The blockade of Qatar has already interfered with the country's political and economic activities, but perhaps not the religious activities of its people. Saudi Arabia will open the Salwa border crossing to Qatari Hajj pilgrims, without the burden of electronic permits, the Saudi Press agency reported Aug. 17. King Salman also ordered that Saudi-chartered planes be sent to ferry Qatari pilgrims from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province to Jeddah and from there to pilgrimage sites. Qatar's foreign minister said he welcomed the decision but cautioned that the Hajj pilgrimage, which will begin either Aug. 29 or 30, should not be politicized.
The Hajj agreement shows some softening on the Saudi side of the diplomatic conflict between Qatar and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It's the first notable sign of capitulation from Saudi Arabia, other than a quiet pullback from its 13 demands for changes in Qatari behavior. The decision, however, is a gesture toward Qatari citizens, not Qatari leaders. Opening the Hajj to Qataris gives Saudi Arabia an easy way to back off slightly while saving face and preserving its reputation as a fair custodian of the international event. (Riyadh chafes at being accused of politicizing the pilgrimage, although it's occasionally been used as a tool in disputes with other countries.)
The Qatari representative who met with the Saudi crown prince to hammer out the deal was Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani. Interestingly, some Qatari sources have said that he is little known and does not represent the royal family. But Saudi Arabia has portrayed him as hailing from a branch of the al-Thani family tree that led the country before a series of coups altered the line of succession. This is one of several times in the crisis when either Saudi Arabia or Qatar have dredged up a little-known royal on the other side to speak or negotiate on their rival's behalf. It's a unique tactic that shows how deeply these GCC states seek to meddle in the families of rivals for their own benefit.