TEHRAN, Aug 29, (Agencies): In a diplomatic icebreaker between political foes, tens of thousands of Muslim Faithful from Iran have flocked to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj to Islam’s holiest sites.
This week’s Hajj marks Iran’s return after their absence last year following a massive stampede in 2015 that killed around 2,300 people, including 464 Iranians.
The tragedy sparked bitter recrimination from Tehran over the kingdom’s custodianship of the sites in Makkah and Madinah, western Saudi Arabia.
For the first time in nearly three decades, Iranian pilgrims were barred from the Hajj last year, after several rounds of negotiations between the two Gulf heavyweights failed to overcome political and procedural differences.
Adding a further obstacle, the Sunni kingdom cut all ties with Shiite Iran in January 2016 after its diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were torched by protesters angered by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite figure.
But under a deal struck in March, about 86,000 Iranians have now arrived in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, joining two million Muslims from across the globe in converging on Makkah.
“I’m happy to see so many Iranians here … Political issues shouldn’t interfere in a religious duty, especially the Hajj,” Abbas Ali, a 54-year-old Iranian, said Monday at Jeddah airport that is the main entry point for pilgrims.
“It’s very difficult to describe my feelings. We shouldn’t stop coming here because all of us are Muslims,” the newly-arrived “haji” from Zahedan in eastern Iran told AFP.
The breakthrough came after several months of negotiations during which the two countries traded accusations of obstructing an agreement.
Tehran and Riyadh stand on opposing sides in several regional disputes, including the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, as well as this year’s Gulf diplomatic crisis between Qatar and a Saudi-led Arab bloc.
The pilgrimage now seems to be acting as an icebreaker between the two powers.
In the absence of diplomatic relations and with its missions in Iran closed, Saudi Arabia agreed to issue electronic visas for Iranian pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia has also allowed Iran’s national carrier Iran Air to fly in most of the Islamic republic’s pilgrims, while some were transported by the kingdom’s carrier.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last week that visas have been issued for diplomats from the two countries to visit and inspect each other’s empty embassies and consulates.
“We are waiting for final measures to be taken so diplomats from both countries can visit,” he said. “This will probably happen after the Hajj.”
Iran has set up temporary consulates in the kingdom to assist its pilgrims, and it has instructed them to avoid “arguments” with Saudi staff at airports and pilgrimage sites.
“We have tried to separate the bilateral relations between the two countries from the pilgrimage,” a former Iranian culture minister, Seyed-Reza Salehi Amiri, said last month.
In another key gesture, Tehran is to hold Shiite prayers, normally accompanied by chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, inside hotels rather than outdoors, to avoid “security problems”, according to Ali Ghazi Askar, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
In 1987, more than 400 people, most of them Iranian pilgrims, were killed in clashes with Saudi security forces at an anti-Western rally in Makkah.
The Hajj, which starts this year on Wednesday, is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, which every Muslim is required to complete at least once in a lifetime if he or she has the means to do so.
Saudi health officials overseeing the Hajj pilgrimage later this week say they are prepared to handle any outbreak of disease or a stampede like the one that killed hundreds of worshippers two years ago.
Saudi Arabia said on Monday that over 1.735 million pilgrims have arrived from abroad for the ritual, a once-in-a-lifetime religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey.
The world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims has in the past seen numerous deadly stampedes, fires and riots, with authorities having only limited ability to control the masses.
Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites — Makkah and Madinah — and organising Hajj, a role that Iranian authorities have challenged as part of a dispute over the handling of a crush in 2015.
That incident killed nearly 800 pilgrims, according to Riyadh, although counts by countries of repatriated bodies showed over 2,000 people may have died, more than 400 of them Iranians.
Hussein Ghanam, who oversees the health ministry’s Hajj operations, said the authorities are prepared in case of another stampede.
“There is an integrated fleet of ambulances, each of which is considered its own fully equipped intensive-care unit. The ambulances circulates on the roads between the tents,” he said.
Some 30,000 health workers will be on hand, and 5,000 hospital beds are available.
The Saudi Red Crescent is supporting the ministry with 350 ambulances and four medivac helicopters, director Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Qassim said. It has opened several new health centres this year and run simulations to practice emergency response.
“Thanks to God we have extra supplies plus special equipment and vehicles to deal with catastrophes directly and move them to the closest hospital,” Qassim told Reuters on Sunday.
Nearly 90,000 Iranians are expected to attend the Hajj this year for the first time since the 2015 crush.
Another perennial concern is the potential for spreading disease among the pilgrims, who spend five days in close quarters with each other, often eating outside and sleeping on the ground near holy sites.
Ghanam said the ministry was prepared to control communicable diseases like the potentially fatal Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus, which has been most prevalent in Saudi Arabia over the past five years.
“We have a precedent of repeated success in past years in dealing with the outbreak of corona, SARS, and swine and bird flu,” he said — awareness campaigns and health requirements for pilgrims kept those outbreaks from reaching the Makkah area.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said there were 26 newly reported cases of MERS in Saudi Arabia in July and early August, including six deaths.
In addition, more than half a million people in neighbouring Yemen have been infected with cholera and 1,975 people died since an epidemic began in April in that country, according to the WHO.
Ghanam said hospitals have been directed to pay careful attention to pilgrims showing symptoms of cholera, which is spread by ingestion of food or water tainted with human faeces and can kill within hours if untreated.
Yemenis have undergone the same health checks as all other pilgrims, he said.
Seven women sit in front of computer screens fielding distress calls from across Makkah ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage this week, in a first for Saudi Arabia as it tries to expand participation in the workforce.
The seven, almost all wearing the black niqab over their faces, form the first women’s section of an emergency call centre in the kingdom, which has begun offering more education and employment opportunities to the half of the population that has traditionally stayed at home.
The women verify a caller’s location and request, which could be related to fire, crime, illness or a traffic accident, before passing the information on to first responders.
In the conservative kingdom, that’s a big shift.
Saudi Arabia adheres to strict interpretations of Islamic law and tribal custom, requiring women to have male guardians and obey a modest dress code. They are barred from driving.
However, the Saudi government has begun introducing gradual reforms to open new job opportunities for women as part of a vision to wean the country off oil — on which it relies for more than 60 percent of its income — and transform society.
“Saudi women are present in multiple fields, so they can also be present in the security sector,” 31-year-old Baara al-Shuwaibi, who studied English at a Makkah University, told Reuters, headphones hanging over her ears.
The women all speak English and received training before starting their jobs in recent weeks. Dozens of men sit in a separate room doing the same work.
“I receive a call, check the location and send the request to the proper authority as fast as possible, especially if it’s an emergency like fire or ambulance,” Shuwaibi said.
The National Operations Centre in Makkah launched two years ago, becoming the first in the kingdom to unify government response services. There are plans for similar sites in Riyadh, Madinah and the Eastern Province.
This is the first year the women’s section will operate during the Hajj, which is expected to attract about two million Muslims from around the world for a week of sacred rituals starting on Wednesday.