For millions of Muslims, the Hajj is a time for devotion and self-renewal, free from the sectarian divisions that run through much of the Islamic world.
But for Middle Eastern regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, the run-up to this year’s pilgrimage, which begins this week, took on a different tone. Their historic rivalry, which extends from global oil markets to the interpretation of Islam, has flared again.
Addressing all Muslims on Monday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launched a broadside against Saudi Arabia. He accused the kingdom of “murdering” pilgrims during last year’s Hajj, when hundreds and by some accounts thousands were crushed in a stampede, many of them Iranians. Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter in Shiite Iran, called on fellow Muslims to re-evaluate Saudi rulers’ management of the faith’s holy sites. Iran announced in May that its pilgrims would not be taking part in 2016.
Top Saudi Sunni cleric Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh responded in kind, dismissing Khamenei’s comments as “not surprising” given Iranians are “not Muslims” and “their hostility towards Muslims is an old one.” The comments didn’t go down well with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who took to Twitter to attack the “bigoted extremism” preached by the Wahhabi cleric.
Saudi officials defended their running of the pilgrimage, with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef on Sept. 5 saying the kingdom had always provided Iranian pilgrims with access to all facilities. Iranian authorities “politicize Hajj and convert it into an occasion to violate the teachings of Islam,” he said, according to state-run Saudi Press Agency.
Two days later, the Gulf Cooperation Council condemned Khamenei’s remarks, dubbing them “baseless accusations” directed towards Saudi Arabia, according to the United Arab Emirates’ state-run WAM agency. Such statements should never come from the heart of any Muslim, the council said.
The intensified spat between two nations on opposite sides of Islam’s ancient schism — and many of the region’s modern conflicts — comes days ahead of the anniversary of the Hajj tragedy last year. The cause of the crush remains largely unexplained by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom said 769 people were killed, though some estimates put the figure at more than 2,000. Iranian officials say more than 400 were Iranian pilgrims.
Despite weeks of talks on planning for this year’s event, Iranian and Saudi officials failed to find agreement. Iran’s culture minister announced the boycott over “obstacles created” by Saudi Arabia, the first time in about three decades that it won’t be sending believers. Saudi officials blamed Iran for the failure, saying it had made unacceptable demands.
On Monday, Khamenei accused Saudis of “depriving” Iranians of the opportunity to attend. Mid-week, President Hassan Rouhani joined in: “On top of all its crimes, the Saudi government has also sullied its record this year by blocking the path to God,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency cited him as saying.
Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing sides in conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and severed diplomatic relations in January after a mob attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The riot was prompted by the Saudi execution of a cleric from the kingdom’s Shiite minority.
Last year’s nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, which unleashed Iran’s economy from years of ever-tightening economic sanctions, raised Saudi concerns that a richer Iran would seek to impose itself more in the region.