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The Hajj Pilgrimage: A Gauge for Measuring Tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia

The Hajj Pilgrimage: A Gauge for Measuring Tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia

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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Public University

Saudi Arabia and Iran broke off diplomatic relations and suspended economic trade on January 4, 2016, after Iranian demonstrators torched the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. This attack was in retaliation for the Saudi execution of a leading Shiite cleric, Sheikh al-Nimr, along with 47 “Iranian terrorists” in Riyadh. However, tensions between these two Muslim powers have built steadily over the years.

Saudi Arabia and Iran Remain Apart Due to Religious and Ideological Differences

The two countries have significantly differing interpretations of Islam, oil export policies and relations with the West. Although both countries are Muslim, they are home to opposite factions within Islam: Saudi Arabia is 90% Sunni and Iran is 90% Shia.

These opposite factions within Islam are similar to Protestants and Catholics within Christianity.   In Christianity’s Reformation, Protestants and Catholics fought many wars in Europe centuries ago before deciding to coexist.  The Muslim Reformation is currently in full swing.

US and Russia Also Involved in Conflict

The two current proxy battlefields are Yemen and Syria. Because the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are long-time allies (along with Great Britain and France), we are unfortunately involved in varying degrees in both conflicts.

On the opposing side, the Iranian Republic was founded by an anti-Western revolution in 1979. It currently has close ties with both Russia and China.

Hajj Pilgrimage a Costly Requirement for Islamic Faith 

One way to gauge the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia is to analyze the annual Hajj pilgrimage. The Hajj (meaning “to intend a journey”) is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In 2017, it will occur during the first week of September.

According to the Koran, the Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam that all Muslims must make if possible in their lifetime. As a result, the Hajj is the largest gathering of people in the world every year. (In 2015, there were an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide.)

It is both a logistical and security nightmare for Saudi Arabia to manage this event, while at the same time it is a huge moneymaker for the country. Each pilgrim pays at least $5,000 to participate. The cost includes airfare, food, board (usually in a tent), agent fees, security deposits and administrative charges.

Hajj Pilgrimage Serves as a Guide to Local Tensions

Iran boycotted the Hajj between 1988 and 1990, after clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police left 400 people dead in 1987. As a result of the severing of diplomatic ties in early 2016, none of the planned 60,000 Iranian pilgrims was allowed to participate in the Hajj last year.

The lack of Iranian participation in 2016 resulted in a significant loss of money for the Saudis, estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars.

While relations between the countries remain severed, an agreement was reached to allow around 80,000 Iranian pilgrims to participate in the upcoming Hajj. Despite this agreement and because of the recurring tragedies during the Hajj in Mecca, Iranians are looking to make their pilgrimage to holy sites outside Saudi Arabia.

Hajj Violence Causing Iranians to Seek Other Alternatives to Hajj Pilgrimage

Iranians are being encouraged to visit the Iraqi holy city of Karbala and its shrine of the Imam Hussein during the Hajj.  This year, the number of Iranians going to Karbala is expected to reach one million.

In the end, Iranians are Persians, not Arabs. According to the CIA, there are around 366 million Arabs in the Arab world, which consists of 22 countries.

In stark contrast, there are only around six million Persians within one Persian country, Iran. Looking from the Muslim Reformation perspective, there are an estimated 1.5 billion Sunnis in the world today compared to perhaps as many as 340 million Shia.

From those perspectives, it does not appear that Iran, with its Persians and Shia, has much chance of long-term success in its ongoing civil war against Saudi Arabia. The U.S. and its allies need to continue ensuring that the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia does not get out of hand and threaten peace in the rest of the world.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Public University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. He served as a Defense Attache in Amman, Jordan, from 2000-2002.

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