By Tom Walsh
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, the incumbent duties for all Muslims. The other four are zakat, the charitable alms tax levied on Muslims to help the impoverished; sawm, or fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; shahadah, or the Islamic expression of faith; and salat, or prayer to be conducted five times a day. The hajj consists of a pilgrimage to Mecca in modern day Saudi Arabia, which was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This is to be done at least once in every Muslim’s lifetime, for those whose finances and health permit it.
Within the Middle East, control of Mecca and Medina fosters extensive economic and political capital for Saudi Arabia. As guardians of the holy sites, Saudi Arabia regularly portrays itself as the keepers of Islam itself, and defenders of the Muslim world. This is in the face of the extensive animosity between the kingdom and its core adversary, Iran. Whilst Iran posits itself in a similar manner, it lacks the foundations of Mecca and Medina.
My research has focused on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry for a number of years now, being played out in the proxy wars of Yemen and Syria. What I have observed is a rhetorical and physical balancing of power between the two. They use alienating sectarian discourse against one another on a frequent basis. This discourse utilises complex, religiously-loaded Arabic, Farsi and English language to unite Muslims against the other. Saudi Arabia says things like “Iran are the Shi’a aggressor, pushing across the Middle East to wipe out Sunnis, like the new Persian Empire”. Iran says things like “Saudi Arabia are a heretical kingdom, who have an explicit hatred for Shi’as, systematically murdering them”.
Here, sectarianism is a bad thing. In other words, saying that a state mistreats Shias or Sunnis detracts from that state’s right to claim themselves as leaders of the Islamic world. The hajj helps Saudi Arabia’s counter-claim to no end. Every year they receive millions of Muslims, from all denominations, into their country, to perform the holiest of acts.
This sets the context for the power the hajj wields, and the leverage it gives Saudi Arabia in the region. However, this year is a striking exception following the cancellation of hajj. Due to fears over Covid-19, the kingdom decided it could not go ahead at all, as it was planned to on 30th July. This means that thousands of older Muslims may never get a chance to perform the hajj again, dying before they have completed this fundamental spiritual ritual. Many individuals across the Muslim world are in true despair.
Furthermore, one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest strengths over Iran is its economic might. In 2019 the kingdom recorded a GDP of $785 billion, compared to Iran’s $485 billion. Most of Saudi Arabia’s revenue comes from oil, the prices of which have plummeted due to COVID-19. The oil and gas sectors have, over the last few years, accounted for 50% of GDP. With the current oil crisis, GDP is expected to shrink more than 3% this year. This is putting it on track for the deepest contraction in two decades.
Whilst Iran is also suffering from COVID-19, their GDP is not so closely tied to oil. Furthermore, they do not depend on the hajj as one of the other primary sources. The hajj generates $12 billion for Saudi Arabia’s GDP each year, which accounts for 20% of the country’s non-oil GDP and 7% of overall GDP. It is highly likely that Iran will use Saudi’s weakened economic, political, and religious authority against them, to push them back in the struggle for power.
The most important context through which to view this is the Yemeni conflict. What has guided my work more than anything has been a desire to shed light on Saudi atrocities in Yemen, and to hold them accountable for their despicable behaviour. The international community has been all-but silent on the intervention, since its beginning in March 2015. This is because Saudi Arabia provides the West with much of its oil.
Yemen is one of the worst humanitarian crises the modern world has seen. 80% of the country’s 28.5 million population require urgent humanitarian aid. This has been caused directly by the Saudi blockade of Yemeni ports, literally preventing food and aid from entering the country, with American assistance. Way over 100 thousand people have been killed. It is worth remembering that the UK and US supply the majority of bombs to Saudi Arabia. Over half the country is on the brink of starvation, and this is getting worse every day. Unbelievably, in the modern world, the country is facing a horrific cholera pandemic, with over 1 million cases. 25% of these are associated with children according to the UNHCR. This is not to mention the impact of COVID-19.
The Saudi regime is on the back foot right now. Hajj is cancelled, oil prices are dropping, and Yemen is getting more and more horrifying by the day. They are responsible for this and must be held accountable. I want to be very clear that I am by no means commending Iran for anything. The international community must continue to put pressure on them as well, for their human rights record, and their involvement in Syria.
Yemeni lives are just as valuable as anybody else’s, and must be saved. The lack of hajj this year is devastating to many Muslims, yet nevertheless weakens the country that is currently murdering them on a mass scale. It is time for the region and the international community to strike while the iron is still hot, and take action on Saudi Arabia.
Peter Kelly via Flickr