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Despite Rift, Saudi Arabia Says It Will Allow Qatari Pilgrims To Conduct Hajj

After a meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) and a member of the Qatari royal family, Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani, Saudi Arabia said Thursday that it is reopening its border with Qatar to allow Qataris to attend the hajj.

Qatar has been isolated by neighboring countries in a heated diplomatic standoff. But on Thursday, Saudi Arabia announced that it plans to open its border to allow pilgrims from the tiny Gulf country to make the annual hajj to Islam's holiest sites.

The announcement comes after a meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a member of the Qatari royal family, Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani.

According to a report in the Saudi state news agency, both men spoke about the "brotherly feelings" between the two nations — a marked change in tone from the highly public spat in which Saudi Arabia has accused Qatar of funding terrorist organizations and has blockaded the country.

The Saudi crown prince said the country would open the Salwa border crossing to Qatari citizens who wanted to perform the hajj, without requiring them to obtain electronic permits. The hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca required of every Muslim who can afford it and is physically able to make it at least once in their life, begins later this month and ends in early September.

The official news agency added that the Saudi king would dispatch Saudi planes to Qatar's capital, Doha, "to fly all Qatari pilgrims at his own expense to the city of Jeddah and host them completely at the expense of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques."

A Saudi official named Hussein Al-Sharif, undersecretary of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, told the Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya that Saudi Arabia has reserved a 4,000-square-meter plot for some 2,400 Qatari pilgrims in "the most desirable area" along a primary hajj route.

Just last month, Saudi Arabia had said pilgrims from Qatar "would face certain restrictions if they wanted to attend the Hajj," according to the BBC. In response, a Qatari human rights organization complained to the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of belief and religion.

It's worth noting that the Qatari royal family member who met with the Saudi crown prince does not hold an official government position and his "branch of the family was ousted in a place coup in 1972," The Associated Press reports.

"He's certainly not an envoy of the Qatari government. This was not a deal that was struck," Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations and Gulf studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, tells the wire service.

Nonnemann added that Sheikh Abdullah has lived in Saudi Arabia previously and that "his last position was as head of the equestrian and camel racing federation in the 1970s and 1980s."

There was no comment from Qatari government officials for about 12 hours after the news broke, according to the AP.

At a news conference in Sweden, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani called it a "step forward" but warned that it was "politically motivated," the BBC reported.

Saudi Arabia's actions are being praised by regional allies such as the United Arab Emirates. The country's state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted, "Every day, Saudi proves how big it is, and Qatar's clamor and politicization of the hajj must end. ... There are things bigger than politics."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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