Qatari pilgrims began arriving in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, Saudi media reported, after Riyadh said it was opening up its border and airports for those attending the annual hajj pilgrimage despite a diplomatic rift that cut travel ties.
Qatar welcomed the Saudi decision to open the border and provide flights for Qatari pilgrims, but saw the move as politically motivated, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed transport links with Qatar in June and imposed sanctions, accusing it of supporting terrorists which Doha denies.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said the Salwa border point would be open for Qataris performing the hajj, which this year runs from late August to early September.
Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television and state television reported that 50 Qatari pilgrims had entered Saudi territory on Thursday through the Salwa crossing, which was opened for the first time since the four-nation boycott of Qatar began.
The pilgrims entered as guests of the Saudi king, al-Arabiya said. There was no immediate confirmation of the report by border officials on the Qatari side of the frontier.
“Despite the fact it’s been politically motivated to ban the Qatari people from haj and politically motivated that they allow them (in)…, we welcome such a step, which is a step forward to get rid of this blockade that is imposed against my country,” Sheikh Mohammed told a news conference on a visit to Sweden.
He did not elaborate on what he meant by “politically motivated”.
Saudi Arabia had already said Qatari pilgrims would not be affected by the travel restrictions, but some Qataris have said they faced difficulties organising the trip.
Qatari pilgrims can cross the frontier without the permits usually needed to be obtained in advance for the haj, SPA said.
The Saudi king has ordered the dispatch of a Saudi Airlines plane to fly Qatari pilgrims to Jeddah at his own expense, SPA added. Qatari pilgrims would also be able to pass through two of the kingdom’s airports, it added.