Tuesday 13 August - The annual hajj pilgrimage that brings some two million Muslims to the religion’s holiest site in Mecca has once again become the subject of political controversy as Muslims opposed to the government of Saudi Arabia are urging others to boycott the event.
A Saudi-backed coalition has waged war in Yemen since 2015 and aid workers say some 24 million people – almost 80% of the population – will likely need humanitarian assistance in 2019.
The Gulf kingdom also faces heightened scrutiny over its human rights record after last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.
One of the most prominent Muslim leaders to endorse the boycott is Sadiq al-Gharawani, the Sunni Muslim grand mufti of Libya. Muslim organizations in several countries outside the Middle East, including the United States, have urged their members to consider the boycott, commonly citing the war in Yemen as the primary reason.
Saudi officials dismissed the boycott as an 'unwise' attempt to 'politicize the hajj' and noted the pilgrimage has been growing in recent years. The organizers insist younger Muslims are more likely to delay their pilgrimage to 'stand against oppression' and hit the Saudi government where it hurts, because the hajj is not only a source of prestige for the Saudis but also a source of tourist income the monarchy cannot do without as it reduces its dependence on oil sales.
The pilgrims this year include survivors and relatives of the mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, attending as guests of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
The hajj has previously been the subject of political controversy during times of heightened tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and when the Saudis were criticized for not providing enough amenities, security, and emergency services for the enormous crowd of visitors.
Among other infrastructure improvements made to address these complaints, the Saudis announced that 2019 will be the first year when high-speed rail service is available from the airport to major locations along the pilgrimage route.
Author's note: Tom Trento, the founder and director of 'United West', recently observed that Mecca is a 'symbol' for Muslims around the world in the same way that the World Trade Centre was a 'symbol' for Westerners prior to 2001. My advice to Muslims in general and the Saudis in particular would be 'people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones'.