Saudi Arabia has been detaining individuals at the holy sites in Mecca and Medina for showing support for Gaza and praying for Palestine. This came after a British actor and presenter, Islah Abdur-Rahman, during a pilgrimage in Mecca, was detained for wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh and carrying a Palestinian-colored tasbih.
Islah Abdur-Rahman remarked, “I was stopped by four soldiers for wearing a white keffiyeh around my head and a Palestinian-coloured tasbih (rosary beads) around my wrist. I was escorted to an off-site location where they detained people for possible crimes or offences.”
“Once I was detained, there were other soldiers who interrogated me and asked me about my nationality, why I’m here, where I travelled from, how long I’m here for…It was evident that the scarf was the issue. They were talking in Arabic but they kept saying ‘Palestinian keffiyeh’ and looking at the scarf.”
According to the British actor, a Saudi soldier reprimanded him for raking up the issue of ‘Israel-Palestine’ in Mecca by wearing the keffiyeh. He was eventually released but warned against wearing the scarf. He signed a release form and gave his fingerprints before leaving the keffiyeh behind.
An Algerian man was also arrested in Saudi Arabia for praying for Palestinians. He was detained for six hours, questioned, and his phone was confiscated to delete a video of his prayers for Gaza, the Middle East Eye report said .
“In Medina, I did my prayers and I took the opportunity to supplicate for the children and victims in Palestine…Is it a crime to pray for the oppressed? I did not know that this was forbidden in the holy sites,” he said. He claimed, “I had not even finished my prayers before soldiers came and took my phone and they made me delete a video where I was praying for people in Gaza.”
The head of religious affairs at the Grand Mosque, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, advised against explicit comments or gestures regarding the war in Gaza.
Moreover, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has placed Saudi Arabia in a challenging situation. The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas presents a complex challenge for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The escalating violence poses a significant threat MBS's attempts to normalize relations with Israel and to foster the diversification of Saudi Arabia’s economy.
The coming normalisation of Saudi Arabia-Israel relations is said to be one of key motivations behind Hamas's attack on Israel on October 7. US President Joe Biden has said that Hamas was motivated to attack Israel in part by a desire to stop that country from normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia.
Jerusalem and Riyadh had been steadily inching closer to normalization, with Biden working to help bring the two countries together, announcing plans in September at the Group of 20 summit in India to partner on a shipping corridor. However, the Israel-Hamas war is also likely to stall other diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East.