Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Saudis Turn Down Moscow Request for Increase in Haj Quota

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 27 – The Saudi Arabian ministry that sets country-by-country quotas for Muslims wishing to make the pilgrimage to Mecca has turned down Moscow’s request for a near doubling of the Russian number from 20,000 to 39,700 because of what President Vladimir Putin and others say is pent-up demand left over from Soviet times.
Earlier this year, Putin made this pitch to Saudi leaders during his visit to the kingdom, and last week, the Russian government’s Haj Commission repeated it during a visit to Riyadh. But the Saudi Haj Ministry rejected these appeals, Russian agencies reported this week (
Still on the table, Russian participants in last week’s negotiations say, is a fall-back Russian request for 5,000 additional haj slots for Muslims from the Russian Federation. But it is unclear whether the Saudis will be willing to violate their own rules to grant such a request from Moscow.
According to the Saudis, who exercise control over Islam’s two most holy sites, Mecca and Medina, each country around the world is to be allotted an annual haj quota equal to one-tenth of one percent of the Muslims living in it. Given the estimated 20 million Muslims living in Russia, the figure for that country should equal 20,000.
But because many of Russia’s Muslims who would have liked to make the haj earlier were blocked by Soviet anti-religious campaigns and because the economic recovery of some Muslim regions in the Russian Federation means more can afford to go, they last year bumped up against and may in fact have exceeded that figure.
If significant numbers of them try to do an end run around the Russian haj commission and go on their own, a very real possibility this year, the situation could become potentially explosive. And at the very least would likely mean that many who made the haj this way would carry back Saudi-based Wahhabist ideas.
That risk could help to explain why Putin made the request in the first place. But now that the Saudis have refused it, there are three questions certain to agitate many Muslims across the Russian Federation and especially in the northern Caucasus and Daghestan.
First, did Putin make the request for an increase in the number of Russian haji spaces in good faith? Or did the Russian president do so knowing in advance that it would be turned down, allowing him to pose as a defender of Islam and to blame others for these limits.
Second, is the Russian government prepared to impose even more draconian controls over its southern borders to prevent an explosion in the number of unregulated hajis – and could it be that some in Moscow welcome just such an opportunity to take a step few in Western governments would object to?
And third, will the Saudi action, entirely justified by Islamic tradition but offensive to many Muslims in Russia, have the effect of reducing the influence of Arab groups on Russia’s Muslims or alternatively of increasing the influence of those like Al-Qaeda who oppose Riyadh?

UPDATE ON JULY 4 -- On July 2, Akhmed Bilalov of the Russian Haj Commission confirmed that this year the Saudis will permit 20,500 Muslims from the Russian Federation to make the haj (

UPDATE ON JULY 11. On July 10, Bilalov said that his commission would continue to press for a higher ceiling after Russian Muslims had filled the 20,500 slots the Saudis have allotted them. He also announced that his commission has parcelled out the available slots in the follow way: Daghestan will get 13,400; Chechnya, 3,000; Tatarstan, 2500; and Ingushetiya, 1400. That leaves 200 spaces for all other Muslims in Russia (

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