Sunday July 21, 2024

With Saudi ties restored, Syrians fulfil Haj dreams

June 17, 2024
A representational image of women praying. — AFP/File
A representational image of women praying. — AFP/File

MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia: By taking one of the first direct pilgrimage flights between Syria and Saudi Arabia in over a decade, Osama Kabbara realised two dreams: performing Haj and reuniting with his son.

“For me, it´s a double joy,” said the emotional 70-year-old, who had not seen Maher, his eldest son, since 2015.

But for Syrians living in government-controlled areas, it has long been out of reach.

In 2012, Saudi Arabia severed ties with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and championed his ouster, backing Syrian rebels early in the country´s civil war, which broke out following violent repression of pro-democracy demonstrations.

The following year, Saudi Arabia granted a committee from the Syrian opposition coalition -- instead of Damascus -- the right to process applications for Syrians wishing to perform the Haj.

Syrians living in government-controlled areas had to travel to neighbouring Lebanon and then perform Haj with Lebanese pilgrimage groups. Those living in areas outside government control had to travel to Saudi Arabia via rebel-backer Turkiye.

As the war dragged on, Kabbara, a resident of the Syrian capital Damascus, gave up not just on the idea of visiting Makkah and the second holy city of Madina, but also on seeing Maher, who works as a computer engineer in Saudi Arabia.

“My mother died without me being able to go see her,” Maher said.

The conditions for the two men´s tearful reunion began to take shape last year, when after a long stretch of isolation, Syria agreed to rejoin the Arab League and Assad´s government restored ties with Saudi Arabia, which has pursued a more conciliatory foreign policy in the region in recent years.