Thursday, May 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Saudis Cut Russia’s Haj Quota, Creating Problems for Medvedev

Paul Goble

Baku, May 1 – Saudi Arabia has cut the quota for Russia’s Muslims who want to make the haj from 26,000 last year to 20,000 this, a number that corresponds to the formula the Saudis apply to the Muslim communities everywhere else but one that create problems for incoming
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
In 2007, his predecessor Vladimir Putin said he had been able to convince the Saudis to modify the quota because of what he and his staff said was “pent up demand” left over from Soviet times when only a handful of Muslims from the USSR were able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca that the faithful are required to make once in a lifetime if they are able.
That such pent-up demand existed and continues to exist was demonstrated last year when more than 40,000 Muslims in the Russian Federation applied to go, despite dramatically higher prices, a demand that forced regional governments in that country to select from various applicants in various ways.
Putin’s achievement won him enormous credit with many of the more than 20 million Muslims of the Russian Federation, but it also created expectations that Moscow would continue to be able to push the Saudis in violating their rules on the number of hajis this year and in the future.
Now, however, according to a preliminary agreement between the Russian haj commission and the Saudi government, Riyadh does not appear willing to continue that practice, thus undermining Medvedev’s standing among Russia’s Muslims and possibly forcing him to spend political capital, as Putin did last year, to force the Saudis to change their minds.
According to Saudi rules, each country is allowed to send on the haj one-tenth of one percent of the number of Muslims living in it. For what the Saudis say are the 20 million Muslims of the Russian Federation, that yields a quota of 20,000, a number Russian Muslims had not bumped up against until two years ago.
Last Sunday, a Russian delegation, including an official of the Russian government’s Committee on the Haj, Tatarstan Mufti Gusman Iskhakov, and representatives of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) of Daghestan and Chechnya (the two republics from which the overwhelming majority of Russian pilgrims come), agreed to the new quota.
In making the announcement, Iskhakov noted that “last year, the quota for Russians grew by several thousand thanks to special places for residents of the Chechen republic.” As a result, “in 2007, for the first time more than 26,000 believing Muslims from Russia went on the pilgrimage” (, April 28).
(Iskhakov’s explanation of last year’s boost may be closer to the truth than Putin’s statements at the time. But if that is so, that alone will infuriate many Muslims elsewhere who resent Moscow’s deference to Ramzan Kadyrov’s republic and might encourage some of them to take a new look at the strategies Chechens have used to put pressure on Russia.)
But the agreement announced this past weekend is not the end of the story: Last year, the initial accord between Moscow and Riyadh set the quota at 20,000 as well, and it almost certainly would have remained at that level except for Putin’s repeated and very vocal intervention.
Now, at the start of his presidency, Medvedev almost certainly will be under pressure to try to do the same thing, lest he face an alienated Muslim community at home. But both because he has less clout than Putin and because the Saudis are not interested in again offending Muslims in other countries, there is no guarantee he will succeed in boosting the number.
And consequently, a little known Saudi rule governing the number of Muslims who can make the required pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest shrines could have a major impact on the future of Medvedev’s presidency and even on the stability of the Russian Federation in the coming years.

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