Iran’s cancellation of pilgrimage flights to Saudi Arabia is an indication of deteriorating relations, using lucrative religious tourism as a foreign policy tool. The moves by Tehran come in wake of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.
Iran announced a suspension of pilgrim flights to Saudi Arabia, following allegations of a sexual assault by Saudi security personnel against two Iranian youths undertaking the Umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Umrah is an optional pilgrimage, yet some 500,000 Iranians undertake the journey every year. Iran’s suspension of Umrah flights to Saudi Arabia is ostensibly a response to the aforementioned allegations. However, the regional geopolitical context is the main driver behind Iran’s actions.
The suspension of flights comes at a time of rapidly deteriorating Saudi-Iranian relations. Tehran has grown concerned about the Saudi-led, largely Sunni Arab force in Yemen, which is targeting the predominately Shi’a Houthi rebels. It is in Iran’s interests to characterize the conflict in Yemen as a sectarian one, in order to undermine Saudi Arabia, as well as bolster its own self-proclaimed role as Shi’a protector.
Moreover, concerns about Shi’a safety during pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia mesh well with wider Shi’a concerns about Saudi actions, either in Yemen or via funding for ultra-conservative Sunni sects.
While Iran cannot openly confront Saudi Arabia, which enjoys American protection as well as carte-blanche from Washington to fight instability and terrorism in the region, other avenues are open for Tehran. Iran could follow suit with a Hajj boycott, with a carefully timed ban potentially costing Saudi Arabia billions of dollars.
This could take the form of a merely Iranian boycott, or a larger, Iranian inspired Shi’a boycott in response to Saudi actions in Yemen. Such an action would be a moral rebuke: half South African-style divestment, half Olympic boycott, a la Moscow 1980.
Interestingly, there is historical precedent for such a move by Iran. In 1987, 400 people, including 275 Iranian pilgrims, were killed in a clash with Saudi security forces following an Iranian led anti-U.S/Israel protest in Mecca. The 1987 Mecca Incident led to a halving of Iranian pilgrim visas by Riyadh, which in turn resulted in Iran boycotting the Hajj for three years from 1988-1990.
Both 1987 and 2015 share common themes: Iranian concern for pilgrims, anti-Saudi sentiments due to Riyadh’s ties to the West, and a sectarian foreign policy resulting in a religious travel ban.
Profitable pilgrims: Religious tourism worth billions
The termination of pilgrim flights to Saudi Arabia highlights the interesting role of the religious tourism industry, both within the Saudi economy and in Riyadh’s foreign policy.
The plight of the two youths mentioned earlier is but the latest in a series of attacks against Shi’as during pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia, as detailed here, here, and here. Such instances provide Iran an excuse with which to launch its anti-Saudi agitation. This undermines the Saudi economy, but also undermines the claim of King Salman’s title of ‘Custodian of the Two Mosques’ – a major source of legitimacy for the Saudi monarchy.
Religious pilgrimage is one of the major sectors of Saudi Arabia’s non-oil economy, comprising 2% of GDP. In 2014, Saudi Arabia garnered $8.5 billion from the Hajj pilgrimage alone, accounting for half of the $16 billion Saudi religious tourism industry.
Religious tourism itself is responsible for 80% of the 17.2 million visits logged by the Saudi tourism industry in 2014. Consequently, many domestic and international hospitality firms operating in Saudi Arabia have dedicated religious tourism brands and chains.
Currently, in order to increase pilgrim traffic, Saudi Arabia is investing billions in upgrading hotel and mosque infrastructure in Mecca. The $3.2 billion Jabal Omar Development in Mecca is erecting 40 hotel towers with 160,000 rooms. Similarly, the Grand Mosque is under-going a $20 billion renovation designed to increase hourly pilgrim traffic as well as increase praying space.
Lack of flexibility puts religious tourism industry at risk
The scale and structure of the Saudi religious tourism industry offers a means for Iran to agitate against Riyadh. Muslim countries are assigned pilgrim quotas many months in advance by Saudi Arabia, with pilgrims themselves needing many months to prepare.
Pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia must do so via government approved travel agents, hoteliers and other service providers. Pilgrims from outside the Gulf face even more hurdles, needing special visas, papers, and vetted guarantors.
These bureaucratic measures leave the religious tourism industry with little flexibility. With approximately 62,000 pilgrim visas in 2014, Iran was one of the larger pilgrim source nations. An 11th hour, Iranian boycott would effectively void these visas, as other countries have long ago received their quotas and acted accordingly. Even if Riyadh scrambled to create a face-saving, expedited approval process for Saudi nationals, major problems remain.
Even if all vacant places were filled, Saudi Arabia would still lose billions. This is because international pilgrims spend on average four times more than Saudi pilgrims ($4,633 vs. $1,319). Moreover, other Muslim nations chafe under Riyadh’s quotas, arguing that the limits are subject to the whims of Saudi foreign policy more than the needs of recipient nations.
A huge boost in Saudi numbers would only further anger those critical of Riyadh’s gatekeeper status. Iran’s boycott and the loss of 500,000 visitors is, in this context, a multifaceted threat: undermining Saudi Umrah revenues, potentially setting the stage for a Hajj boycott, delegitimising Saudi stewardship of holy sites, raising Shi’a concerns over pilgrim safety, and tarnishing Riyadh’s image abroad.