September 8, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi-Iran Tensions Mount Over the Hajj

• With the annual Hajj pilgrimage approaching, Saudi and Iranian leaders have traded harsh accusations over the fatal stampede during last year’s Hajj.

• The Hajj has long been a contentious issue between the two rivals, and both have used the event to push their regional agendas and undermine each other.

• The renewed dispute over the Hajj comes as Saudi-Iran relations are nearing an historic low.

• The escalating rhetoric on both sides will only inflame already simmering regional tensions.


The long-running rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran deepened this week as senior leaders clashed over the fatal stampede at last year’s Hajj. The stampede reportedly caused the death of as many as 2,400 people, including 464 Iranians; Saudi Arabia maintains the death toll was closer to 700. As preparations for this year’s Hajj are underway, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said this week that the Saudi government had ‘murdered' the pilgrims, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested that the Muslim world should ‘punish’ Saudi Arabia for last year’s fatal incident. In response, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti attempted to deflect the criticism, by declaring that Iranians are ‘not Muslims,’ and are bent on antagonizing Sunnis. The escalating rhetoric on both sides is a clear indicator of the current state of Saudi-Iran relations; an incident at the upcoming Hajj could have serious geopolitical ramifications for the region. 

At face value, the tit-for-tat denouncements appear to be but the latest exchange between the regional rivals, each of which views itself as the rightful vanguard of the Islamic world. While both countries are renowned for their hyperbole when commenting on each other, the Grand Mufti’s statement is particularly abrasive, even in the context of a bitter Saudi-Iranian dispute. Iran has already barred its citizens from attending this year’s Hajj, so harsh rhetoric is Tehran’s only practical recourse at the moment. 

The Hajj has long been an issue of contention between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Throughout the 1980s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini urged Iranian pilgrims to use the Hajj to stage high-profile protests denouncing Iran’s enemies. Saudi Arabia’s anger over the demonstrations grew steadily until 1987, when clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces resulted in more than 400 deaths, including over 200 Iranians. In the aftermath of the violence, the two countries severed diplomatic ties, and Iran barred its citizens from attending the Hajj until 1991. Saudi Arabia responded by drastically reducing the number of annual visas granted to Iranians for the pilgrimage. In addition to the 1987 incident, fatal accidents and stampedes are common occurrences at the Hajj, and each time Iran is quick to publicly denounce the Saudi monarchy’s role as the steward of the event. 

Saudi Arabia’s guardianship of the Hajj symbolizes its position in the Islamic world; for the Saudi royal family, the task of ensuring the safety of millions of Muslims—both Sunni and Shi’a—who make the journey each year is considered a distinguished honor and a solemn responsibility. It is also a major source of tourism and income for the Kingdom, bringing in two to three million pilgrims and billions of dollars annually. As the main arbiter of the pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia has occasionally wielded its power over the Hajj in its disputes with Iran. For Iran, undercutting the Kingdom’s prominent role in securing the Hajj is par for the course.

The current dispute is only the latest in a string of regional tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. The long-running bilateral acrimony over conflicts in the region is likely to worsen as the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen descend deeper into chaos. In January of this year, the Saudis took the promising step of reopening their embassy in Iraq, a close ally of Iran. Yet only a day later, the Saudi government provoked outrage in Iran with the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shi’a activist in the Kingdom. Al-Nimr’s death sparked violent demonstrations in Tehran which ended with protestors overrunning the Saudi embassy, and the episode prompted the countries to again sever diplomatic relations. Iraq has since requested the recall of Riyadh’s ambassador in Baghdad after he criticized the cozy relationship between Iraq’s Shi’a militias and Iran. Yet another indication of Iran’s regional ambitions, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s top commander in Syria recently announced the formation of the Shi’a Liberation Army—an expeditionary force composed of Arab Shi’as—tasked with defending their coreligionists in the Arab world. As these regional tensions continue to put pressure on Saudi-Iran relations, this year’s Hajj has the potential to bring the rivalry to a boiling point.


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