Saudi Arabia: King Salman Hires Private Jets to Transport Qatar's Pilgrims on Hajj As Gulf Crisis Continues

Muslims circle the Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca on December 13, 2007. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has ordered private jets to fly Qatari pilgrims on the Hajj to Mecca at his own personal expense as Riyadh and Doha continue a political standoff that started in June. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries cut ties with Qatar and implemented an embargo on the movement of people and goods in one of the worst diplomatic crises in the region in decades.

In order to ease tensions over Qatari Muslims being able to make the pilgrimage, King Salman has chartered seven Boeing 777s, the world's largest twinjet aircraft, to fly the Qataris from Doha to the port city of Jeddah in western Saudi Arabia, according to the kingdom's official press agency. The flights, hired from Saudi Arabia's national carrier Saudia, will depart from August 22 to August 25 and return on September 5, the end of the annual Hajj prilgrimage.

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To ease the passage of Qatar's pilgrims to Islam's holiest city, Saudi Arabia has also reopened the Salwa border crossing with Qatar. The reopening of the crossing point, the only overland connection between the two gulf nations, will allow Qatari nationals on the Hajj to drive to the holy sites, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Qataris have been permitted to enter Saudi Arabia without the usual electronic permits issued to pilgrims. The first 120 crossed the border on Thursday.

The relaxation of restrictions for pilgrims was arranged in a meeting in Jeddah between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al-Thani, a member of Qatar's ruling family, though the agreement on religious matters appears unlikely to lead to a wider political arrangement.

Mounting tensions between Qatar and its neighbors spilled over in June, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain all cut diplomatic ties, accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism and backing regional rival Iran. Four nations issued a list of 13 provisos for the resumption of normal relations with tiny, gas-producing Qatar, also the location of the largest U.S. military base in the region. The list of demands includes closing the Doha-based, state-funded television station Al Jazeera, severing ties with Iran and closing Turkey's air base in Qatar.

Despite the schism, Qatari pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in the Muslim faith, were initially unimpeded by Saudi Arabia in their trip to the Muslim holy lands. However, in early August, Qatar said Saudi Arabia had hindered Qatari pilgrims as they made their way to the Hajj, addressing the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion. In response, Riyadh accused Qatar of a "declaration of war" over Islam's revered sites.

As the Muslim calendar entered the five-day period of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca at the end of August, the schism between Qatar and Saudi Arabia had become increasingly faith-based prior to the intervention by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al-Thani.

Qatar has tried to distance itself from the agreement over the entry of Qatari pilgrims, avoiding it as a political issue. One Qatari source told the Journal that Sheikh Abdullah had been acting in a private capacity when he visited Jeddah, rather than as an official government envoy.