RIYADH (Reuters) – Fifty Qatari pilgrims entered Saudi territory for the annual haj pilgrimage on Thursday (Aug 17) after authorities opened the border crossing for the first time since a Gulf diplomatic rift erupted in June, Al Arabiya TV reported.
The pilgrims entered as guests of the Saudi king, Al Arabiya said.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut transport links with Qatar in June and imposed sanctions, accusing it of supporting Islamist militants and Iran, which Doha denies.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said the Salwa border point would be open for Qataris making the haj, which this year runs from late August to early September.
Saudi Arabia had said Qatari pilgrims would not be affected by the travel restrictions, but some Qataris have said they faced difficulties organising the trip.
Qatari pilgrims can pass through the crossing without the permits usually needed to be obtained in advance for the haj, SPA said.
The Saudi king has ordered the dispatch of a Saudi Airlines plane to fly Qatari pilgrims to Jeddah at his own expense, SPA reported. Qatari pilgrims would also be able to pass through two of the Kingdom’s airports, SPA said.
Qatar had accused Saudi Arabia of politicising the pilgrimage and complained to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion last month.
It was not clear how far the opening of the border to pilgrims would go to help heal the rift, the worst among US-allied Gulf Arab countries for years. Qatari media did not immediately carry the Saudi report.
A Qatari government spokesman had no immediate comment but said Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani, who held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman before the announcement was made, did not hold a position in the Qatari government.
A Qatari semi-government rights body gave a cautious welcome to the Saudi move. “This is a step towards removing the obstacles and difficulties (Qataris) faced during haj procedures this year,” the National Human Rights Committee said in a statement.
Some Qataris said that even with permission to enter Saudi Arabia, they would be concerned for their safety. “I think it is very risky to go to Mecca this year, there could be hate crimes against Qataris,” said Ms Fatima al-Mohannadi, a Qatari student.
Between two million and three million Muslims from around the world travel to Islam’s holiest city for the pilgrimage each year. Every able-bodied Muslim is supposed to undertake it at least once.