The government of Nigeria has suspended all airplane flights for Muslims seeking to perform the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, to Saudi Arabia to protest the kingdom’s deportation of hundreds of Nigerian women.
About 1,000 Nigerian Muslim women who planned to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca have been detained at airports in Jeddah and Medina since Sunday, apparently for arriving without any male escorts (which is forbidden during the Hajj).
Nigerian officials, who are flying to Saudi Arabia to complain, have claimed that the rule requiring women be accompanied by a male relative during the Hajj would be lifted for Nigerian citizens.
BBC reported that the Saudis have already deported 170 of the women and plan to imminently expel another 500.
“We're not happy about the situation. Other than the Hajj, we would not be interested in coming back to Saudi Arabia, but unfortunately it is the holy land to us Muslims,” a Nigerian pilgrim lamented to BBC.
"Honestly, both governments [Nigeria and Saudi Arabia] are to blame, ours and theirs. They're telling us that our government has been aware of what are the requirements for the visa application and granting our visas."
Nigeria's Saudi Ambassador Abubakar Shehu Bunu has lodged a formal complaint over the brouhaha.
"We are all so sad. I used my last savings to top up what my cousin provided to pay for a Hajj seat only to be treated like infidels who are not fellow Muslims," Halima Muhammad, a Nigerian pilgrim who spent two days in a Saudi detention center, said according to the Guardian newspaper of Britain.
"From the airport, we were all rounded up and taken to a facility that is not fit for humans. No one offered us anything; we had only water and slept on bare floors."
There are concerns that the episode may lead to an enduring diplomatic flap between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia -- both oil-producing nations with tense relations.
Speculation is also running rampant that the Nigerians were detained not because they lacked male escorts, but as a move by Saudi authorities to crack down on illegal immigration.
Last year, the Saudis expelled thousands of undocumented Nigerians who sought to work illegally in the kingdom.
The Guardian noted that the Saudis annually deport more than 700,000 foreigners, including 20,000 who overstay their visa while making the Hajj.
"It's a slap in the face for Nigeria and all Muslims," Nigerian Lawan Kaita, a Muslim leader in the city of Kano, told the Guardian. "Saudi Arabia has the privilege of being hosts, but it shouldn't stop others from coming to do the Hajj.”
The Hajj, which every able-bodied Muslim is expected to make at least once in their lives, is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. However, for many Nigerians (about half of whom are Muslim), the costly trip to Mecca is beyond their means.
About 2 million to 3 million Muslims are anticipated to perform the Hajj late next month.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.