Riyadh opens land border and airports to Qatar pilgrims

King Salman orders special measures for Hajj travellers despite ongoing boycott of Doha

Jeddah, Dhu-AlQa dah 25, 1438, August 17, 2017, SPA -- In this image released by the Saudi Press Agency, Vice Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets at the Peace Palace in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassem Al Thani. Saudi Arabia said Thursday it is reopening its border with Qatar to allow Qataris to attend the hajj amid a monthslong rift between the neighboring countries that led to both sides trading accusations of politicizing the ritual. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
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Qatari pilgrims began entering Saudi Arabia by road on Thursday after King Salman ordered the reopening of the border and permitted direct flights between Doha and Saudi Arabia for the Hajj.

King Salman's decision, which was announced on Wednesday, eases two of the main restrictions imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia and three other countries who accuse it of supporting terrorism.

The Saudi transport ministry said the Salwa border crossing was opened to Qatari citizens wishing to perform the annual pilgrimage. Pilgrims crossing the border would then be flown to Jeddah at the king's expense from King Fahad International Airport in Dammam and Al Ahsa International Airport in the Eastern Province, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

King Salman's orders followed a meeting in Jeddah on Wednesday between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani, a member of Qatar's ruling family.

Sheikh Abdullah stressed the historical relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and requested the measures to ease the entry of Qatari Hajj pilgrims, SPA reported.

It was the first public high-level encounter between the nations since the crisis erupted on June 5, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic and travel links with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of supporting terrorism and extremism and other policies that destabilise the region. Qatar denies the charges.

Qatar welcomed the moves by Saudi Arabia but said it considered them to be politically motivated.

"Despite the fact it's been politically motivated to ban the Qatari people from Hajj and politically motivated that they allow them ... we welcome such a step," Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said.

Saudi Arabia had already said that Qatari citizens would be able perform Hajj as usual this year despite the boycott of their country, but would be required to travel only on airlines approved by Riyadh.

Qatar's foreign minister also stressed that Sheikh Abdullah's visit to Jeddah had been in his private capacity.

"It is protocol that the ruling families, when someone needs an appointment, be received by someone from the royal family, but we need to make sure the Hajj season is not politicised at all," he said during a visit to Sweden.

Sheikh Mohammed said that the two countries would begin coordinating efforts to ensure the safety of the Qatari pilgrims but "if or in case there isn’t any coordination, then the Saudi authorities will have to maintain the safety of our pilgrims".

Besides allowing Qatari pilgrims to travel directly from Doha, King Salman also decreed that Saudi Airlines send planes to Doha to bring to Jeddah at his expense, SPA said.

However, the ban on Qatar Airways flying to the kingdom remains in place.

With Qatar Airways is barred from entering Saudi air space, other airlines in the region are preparing for higher demand from the 2 million Hajj pilgrims expected to travel to Mecca between August 17 and September 11.

Emirates Airlines has said it has scheduled nearly 60 extra flights — 45 to Jeddah and 12 to Medina — as well as operating its A380 aircraft on the Medina route during this Hajj season.