what it called a “blockade” aimed at bringing the wealthy emirate to its knees.
The tiny emirate with a population of 2.6 million, 80 percent of them foreigners, ranks as the world’s richest country on a per capita basis, according to the International Monetary Fund.
It holds a staggering $330 billion in a sovereign wealth fund, with assets heavily invested abroad.
The hajj, a pillar of Islam that capable Muslims must perform at least once in a lifetime, is to take place at the beginning of September.
The pilgrimage is expected to draw around two million people this year.
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