(photo credit: AP)
As the eyes of Muslims worldwide are directed toward Mecca - where ceremonies of the haj are held prior to Id al-Adha - Saudi authorities are busy working to maintain the safety of the worshipers on every stage of the pilgrimage to avoid repetition of accidents that occurred in past years due to excessive crowds.
However, this year the caretakers in Saudi Arabia are concerned more about a different kind of threat - specifically attempts by Iran to cause disturbances.
Saudi Interior Minister Prince Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz said this week that the kingdom has completed preparations against acts of violence.
"We will not allow any damage to the pilgrims and confront firmly and decisively any attempt to hinder the atmosphere of the haj,"Abdulaziz said.
On Thursday, nearly three million Muslims from around the world, chanting "I am here, Lord" and raising their hands to heaven, marched through a desert valley outside Mecca in the first day of the haj.
Dressed in seamless white robes symbolizing the equality of mankind under God, the pilgrims hiked through the 13-kilometer valley to Mina, starting a series of rituals in which they cleanse themselves of sin.
Prominent Saudi columnist Abdelrahman Alrashed, in his column entitled "Watch the Pilgrimage" published in the respected Alsharq Alawsat newspaper, expressed fear of disturbances initiated by Iran and its supporters during the ceremonies, "as Teheran did in 1987 and 1989, when demonstrations and acts of violence took place in Mecca under Iranian inspiration."
Alrashed, a close associate of the Saudi royal family, warns of another Iranian attempt to use the religious ceremonies for political gain and concludes the article that "we stand on the verge of confrontation in a place crowded by two million people that could happen if the Muslim world does not take a firm stand to warn Iran and her supporters not to perpetuate a stupid act that will be considered an act of violence against a large army of Muslims."
These words shed a new light on the surprising declaration by Saudi King Abdullah at the recent opening ceremony of the Gulf summit hosted in Riyadh.
The Saudi monarch referred to the situation in Iraq, Lebanon and the PA and warned that the Middle East is about to explode.
Observers say that since his swearing in on August 2005, Abdullah has been conducting a foreign policy with a close eye on the frequent changes in the region.
Saudi Arabia has identified the increased role played by Iran in the region, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The king does not react to the developments slowly, observers say.
Saudi Arabia is concerned by Iran's growing influence in the Gulf, its involvement in Iraq and Lebanon, and above all the Iranian nuclear program.
Saudi Arabia is increasingly involved in Iraq in support and coordination with the US. The king's adviser for national security Prince Bandar Bin Sultan plays an important role in coordinating between Riyadh and Washington on the Iranian issue, say Arab diplomats in the Gulf.
The same sources emphasize that Bandar took the place of the recently retired Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki Alfaysal, and visits the American capital constantly to express his country's concern of the increased Iranian influence in the region that might lead to a possible change in the balance of power between Shi'ites and Sunnis in the region.
Saudi Arabia is concerned that Iran aspires to establish a Shi'ite state in Iraq and that the Iranian growing influence in Lebanon and Teheran's activity in the Palestinian arena, would have destructive consequences on the stability of the region, and pose direct threat to the kingdom.
For pilgrims streaming in from all continents, the haj is a crowning moment of faith, a duty for all able-bodied Muslims to carry out at least once. On Thursday morning, as they have for the past few days, hundreds of thousands opened their pilgrimage by circling the Kaaba, the black cubic stone in Mecca, Islam's holiest site.
"For us it is a vacation away from work and daily life to renew yourself spiritually," said Ahmed Karkoutly, an American doctor from Brownsville, Texas. "You feel you part of a universe fulfilling God's will. It's a cosmic motion, orbiting the Kaaba."
AP contributed to this report.