Swine flu concerns hurt Saudi’s tourist revenues
JEDDAH - Saudi Arabia, which has already seen a sharp decline in the number of religious tourists over the first nine months of this year, is facing a difficult Haj season as it announced the deaths o
JEDDAH – Saudi Arabia, which has already seen a sharp decline in the number of religious tourists over the first nine months of this year, is facing a difficult Haj season as it announced the deaths of four pilgrims from swine flu.
The Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is extremely important to the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, which relies on religious tourism to diversify its income.
However, this year’s Haj, which starts tomorrow, has been plagued by fears over the spread of the H1N1 virus in addition to escalating political tensions with Iran, in particular its clergy and the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed last month that the Saudi government should not host the pilgrims because of its treatment of Shiite pilgrims and alliance with the United States.
The tension between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran increased after the latter criticised Riyadh’s ongoing air-and-ground operation against al Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of arming the rebels.
Despite the accusatory rhetoric between the two countries, Saudi officials attempted to allay fears yesterday that Iran or its pilgrims would attempt to disrupt the Haj. The Saudi interior minister and second deputy premier, Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, told a press conference yesterday that Iranian officials are sending the right signals.
“We heard contradictory statements by our brothers in Iran, but the latest statements were good,” Prince Naif said in Mecca during a visit to the holy city to gauge the kingdom’s Haj preparations.
“We hope that they [Iranian pilgrims] perform this ritual as God commanded us,” Prince Naif said in the statement carried by Saudi media.
Prince Naif said the kingdom does not need any guarantees from Iran not to sabotage this year’s Haj season. “Everyone knows that we will confront forcefully any attempt to tamper with Haj security, but I hope that nothing will happen.”