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Can Iran End Saudi Arabia's Custodianship of Islam's Holiest Sites?

By Sadab Kitatta Kaaya

29 September 2016

At this year's holy Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, there was no Iranians due to a disagreement between their country and Saudi Arabia that has extended from political misunderstandings to now the management of the sacred Hajj.

In August, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticised Saudi Arabia over how it runs the Hajj after last year's stampede in which more than 750 people died during the performance of one of the Hajj rituals.

Iran claims the deceased, many of them Iranian nationals, were "murdered" by Saudi authorities, and is now rallying the Muslim world to support its push to end Saudi Arabia's custodianship over Islam's holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah.

But the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may not yield to Iran's demands. This year's Hajj ended on September 14 without any incidents and was a big relief to the Saudi authorities and the success it registered was hoped to silence the Iranian authorities.

The Saudi ambassador to Uganda, Jamal Abdul-Aziz Raffah, could not hide the excitement during celebrations to mark the 86th anniversary of the Saudi national day.

"I'm pleased to thank and praise Allah for the completion of the pilgrimage and return of the pilgrims to their home countries after performing their rituals with ease, which was due to Allah's grace then the grace of people who were truthful to what they promised Allah," Raffah told his guests at Serena Kampala hotel on September 22.

"History over decades has consistently witnessed what the rulers of [our] country have been used to in terms of serving the pilgrims and visitors of the two holy mosques, and in this regard, they have indeed spent dearly to elevate the privilege of providing services," Raffah added.

His statements appeared to be a direct response to Khamenei who accused Saudi Arabia's ruling family, who are the custodians of the two holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah, of politicising the Hajj.

"Because of Saudi rulers' oppressive behaviour towards God's guests, the world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of Hajj," Khamenei said in a statement on his website shortly before the beginning of this year's Hajj.

It was the first time in three decades that Iran kept away its nationals from the annual pilgrimage, to the ire of Saudi Arabia.

"I reassure the keenness of my government towards serving and hosting all pilgrims including the Iranian pilgrims who were prevented by the Iranian authorities to perform Hajj, despite the acceptance of my government of their demands," Raffah said.

"How much is the demand in our it giving priority to the power of culture against the culture of power, so that we live in a world of peace, security and away from legitimizing erroneous special interests?" he added.

In its push for Saudi Arabia to lose the custodianship of Islam's holiest sites, Iran is proposing that the cities of Makkah and Madinah be administered like the Vatican. In no uncertain terms, Raffah indicated that his government would not accept the move, and warned against interference in his country's affairs.

"The constitution of my country confirms the importance of non-interference in the affairs of others, and from this point we do not allow interference in our affairs, and we are very keen that the relations between us and the world is built on mutual respect and development of relations to serve the common interests between countries and peoples," he said.


With Khamenei not stopping at rallying the Muslim world to "punish" Saudi Arabia for the 2015 Hajj stampede but going as far as calling the country's ruling family evil and cursed, Raffah hit back in equal measure.

"What raises exclamation and regret is the existence of groups and states that take advantage of horns to overcome the voice of righteous by the voice of falsehood," Raffah said. "However, these are only sounds of dissonance who proved their intellectual bankruptcy, which resented the Muslim community at a time when it was incumbent upon the Muslim nation to unite together by ignoring the violent practices of some countries, like bloodshed and turning women into widows."

Raffah's speech also brought to life memories of the 930 AD siege of the Ka’abah by Qarmatis, a group of Ismaili Shiite Muslims that outraged the Muslim world when they stole the black stone from the Ka’abah and desecrated the ZamZam well with dead bodies. "We do not need any dispute or manoeuvre of the supervisory role played by the Government of Saudi Arabia, which has been witnessed by both the ones who are far and those who are near, and whoever tries to dispute it, we ask them to bring their proof," Raffah said.

The misunderstandings between the two Middle East powerhouses relate to their support of opposing sides in the Yemen and Syria conflicts.