Qatar said its citizens were unable to take part in the annual hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia as the two countries remain bitterly locked in a diplomatic dispute. Qatar said it has become impossible to get permits for 1,200 Qataris who are eligible to perform the hajj under a quota system, blaming the campaign by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt to cut trade and diplomatic ties with the country.
"There is no chance this year for Qatari citizens and residents to travel for hajj," a government official told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "Registration of pilgrims from the State of Qatar remains closed and residents of Qatar cannot be granted visas as there are no diplomatic missions," added the official.
The row over hajj is the latest front line in a highly fractious 14-month-long diplomatic dispute between the two states. Qatar has been isolated since June 2017, accused by Saudi Arabia and its allies of supporting terrorism and being too close to Riyadh's archrival, Iran, charges Doha denies. Sanctions imposed by Riyadh as part of the dispute stop Qataris from travelling to Saudi Arabia.
Under a quota system established by Saudi Arabia, some 1,200 Qatari citizens should be able to attend the hajj, which attracts two million Muslims from around the world each year. But many Qataris have complained that registration on a Saudi Arabian ministry website specifically for the pilgrimage has proved impossible.
Abdullah Al-Kaabi of the state-run Qatar National Human Rights Committee said Saudi Arabia had shut down an electronic system used by travel agencies to obtain permits for pilgrims from Qatar. "There is no chance this year for Qatari citizens and residents to travel for hajj," he told Reuters. "Registration of pilgrims from the State of Qatar remains closed, and residents of Qatar cannot be granted visas as there are no diplomatic missions."
Saudi Arabia has said Qatari pilgrims can arrive on any airline other than Qatar Airways. But three travel agencies in Doha told Reuters they had stopped trying to sell hajj packages, which can cost up to 120,000 riyals ($33,000).
More than 2 million Muslims began the annual hajj pilgrimage at first light yesterday in Saudi Arabia, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca that Islam's faithful face five times each day during their prayers. The five-day hajj pilgrimage represents one of the world's biggest gatherings every year, and is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life.