Riyadh (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has ordered the reopening of the border with Qatar to facilitate the annual hajj pilgrimage, state media said Thursday, in the first signs of a thaw after the region’s worst diplomatic crisis in years.
The border had been shut after regional kingpin Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing the emirate of fostering Islamist extremist groups.
The announcement came after Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received an envoy from Doha, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, in the first public high-level encounter between the nations after the crisis erupted.
The king has ordered that Qatari pilgrims be allowed “to enter Saudi Arabia through the border crossing to do the pilgrimage”, a statement on SPA said.
He even ordered that private jets belonging to Saudi airlines be sent to Doha airport “to bring all Qatari pilgrims on his expenses”.
The crown prince emphasised the “historical relations between Saudi and Qatari people, and between the Saudi leadership and the royal family in Qatar”, the statement added.
Saudi Arabia had last month said that Qataris wanting to perform this year’s hajj would be allowed to enter the kingdom for the pilgrimage, but imposed certain restrictions including that Qatari pilgrims arriving by plane must use airlines in agreement with Riyadh.
Qatari authorities had subsequently accused Saudi Arabia of jeopardising the pilgrimage to Mecca by refusing to guarantee their pilgrims’ safety.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies shut down air, maritime and land links with Qatar, and imposed economic sanctions, accusing Doha of supporting “terrorists” and of being too close to their regional nemesis Iran.
Qatar denied the allegations and denounced what it called a “blockade” aimed at bringing the wealthy emirate to its knees.
The tiny emirate with a population of 2.6 million, 80 percent of them foreigners, ranks as the world’s richest on a per-capita basis, according to the International Monetary Fund.
It holds a staggering $330 billion in a sovereign wealth fund, with assets heavily invested abroad.
The hajj, a pillar of Islam that capable Muslims must perform at least once in a lifetime, is to take place this year at the beginning of September.
More than 1.8 million faithful took part in last year’s hajj. The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam and all Muslims who can must perform it at least once in their lives.