Saudis strive to keep Haj a strictly religious experience

Hanging over the Haj every year since l979 has been the memory of the uprising of Muslim fundamentalists which led to the seizure of the Grand Mosque at Mecca.

The rebellion occurred in the Islamic new year which is the first day following the month of the Haj, Dhu al-Hijjah.

The core of the insurrection was undoubtedly Saudi. But from the beginning of the episode, there were strong suspicions that foreigners were also involved.

Although never confirmed by the government of Saudi Arabia, 19 foreigners were beheaded in January 1980 for their participation in the uprising. What still remains a secret is whether or not Iranian Shiite followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini were involved either directly or indirectly.

Ever since the Iranian revolution, there have been reports, difficult to confirm since non-Muslims are banned from Mecca, that Iranian Shiites were turning the Haj into a yearly pro-Khomeini political rally.

This year the conflict between the Shiite Iranians and the Sunni Wahabbi Saudis broke into the open. The Iranians have accused Saudi Arabia of deliberately restricting the number of Iranian pilgrims allowed to make the Haj.

Other charges have followed, such as one claiming the Iranians will be kept isolated from the rest of the pilgrims and that the Saudi government is openly conspiring to deny housing in the pilgrimage area to Iranians.

In an uncharacteristically frank public statement by the Saudis, Prince Naif, the minister of the interior, denied the Iranian charges and leveled a barrage of his own. He noted past Iranian disturbances at Mecca, charging that for the last three years Iranian pilgrims have engaged in ''political and demagogic activities,'' distributed pro-Khomeini pamphlets, called for revolution against the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, and attempted to carry concealed weapons into the Holy Haram, the area around Mecca containing the sacred sites of the Haj.

Saudi government officials continue to insist that no measures have been taken to restrict the Iranian pilgrims. But they are also firm in their insistence that violations of the rules of the Haj or the laws of Saudi Arabia will result in severe penalties. Thus, the Iranians and the Saudis appear squared off on a religious battlefield, highly revered by all Muslims.

The Saudis, who abhor disorder, are already profoundly shaken by the ongoing war between Iraq and Iran. They would, no doubt, take great comfort in simply denying the Iranians access to the Kingdom to make the Haj. But to do this would destroy the foundations of Islamic solidarity that the House of Saud has so painstakingly built and would, in the process, break faith with the Islamic community.

In spite of the political benefits the House of Saud receives from the Haj, it takes very seriously its obligation as guardian of Mecca. Regardless of the risks involved, the Saudis will not blatantly deny any Muslim the right to make the Haj. Even if the Iranians attempt to turn the Haj into an open political contest, the Saudis will not.

Another potential difficulty arising from the Haj is the problem of pilgrims who, having completed their religious duty, stay on illegally in the Kingdom looking for work.

There are currently at least 2 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, many from poor nations. Although wages and living conditions are poor by Western standards, there exists here the opportunity for people without hope to earn enough to return home to their villages as relatively rich men.

Some Saudi employers choose to ignore the absence of visas and work permits in return for even cheaper labor. With the continuing escalation of foreigners in the country, the government of Saudi Arabia fears more than ever before that this work force will become a hostile, subversive element that could eventually threaten the stability of the Kingdom.

This is the reason for the nightmarish set of visa regulations governing foreigners entering the country. But by coming as a pilgrim, a Muslim can avoid long waits for work permits and the often expensive fees of labor recruiters. He comes, performs the rituals of the pilgrimage, and stays.

Although there have been periodic roundups of illegal foreign workers, they are largely symbolic. This year, the government is deadly serious about getting rid of the more than one million pilgrims coming for the Haj.

Maj. Gen. Fahd al-Sharif, director general of the passport department, has warned that any person overstaying his Haj visa will be treated as an offender against Saudi Arabia law and be subject to severe penalties. He added that harsh action would be taken against any person, Saudi or non-Saudi, who hides a foreigner without a valid visa.

The government has also strongly restated the requirement that all foreigners in the country must carry at all times a valid passport, an Iqama (work permit), or identity card which must be produced on request by any official.

Even bus drivers and taxi drivers have been given the responsibility of checking these documents when providing transportation for foreigners from one town to another.

In preparation for the Haj, vigorous roundups of illegal workers began in July. According to the newspaper Al-Jazirah, 5,174 people were arrested during the month of Ramadan (mid-June to mid-July). These raids will likely be intensified after the Haj, which ended last week.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.