Saudi Arabia determined to keep custodianship of Islam’s central places

Faced with low oil prices and challenges to its influence, the Saudi Kingdom’s role as the custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is becoming more important, writes analyst Kamran Bokhari in Geopolitical Futures’ daily digest (Sept. 1). For a long time, the Saudi dynasty was aware of the importance of controlling the Hejaz for playing a dominant strategic role in the Middle East. But the significance of the holy cities, under Saudi control since 1927, goes beyond regional politics and influence since they are magnets for Muslims all around the world. Without the discovery of oil and the riches it brought to the leaders of the Kingdom, Bokhari notes, it is not certain that the Saudis would still be in charge of Islam’s holiest places today. But controlling them also involves responsibilities. Not a few Muslims are complaining about the way Saudis manage the pilgrimage and sometimes mistreat pilgrims. It is vital for the Kingdom to be able to maintain security and stability, even at times of regional insecurity and domestic turmoil, if it does not want to see its control over the sites challenged. For years, the only country calling for an internationalization of the holy places has been Iran.

Interestingly, during the recent crisis opposing Saudi Arabia and its regional allies to Qatar, one of the accusations against Qatar was that it had allegedly asked for the internationalization of Mecca and Medina—something that the Qataris denied. According to Bokhari’s analysis, such reactions mostly express the Saudis’ own feeling of insecurity, since there is not (yet) any real challenge to their control of the sites. But such questions might be raised depending upon the turn of events in the future. If foreign troops of the Islamic Military Alliance created to fight terrorism in late 2015 by the Saudis were someday called to protect the hajj, this development might also have longer-term consequences for Saudi control, Bokhari concludes.

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