Mecca pilgrimage ripe for sectarian clash

Growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran threaten to peak in Sunni-Shite cold war, analysts say; Saudi takes security precautions.

Muslims praying in Mecca R 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Hassan Ali )
Muslims praying in Mecca R 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Hassan Ali )
The Hajj – The annual pilgrimage in which some three million Muslims converge on the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia – is threatening to become the next flashpoint in the Sunni-Shiite cold war.
Pilgrims have already begun arriving for the event, whose observance according to the Muslim calendar is expected to peak in the first or second week of November. Saudi Arabia is taking security precautions as the Hajj gets underway and officials have warned that they will not countenance disturbances of any kind.
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While the Hajj has not been marred by violence since 1987, this year’s pilgrimage comes amid heightened tensions between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, each of which regards itself as the leader of its wing of Islam. That could prompt an outbreak of violence, whether planned or not, at the most sensitive time of the Muslim calendar and at its most holy place, analysts say.
“They [the Iranians] have done that in the past. It tends to reflect the state of Saudi-Iranian relations,” Ali Ansari, a researcher on Iran at London’s Chatham House think tank, told The Media Line. “With the Turks and the Saudis, they try to keep things calm. But the relationship with the Saudis has become really bad.”
Traditional rivals occupying opposite sides of the Gulf, both countries have grown anxious as the Arab Spring shakes up the status quo across the Middle East. Meanwhile, the scheduled US troop withdrawal from Iraq, a country with a mixed Shiite-Sunni population, will create a power vacuum that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are concerned with filling.
In March, Saudi Arabia dispatched security forces to put down a largely Shiite rebellion in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, angering Iran. Earlier this month, Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province rioted, prompting the government to blame a “foreign country,” a code word for Iran. Riyadh reacted with intense anger after the US revealed a plot laid by a secret Iranian military unit, the Quds force, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
While neither country is prepared to risk an open military conflict, analysts say they have shown no hesitation to engage in diplomatic assaults and quietly back their co-religionists in local sectarian conflicts. In that context, the Hajj is a potential hotspot.
“Given the tensions, they seem to be ramping up toward another clash. I’m not saying there will be one, but if there is one, I won’t be surprised,” Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior lecturer in Middle East at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line.
Fuad Bin Abdulsalam Al-Farsi, the Saudi minister of Hajj, told The Saudi Gazette that some 1.8 million foreign pilgrims are expected to arrive this year, outnumbering Saudis. He didn’t cite figures for the number of Iranians, but in past years they have numbered in the tens of thousands.
Last week, Saudi security forces staged a mock drill at Mecca’s Haram Mosque, during which they broke up a sit-in between the Black Stone and the area for circumambulation. “During the exercise, emergency forces were asked to use machine guns and fire live ammunition at certain targets, which they achieved with accuracy,” The Gulf News reported.
All Hajj pilgrims will be fingerprinted on their arrival in the Kingdom, ostensibly to keep out unauthorized visitors but also as a means of keeping tabs on them. Some 500 women have been hired to form a special unit dealing with female pilgrims, a necessity in a country that maintains strict separation between the sexes.
"We will not allow anything that would disrupt the peace of the Hajj pilgrimage and disturb the pilgrims. That is why we shall not tolerate any damage, riots or chaos during the season of Hajj or out of it," Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, governor of Mecca province, told reporters earlier this month.
Publicly, Iran is not threatening problems at the pilgrimage even as it threatens the Saudis in other ways. The Hajj should be a “symbol of unity,” Ali Ghazi-Asgar, Iran’s top Hajj official, said on October 9. “I call on all Friday prayer leaders and media in the two countries not to stir up tensions and differences,” he told pilgrims, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.
But the Saudis have reasons to be nervous. Saudi security forces clashed with Iranian pilgrims holding anti-US and anti-Israeli protests, most notably in 1987, when police efforts to stifle a demonstration ended in clashes that left 402 people dead, including 275 Iranians. Tehran routinely complains about discrimination against Shiites and their unique rites during the Mecca pilgrimage, adding a potential source for clashes.
In recent years, Iranian pilgrims have staged smaller, quieter rallies with speeches and chants calling for Muslim unity and attacking the "enemies" of the faith. The rallies, which they call “distancing from infidels,” take place outside an encampment on the Plain of Mina outside of Mecca during a key part of the Hajj rites.
In 2007, when bilateral relations were better, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the Hajj himself. But he stayed away from the rally held nearby by several hundred Iranian pilgrims.
In fact, the speeches and chants are not a traditional part of the Hajj, rather an invention of Iranians since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah. The Saudis have tried to ban this ceremony. Moreover, while Iranians are free to make their own Hajj travel arrangements, most travel in government-sponsored groups, giving officials greater control over who attends and their actions.
Despite Ahmadinejad’s forbearance four years ago, the regime in Tehran looks at the annual pilgrimage through a very different prism than the hosting Saudis, said Bar-Ilan’s Teitelbaum.
 “The Saudis see it as great responsibility and a pillar of Islamic and they want to give the best service possible to perform their obligation,” he said. “The Iranians, since the revolution, have looked at this as a big opportunity to propagandize for the revolution and against the people they don’t like, which are the Saudis, the Americans and Israel.”