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    Muslim pilgrims pray outside Namira mosque in Arafat on the second day of the annual hajj pilgrimage near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on September 23, 2015.

    Worsening Iranian-Saudi Relations Will Make Hajj More Difficult This Year

    © AP Photo / Mosa'ab Elshamy
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    The number of Iranian Muslims expected to make the holy Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is expected to decline dramatically this year, due to worsening relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam's holiest site.

    With relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia at quite possibly their lowest point in history, Iran's Hajj organizer made a trip to Saudi Arabia, at the invitation of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj, to discuss the issue of Iranians visiting the Arabian nation for the holy pilgrimage, to take place in September.

    The biggest problem for Iranian pilgrims, Sputnik Persian explains, revolves around difficulties in obtaining access to consular and visa services. 

    Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia unilaterally severed diplomatic relations with Iran after protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, in response to Riyadh's execution of Shia Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr on January 2.

    "A year ago, the situation was quite different," Sputnik Persian notes. Iran received a quota of 75,000 pilgrims, almost all of which was filled, according to official data. And there were no difficulties with obtaining the visas, with pilgrims appealing under the quota system to the Saudi Consulate in Tehran, and receiving additional support inside Saudi Arabia.

    The Grand Kaaba, also referred to as 'The Cube', a building at the center of Islam's most sacred mosque, the Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
    The Grand Kaaba, also referred to as 'The Cube', a building at the center of Islam's most sacred mosque, the Al-Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

    This year, "the situation has changed, and this includes a shift in psychology. Many potential Iranian Hajj participants are convinced that because of the aggressive behavior of Saudi authorities against Iranian citizens, it would be better to postpone the pilgrimage for better times."

    Barring an improvement in the situation, Saudi Arabia is set to take a big financial loss. Normally, Iranians going to the Hajj are not shy when it comes to spending a little cash, spending an average of $1,000 just on souvenirs, with the average total spending reaching $2,500. This year, Sputnik Persian notes, the absence of large numbers of Iranians will mean less income for the Saudi tourism sector, and more spent inside Iran itself. Earlier this year, Forbes calculated that the loss of Iranian pilgrims might cost Saudi Arabia up to $500 million in lost revenues.

    For now, "the question of solidarity remains an open question. Will Iranian authorities appeal to their citizens not to travel to Mecca? Perhaps potential pilgrims will work out some common position of their own?"

    Most likely, the decision will be based on past experience. And for Iran this experience has been a bitter one. "It's enough to recall the massacre of Iranian pilgrims in the 1980s, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini even issuing a fatwa to prohibit Iranians from making the Hajj" following the tragedy. 

    Iranians who refused to abide by the Ayatollah's decree were forced to make the trip through a series of detours, through Turkey, Afghanistan and other countries, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in spending on airfare and black market Saudi visas (which could cost between ten and twenty thousand US dollars.

    "It cannot be excluded that the current generation of Iranian pilgrims will similarly be prepared to pay as much, if not more," Sputnik Persian notes. 

    At the same time, it is impossible to make any guarantees for these peoples' safety while they are in the Kingdom. In the context of mutual hostility, the probability of a repeat of the kind of disaster that took place last year grows.

    Last year, 464 Iranian pilgrims were killed following a stampede which caused the deaths of over 2,400 pilgrims.

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    Hajj, diplomatic row, diplomatic relations, Iran, Saudi Arabia
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