Saudis act to ensure a trouble-free haj: As Muslims gather, Riyadh talks with Tehran in an effort to avoid tension

SAUDI authorities yesterday blocked thousands of Iranian pilgrims from staging a mass anti-Western demonstration in Mecca similar to one that led to a blood-bath six years ago, Iran's news agency said.

Hundreds of security forces with anti-riot equipment and backed by armoured personnel carriers and water cannons moved into the streets leading to the rally site, imposing a virtual curfew on the area, the Islamic Republic News Agency said.

The Saudis are crossing their fingers that no disaster will befall the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca next week.

More than 1 million Muslims from around the world have gathered in Saudi Arabia for the haj. But the Saudis have also taken out insurance. It was at his request that the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, came to Saudi Arabia and the other member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). Yet the Saudis were glad of an opportunity to express their hope of better relations, and no repetition of past troubles during the haj.

The Saudis, as guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, are acutely conscious of their responsiblilties to ensure the security of all pilgrims. The haj is one of the obligations imposed on all Muslims to perform once in their lifetimes, if they are able.

The concentration of so many people poses a serious challenge to the Saudi authorities. In the past they have accused the Iranians and the Libyans of using the haj to spread dissent and Islamic revolutionary fervour. In 1987, more than 400 pilgrims were killed, most of them Iranians, in clashes with Saudi security forces. For three years after that, Iran boycotted the haj. This year it is sending more than 100,000 pilgrims.

The haj was only one topic under discussion during Mr Velayati's week-long swing through the peninsula, which ended on Wednesday. In talks with leaders in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia, Mr Velayati stressed that Iran wanted detente.

The Gulf Arab states have historically been wary of their non- Arab neighbour, and what they see as its expansionist policy and interference in their internal affairs. There have been concerns about Iran's rearmament programme. And in the dispute between Iran and the UAE over the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, the UAE obtained the backing of the GCC states.

But the Arab states believe in pragmatic accommodation with Iran, despite their differences. Hence the cordial welcome they gave their Iranian visitor.

This was all the more galling for the Egyptians. Egypt, like Syria, had hoped to capitalise on the support it gave the Arab states in the Gulf war against Iraq by providing some security for the GCC states against external threats. President Hosni Mubarak had, just before Mr Velayati's visit, been touring the same region warning the states of the threat posed to stability by what he called Iranian support for terrorism perpetrated by Islamic extremists.

The reception given to Mr Velayati suggested that the Arab states either felt Mr Mubarak was exaggerating the dangers, or that it was best to seek dialogue with the Iranians to avoid tensions. The leading foreign affairs commentator with the authoritative Egyptian daily al-Ahram, Salama Ahmed Salama, said the two visits, following so close, was a clear attempt by Iran to persuade the Arab Gulf states that there was a need to balance their relations with Egypt on the one hand, and Iran on the other.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
news
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photo Booth Host

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company offers London's best photo booth ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers



£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'