S. Arabia to open border, airports to Qatari pilgrims

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (at right) with Qatari envoy Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Jassim al-Thani in Jeddah on Wednesday. Prince Mohammed emphasised the "historical relations between Saudi and Qatari people" after his meeting with the e
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (at right) with Qatari envoy Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Jassim al-Thani in Jeddah on Wednesday. Prince Mohammed emphasised the "historical relations between Saudi and Qatari people" after his meeting with the envoy, state media said.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

Haj move could be first sign of diplomatic thaw, but observers say crisis far from over

RIYADH • Qatari pilgrims began arriving in Saudi Arabia yesterday after Saudi King Salman ordered the reopening of the border with the emirate to facilitate the annual haj pilgrimage, in the first sign of a thaw after the worst diplomatic crisis in the Gulf in years.

The Salwa border crossing has been closed since June 5, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar over accusations the emirate fostered Islamist extremists.

Qatar has denied the allegation.

The announcement to reopen the frontier for Qatari pilgrims came after the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received an envoy from Doha, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said, in the first public high-level encounter between the nations since the crisis erupted.

King Salman has allowed "the entry of Qatari pilgrims to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through Salwa border crossing to perform haj, and to allow all Qatari nationals who wish to enter for haj without electronic permits", a statement on the SPA website said.

He also ordered that private jets belonging to Saudi airlines be sent to Doha airport "to bring all Qatari pilgrims at his expense".

The decision also came after Prince Mohammed received a phone call from United States 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 Qatari pilgrims would be allowed to enter the kingdom for the haj this year but imposed clear restrictions, including flying via airlines approved by Riyadh.

Doha has accused Riyadh of politicising the haj and jeopardising the pilgrimage to Mecca by refusing to guarantee the safety of Qatari citizens.

The haj, a pillar of Islam that capable Muslims must perform at least once, is to take place at the beginning of next month. The pilgrimage is expected to draw around two million people this year.

Prince Mohammed emphasised the "historical relations between Saudi and Qatari people" after his meeting with the Qatari envoy, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani, SPA said.

But some observers cautioned that the diplomatic crisis was far from over despite the apparent bonhomie.

"This is a goodwill gesture towards the Qatari people and not a breakthrough with the Qatari (government)," Mr Ali Shihabi of Washington-based think-tank Arabia Foundation said on Twitter, referring to the reopening of the border.

A Qatari government spokes- man also appeared to downplay any breakthrough, saying the envoy did not have a post in the government.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed said the envoy had been in Riyadh on a personal basis.

While welcoming the latest Saudi decision, the minister also lashed out at the "politicisation" of the haj.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2017, with the headline 'S. Arabia to open border, airports to Qatari pilgrims'. Print Edition | Subscribe