Saudi Arabia stands accused of blocking Palestinian communities' religious pilgrimages to Mecca as part of an effort to project their political will on the region.

Reports have come to the surface that Saudi Arabia is, at the very least, severely restricting access to Palestinian communities from religious ceremonies such as Hajj and Umrah, taken place in Mecca every year. 

The decision stands to affect hundreds of thousands and implicates foul play in Saudi foreign policy.

The first account from a human rights group in Lebanon cites that Saudi Arabia has banned Palestinians from Lebanon from performing Hajj this year. 

The group criticised it as an obstruction of religious freedom and hinders these Palestinians' freedom of movement. While there has been no official comment, this directive affects up to 300,000 Palestinian Muslims from exercising their religious and fundamental freedoms. This move as a stand-alone is not striking. However, other reports from Jordan and the Palestinian Territories indicate possible political motives.

In Jordan, a number of sources have confirmed that Saudi Arabia has issued a ban on Palestinians holding a temporary Jordanian passport. The passport does not allow the holder access to civil services and are not considered nationals under the state law. 

This is apparently done to preserve the Palestinians ‘Right to Return’ back to their homeland upon the manifestation of a peace agreement - ultimately reducing the overall Palestinian population in Jordan. 

This indicates pressure on the Jordanian government to nationalise these Palestinians, thus withdrawing their Palestinian identity.

In addition, reports have emerged that Palestinians are only allowed entry to perform Hajj and Umrah if their documents are issued by the Palestinian Authority. While this may not seem like an offensive move, this puts at risk the residency status of those living in East Jerusalem. 

To clarify, Palestinians in East Jerusalem have documents from both Palestinian and Israeli authorities and are recognised as East Jerusalem residents by both authorities. 

An anonymous travel agent is quoted as saying, “Palestinians in Jerusalem are afraid of the repercussions of this decision. If they apply for a document issued by the PA, they are afraid their legal status and residence in Jerusalem could be put in jeopardy.” 

The report continues, “It is unclear if passports issued for Palestinians in East Jerusalem by the PA will have a national number. If so, it could potentially allow Israel's interior ministry to revoke their Jerusalem residency rights and expel them as foreign nationals under the 1952 'Entry to Israel' law.”

These three coinciding events indicate an attempt to shuffle the Palestinian population using soft power to interfere in delicate international relations.

Had this been the first instance of the Kingdom using Hajj and Umrah as political tools this may seem like mere skepticism. But still fresh in the minds of many is the ban Saudi Arabia attempted to enforce on the Qatari community, highlighting their willingness to weaponise Islam's holiest sites. The move faced a severe backlash and was consequently reversed.

In the meanwhile, a report from the Syrian Ministry of Religious Affairs highlights an ongoing ban, “Saudi authorities for the seventh consecutive year do not allow the Syrian citizens to perform a pilgrim ritual of Hajj. The conditions of the pilgrimage cannot be fulfilled because of the politicization of Hajj by Saudi authorities despite multiple contacts between the [Saudi] Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs and the Syrian Foreign Ministry.” 

International bodies condemned the bans against Qataris and Syrians as "un-Islamic".

While it is clear that the oil-rich kingdom is flexing its political muscle, the question is should the international community respond? 

One official from the Tunisian Union of Imams, Fadhel Ashour, suggests an international boycott of the religious ceremonies in protest of Saudi Arabian war-mongering in the region. 

He says, “The money that goes to Saudi authorities [from the Hajj] is not used to help poor Muslims around the world. Instead it is used to kill and displace people as is the case currently in Yemen.”

Observing Islamic principles, Hajj is must be performed by all those capable of doing so; does this capability now equate to obedience or deference to Saudi Arabia's politics? 

As the self-proclaimed heralds of the Islamic world, the Saudi authorities must, at the very least, refrain from such hypocrisy. Ultimately, their political agenda in the case of Palestine, Yemen, Iran, Syria, Qatar, amongst others, is forcing millions of Muslims to make political decisions in exchange for their religious rights. 

A boycott of these ceremonies, which generates billions—Saudi Arabia's second largest income earner after hydrocarbons—for the Saudi Kingdom every year could help influence a moral shift and cease this abuse of power.

In sum, then, it would seem, that question would now better phrased: for how much longer can Saudi Arabia use religion as a political tool?

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