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Saudis may bless Arafat pilgrimage

SIGNS of some improvement in the relationship between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Saudi Arabia, badly impaired because of the PLO's stance in the Gulf crisis, have emerged with reports that the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, might shortly be allowed into the kingdom to perform pilgrimage.

A senior PLO official declared in Amman that Mr Arafat had received an official written acceptance on Monday to his request to perform the umra. The umra, sometimes known as the little pilgrimage, can be performed throughout the year. The main haj is an annual event.

According to Arab diplomats, Mr Arafat put in a request to go on pilgrimage to Mecca when on his visit to London last month he met the Saudi ambassador, Ghazi Algosaibi. He said that before he returned to Jericho, the embryo of the Palestinian entity under the terms of the PLO-Israel accord, he wished to go on pilgrimage.

The request puts the Saudis in a delicate situation. King Fahd, who styles himself Custodian of the Two Holy Places, has a responsibility to allow Muslims to enter the country for pilgrimage, so long as they do not endager public security. However, if Mr Arafat were to enter, his visit, for ostensibly private religious purposes, would have to be accorded some official recognition.

Other signs have emerged recently of a thawing of the relations between Saudi Arabia and the PLO. On 6 January the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in London published prominently on the front page an exchange of cables between King Fahd and Mr Arafat. Mr Arafat had offered congratulations to the Saudi monarch on behalf of the PLO and himself on the inauguration of the Shura (consultative) council in Saudi Arabia.

In reply, King Fahd thanked Mr Arafat, the PLO and their 'dear people' for this sentiment and added: 'I pray to God on high to help all towards the good of our Arab and Islamic nation and the achievement of its benevolent goals, foremost among which is the realisation of the hopes and aims of the Palestinian people at this important stage of its history, in which it is building its institutions as a foundation for the building of its independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.'

For several weeks, Mr Arafat's main lieutenant in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Faisal Husseini, has been in Saudi Arabia, seeing officials. Mr Arafat would like both political and financial support from the Saudis, who used to be the PLO's main backers. They contributed more than dollars 850m ( pounds 570m) in the 10 years from 1978 to 1988. They have now pledged dollars 50m to the Palestinian development fund, but it is payable through the World Bank, not the PLO.