By Alex Thurston

During the week of September 24, Saudi Arabian authorities detained and subsequently deported over 1,000 Nigerian female pilgrims who were on the hajj to Mecca. In response, Nigeria halted pilgrimage flights to the Kingdom. Four days later, Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Olugbenga Ashiru met with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, to discuss the issue. By early October, the dispute had been patched up, and flights from Nigeria to the Kingdom began anew. The incident caused considerable tension between the two countries, and may add to long-standing resentments on both sides. Saudi Arabia takes a political risk by antagonizing Nigeria, which is home to the largest Muslim community in sub-Saharan Africa, the source of an estimated 95,000 pilgrims this year, and a fellow member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The dispute between Saudi and Nigerian authorities centers on the issue of “male guardianship” for female pilgrims under forty-five years of age. Nigeria’s interpretation – and practice, until this year – has been for trained government pilgrim officers to act as chaperones for Nigerian women pilgrims who do not have another male escort. Saudi Arabia’s interpretation is that female pilgrims must be accompanied by a male relative. Another complicating factor concerns legal names: some Nigerian pilgrims report being denied entry because their names as shown on their passports did not match their husbands’ names, even if their husbands were physically present. Regulations requiring men and women to pass separately through airport security allegedly contributed to the dispute, leaving some women separated from their designated escorts. Saudi Arabia’s interpretation seemingly won out: as flights from Nigeria resumed, the Hajj Commission of Nigeria directed “state pilgrims’ welfare boards, agencies, to ensure that only female pilgrims that have the appropriate Muharram (male companion) are boarded.”

Nigerian political leaders like Aminu Tambuwal, Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, called for restraint in Nigerians’ responses to the controversy, but religious leaders involved with hajj operations voiced outrage. The Sultan of Sokoto, foremost among Northern Nigeria’s hereditary Muslim rulers and Amir al Hajj (Commander of the Hajj) for this year, condemned the Saudi government’s conduct:

They never raised this issue and never demanded that the female pilgrims must have a muharram. They did not make this a requirement for issuing visas. They issued visas to all these pilgrims, only to embarrass, detain and threaten to deport them when they arrived in the holy land. How can they do this to us? The chairman of the National Hajj Commission assured me that the Saudis never asked for this during all the meetings they held. This is very unfortunate. We have done a lot over the years to improve on our hajj operation and we do not deserve this humiliation.

Much of the Nigerian press also reacted angrily to the episode. One editorial concludes, “Our government needs to insist that it will not brook inhumane, disrespectful and contemptuous treatment of our citizens, whether in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.”

The hajj, as one of the five pillars of Islam, is a duty for every Muslim who has the physical and financial ability to undertake it. To complete the hajj, pilgrims must not only go to Mecca, but must also discharge a set of ritual obligations. Pilgrims often spend considerable time preparing for the hajj. The insult many Nigerians have perceived in Saudi Arabia’s deportation of the female pilgrims, then, is both diplomatic and religious: the move hints that some Nigerian Muslims do not understand or observe the core ritual requirements of Islam. Needless to say, Nigerian Muslims reject this characterization.

Nigeria’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is long and complex. Nigeria has sometimes been the recipient of religious outreach from the Kingdom, which has built mosques and undertaken charity projects there, but some Nigerians see Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam as overly rigid, especially with regard to Sufism. The relationship has included warm cooperation at the highest levels – the independence-era Northern Nigerian leader Al Hajj Ahmadu Bello served as vice president of the Saudi-led Muslim World League in the early 1960s – as well as bitter complaints. Inside Saudi Arabia, Nigerians are sometimes considered a problematic population of illegal immigrants, beggars, prostitutes, and thieves. Nigerians, meanwhile, have sometimes complained of racism, rigidity, and religious intolerance in the Kingdom. Accounts by Nigerian pilgrims from the 1950s to the present have often expressed admiration for the Kingdom’s material development and pious atmosphere, but also voiced disappointment in the behavior of Saudi merchants and policemen. The pilgrimage itself has been a source of strain: many years have brought logistical problems, sometimes severe, on either the Nigerian or the Saudi side, or both.

The two countries have incentives to work together: Nigerian pilgrims make up around 5% of the estimated 1.8 million pilgrims expected in Saudi Arabia this year, a significant portion. The Kingdom, part of whose religious legitimacy derives from its custodianship of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, has something to lose from a heated dispute with Nigeria over pilgrims. Nigeria – where the hajj sometimes causes controversy in domestic politics due to allegations of corruption and emergencies involving pilgrims – also wants the hajj to go as smoothly as possible. Yet the deportations of the Nigerian female pilgrims may end up reinforcing negative attitudes on both parts: some Nigerians will see the incident as a further proof of perceived Saudi intransigence and arrogance, while some Saudis will see it as yet another instance of Nigerians’ alleged refusal to respect the rules. This dispute may be over, but it signals that tensions may remain in the two countries’ interactions on the hajj for years to come.

Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. For 2011-2012, he is conducting dissertation fieldwork in Northern Nigeria. Alex has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, and The Guardian. He blogs at http://sahelblog.wordpress.com, and is a regular contributor to The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

(Photo: Pilgrims converge on Mecca to perform the hajj, by Fadi El Binni, 2010. Source: Al Jazeera English. Some rights reserved. http://www.flickr.com/photos/aljazeeraenglish/5205573976/)