Saudi Arabia reopens border to Qatari pilgrims despite tensions


Riyadh - Qatari hajj pilgrims began crossing into Saudi Arabia on Thursday, Saudi media reported, after Riyadh reopened the border in a move that Doha welcomed but saw as "politically motivated" as regional tensions simmer.

The Salwa border crossing, a key passage for Muslims on the annual hajj pilgrimage, has been closed since June in a major diplomatic crisis that saw Riyadh and its regional allies cut relations with Doha over allegations that the emirate supported Islamist extremists.

Qatar has denied the charge and in turn accused Riyadh of politicising the hajj by restricting its citizens from making the pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest site in Islam that is located in western Saudi Arabia.

Around 120 Qataris entered Saudi territory on Thursday through the Salwa border, also known as Abu Samrah, Saudi state television reported, after King Salman called for the border to be opened for pilgrims without electronic permits.

The government separately allocated seven flights of the Saudi national carrier to bring pilgrims from Doha at the monarch's expense, state news agency SPA announced.

Qatar welcomed the decision, but also lashed out at what it called Riyadh's politicisation of religious freedoms.

"Regardless of the manner in which pilgrims from Qatar were banned from the pilgrimage, which was politically motivated... the government of Qatar welcomes the decision and will respond positively," Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told reporters on a visit to Stockholm.

"What matters to us is the bottom line, which is that our citizens now have a way to attend the hajj, and we uphold our demand that hajj be spared politicisation."

The hajj, a pillar of Islam that capable Muslims must perform at least once, is to take place this year at the start of September and it is expected to draw around two million Muslims from around the world.

'Right to pilgrimage' 

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in what has evolved as the worst political crisis to grip the Gulf region in decades.

The kingdom's decision to reopen the frontier came shortly after its powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Qatari envoy Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani, a member of Qatar's ruling dynasty.

The meeting on Wednesday in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah was the first public high-level encounter between the nations since the crisis erupted more than two months ago.

The Qatari foreign minister, however, said that Sheikh Abdullah had acted on a "personal initiative" and not on behalf of the Doha government.

The decision also came after SPA reported that Prince Mohammed had received a phone call from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has sought repeatedly to defuse the regional crisis.

Analysts cautioned on Thursday that the dispute was far from over.

"This is a goodwill gesture towards the Qatari people and not a breakthrough with the Qatari" government, Ali Shihabi of Washington-based think-tank Arabia Foundation said on Twitter, referring to the border reopening.

The decision also drew strong comments on social media, with many Qataris reacting critically.

"We do not need the [Saudi] king's charity. The Qatari right to pilgrimage is not given as charity from the king," one Qatari wrote on Twitter.

A tiny gas-rich emirate with a population of 2.6 million, 80% of them foreigners, Qatar ranks as the world's richest country on a per capita basis, according to the International Monetary Fund.

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